By Anna Mussmann
I picked up Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God's Grace by Scott Keith because I saw it recommended so highly on Facebook by a fellow Lutheran. Before sharing my own take, I must admit something: I am female. I may not be the best judge of a book about fatherhood and masculinity. However, I’ve watched good models in action--I’ve been blessed with an excellent father and husband of my own--so, for what it is worth, here is my response to Dr. Keith’s vision of what dads are supposed to be and do.
Dr. Keith argues that men are created differently from women and that dads have been given a unique vocation distinct from the role of moms. He also points out that our culture, full of children sired by absent or passive men, has a “fatherhood problem.” Thus far, I am with him 100%.
Keith feels that most Christian books on parenthood are built upon the Law and the “same old tired approach of telling you that you need to ‘train your children right.’” His volume is not an attempt to apply the Third Use of the Law to family life. Instead, the author says, ““I believe that the Law is natural to us and we need very few tips regarding its implementation in the home.” He wishes to write a book for Christians who live a life of pure Gospel.
This desire to view fatherhood from a strictly-Gospel perspective shapes the author’s vision. In the first half of the volume, he focuses heavily on the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a model for masculinity and fatherhood. In the second half, he structures his writing around the idea that because a father provides an apologetic model to children of who God is, a father must be a picture of God’s incredible grace and mercy. Here is where I--while agreeing with the principles at stake--began to question some of the author’s views on how this applies to family life.
Mom is Law, Dad is Gospel
Dr. Keith recognizes that the home needs some kind of order and discipline. However, he does not think this should come primarily through dad (he may be influenced by having been raised by women after the early death of his own father). He says that because the father is the head of the family, fathers should model themselves upon the Head of the Church by being, like Christ, primarily about forgiveness. Thus, in the home, mom is the Law and dad is the Gospel:
“A good dad does not operate under the assumptions of the Law. The Law abhors freedom because freedom may lead to sin, harm, abandonment, and condemnation. This is, I think, what moms fear the most. Moms typically want it done right. They want to protect from the harm that freedom brings. Moms, on the whole, operate under the assumptions of the Law because they have to. This is not a glorious calling, but it is a brave and necessary one. Moms are called on to keep the house in order and make sure the kids are fed, dressed, and ready for the day. They keep the peace and clean up the messes. . . . Dads, on the other hand, are called to be models of grace and proclaimers of the Gospel.”
He does say that dads should support “the mother’s authority over the child’s inner world” by affirming mother’s instructions, but says that a dad who becomes a rule enforcer is taking on the feminine role. Furthermore, a desire to achieve compliance from children is simply the fruit of the Old Adam. He says, “Compliance and obedience are of the Law. The Law always condemns. Therefore, compliance equals condemnation.” Fathers aren’t supposed to seek compliance. They are supposed to forgive.
This, the author says, will sometimes cause conflict between a man and his wife, but “the key is to remember that it is not you against her but rather that a mother has a calling in the family and the father has a calling in the family, and they are not the same.” He even tells anecdotes of times when a frustrated mom turned a misbehaving youth over to a father who, like the dad in the story of the Prodigal Son, chose not to even mention the misdeed but instead suggested a ballgame or new car as demonstration of forgiveness.
OK, I admit that it might be my femininity speaking, but Keith’s vision of being a mom sounds awfully . . . lonely. To run around trying to enforce behavior while dad gives gracious hugs at his own discretion, apart from a unified vision for parenting, sounds rough. There is no Biblical explanation offered for the role of moms. I can’t help wondering if the author’s vision of family is simply a lopsided accident: the logical, but perhaps unsound, result of trying to build a theology of fatherhood without Law while also acknowledging the reality that someone has to insist people don’t leave the house naked.
I also can’t help wondering if perhaps the author is missing something in his approach to Law and Gospel. No, we sinful humans cannot keep the Law; and Christ has freed us from the Law’s clutches. Yet ought we to treat the Law as toxic? Ought we to reject the idea that Christians can and should learn from the Law even as we rejoice in our salvation by grace alone? If the content of the Law is “natural,” why did God feel the need to write so much of it down in His Word?
Admittedly, I’ve seen Christians who view the instant obedience of their children as the be-all-end-all of Christian parenting, and the key marker of whether or not they are parenting “right.” Keith is right to reject this overemphasis. He’s probably also right that a mother can fuss or occasionally lose her temper with the children without causing as much damage as a father who does the same thing.
However, I’m not sure I share his confidence that fathers will naturally know how to be authorities in the home and that all they need is teaching on how to shower their children with grace. When I look at the families around me, I see plenty of loving parents (including plenty of dads) who have no idea how to teach their children to behave--no idea how to model forgiveness instead of just permissiveness. It’s not that what these fathers need is “Law,” per se, but that they lack practical examples of how Christian leaders can serve others by functioning as the lawful authority. After all, there are two-kingdom elements at work in the family as well as theological ones.
Dr. Keith does add that we can’t have antinomianism in the home. However, I, at least, was left wondering what his home actually looks like--how, in practice, he draws the line between teaching decent behavior and falling into legalism. It is quite possible I would feel differently about this part of the book if I knew the author and his family personally and could see how they live these ideas out.
A Part I Really Liked: Fathers Bring Eucatastrophe
One aspect of the book I found thought-provoking and helpful was the idea that fatherhood is also about providing children with “magic.” The author says, “The magic that a good father brings into the lives of his children is not the same as what God has shown us in Christ; but it is a significantly powerful analogy to it.” He argues that when dads give children special, magical moments--when they give their time to their kids and make delightful things happen--they are teaching their kids to recognize that God is good and loving.
He references J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe (the last-minute “good catastrophe” that changes the ending) and suggests that dads can be eucatastrophes to their children by making a humdrum day a bit more magical. I love the reminder that having fun with kids isn’t just meaningless laughs and giggles, but is actually an important vocational work.
Ultimately, I appreciate Dr. Keith’s intentions and many of his comments about fatherhood. However, I struggle with his understanding of how fathers are to teach their children Gospel. I understand the theological presuppositions upon which it is based, but I feel it nevertheless comes across as slightly off-target. Or, at the least, as targeted purely toward individuals who already are quite thoroughly versed in both Lutheran theology and the habits of healthy Christian families, but who have struggled with the burden of a legalistic approach to fatherhood.
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.