Article by Jon Bryars
I’m sure there are lots of books out there that can help us to be better dads. New York Pastor, John Tyson, has recently written a practical guide to raising sons, which, given I have a 3rd son on the way, is like a flame to this moth. Another practical book is Paul Tripp’s Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, which we often recommend to new (and old) parents. Theological books and practical guides are, and have been, useful resources to me as I’ve tried to navigate dadhood. Recently however, I have found my parenting being encouraged, challenged and cautioned by fiction.
Fiction is often misunderstood. It’s thought of as untrue and therefore impractical – but good fiction is recognized as good fiction precisely because of how true it is. Made-up worlds compel us, not because they help us escape our world, but because they help us interpret and navigate it. The characters act as lenses (or mirrors) to the characters in our own lives. The scenes document moments that haven’t actually happened but, in some sense, always happen.
“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.” John Steinbeck
The following books are good fiction. They all contain profound human insight and navigate religious and philosophical themes with appropriate delicacy. They all tell the story of fathers and sons. They all made me cry masculine dad tears.
An epic multi-generational saga that parallels the themes and characters of the book of Genesis.
“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.”
A worthwhile slog following the faith, doubts and exploits of three (and maybe four) sons of the morally reprehensible Fyodor Pavlovich.
“A beast can never be as cruel as a human being, so artistically, so picturesquely cruel.”
An aging preacher writes to his young son with all of the wisdom and fatherly insight he can muster, in the knowledge that he won’t get the chance to see his son grow up.
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? …. Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
There are fathers in these stories who shape my vision for good fathering – whether it’s surrogate father, Lee, who stands in the gap for the abandoned twins when their father is absent or it’s John Ames who in the face of tragedy speaks hope to his son (“There are a thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient“). There are also characters that caution me on the consequences of bad fathering – the destructive selfishness of Fyodor Pavlovich and the foolish naïveté of Adam Trask haunts their boys.
We need a theological framework for our fathering and we need practical steps to live into that vision. But good fiction gives us another dimension – a made-up world that helps us interpret our own. A world where heroes and villains provoke admiration and contempt. A world that displays both the beauty of good fathering and the ugliness of bad fathering.
I would recommend these books to everyone, but I think they hold particular treasures for fathers and sons. Give them a read and let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org