By Jim Tonkowich
He was sitting up front to my left as I faced the audience and spoke. Rather than looking at me, he stared straight ahead at the wall next to the stage. Or at least he wanted me to think that’s what he was doing. In truth, he was watching me carefully and hanging on every word.
When I looked his way at the end of my talk, he had his face buried in his open Bible, but his heaving shoulders gave him away. He was crying his eyes out.
What did I say? It was Father’s Day and my topic was fatherhood, beginning with the fatherhood of God.
The story came to mind as I read Mary Eberstadt’s new bookHow the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularism.
According to Eberstadt, the dominant theory is that the West has become more secular and less Christian because of the triumph of reason over faith, the horror of war, economic prosperity, and a willingness on the part of modern people to honestly face their morality with out the “giant pacifier” of religious belief. Secularism, in turn, being highly individualistic, then weakened the family.
While Eberstadt finds some truth in this dominant theory, she also finds it wanting and instead proposes that while the loss of Christianity in the West has damaged the family, the opposite is also true. The weakening of the family has damaged Christian belief.
Consider two of her observations. First, “Evidence from all over,” she writes, “suggests that understanding Christianity requires understanding the natural family — and a world where natural families are often weak is one in which the very language of Christian belief, literal and figurative, is destined to be less well understood than it was before.”
God is Father, but what does that mean to a child who as a baby wore a bib announcing “My daddy’s name is ‘Donor’” or whose natural father is not longer part of the family? Eberstadt writes, “What … might the sainted adoptive father known as St. Joseph mean to a modern child whose ‘parent figure’ is a series of Mom’s abusive boyfriends? How does Mary’s profound obedience to God … make sense to generations taught to regard birth itself as an act of ‘choice’?”
“In this way, as in others,” she goes on, “family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy.”
And it goes even deeper. Eberstadt writes, “In an age when people live lives that contradict the traditional Christian moral code, the mere existence of that code becomes a lightening rod for criticism and vituperation — which further drives some people away from church.”
Children in blended families may find teaching about Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage highly offensive (Mark 10:5-12). Cohabitating couples will take umbrage at the Bible’s prohibition of sex outside of marriage. And those with same-sex attraction have already demonstrated that they’d sooner kill the messenger than consider an difficult message.
Eberstadt writes, “In an age where nontraditional and antitraditional and even nonfamilies abound, there are more and more people who are bound to take offense at certain teachings in the Judeo-Christian heritage. It is in this way that broken and frayed homes not only interrupt the transmission of the Christian message, they provide the emotional material for a whole new barrier wall to Christian belief.”
The consequences of this are uniformly bad throughout North America and Europe. They are even worse in our churches where we lose our own youth and struggle with effectively communicating the Gospel. That brings me back to fathers and Father’s Day.
Fathers, including Christian fathers, have always had problems. I understand that. But today divorce is rampant in the Christian community, resulting in fatherless homes. If they’re at home, many fathers sidestep their spiritual leadership responsibilities. Single men eschew fatherhood by indefinitely postponing marriage and going through great theological gymnastics to justify acting on their sexual desires. And even in marriage, fatherhood is deemed a choice, making children a conditional blessing; that is, a blessing if you happen to want children.
And too many pastors are unwilling to preach about divorce, cohabitation, family and fatherhood. After all, these topics will either make people angry or it will make them weep. Either way, it’s not seeker-sensitive and it creates extra work to clean up the mess.
But if the breakdown of the family is one of the causes of secularism and makes evangelization — including the evangelization of our own kids — increasingly difficult, this Sunday, Father’s Day, isn’t too soon for repentance and a changed way of life.
And Dad, that means you in your own family. If you need to shed some tears first, it’s okay. Happy Father’s Day.
Jim Tonkowich is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute on the Religion Democracy. This blog post appeared on Religion Today.