sons and fathers

I read a couple of books recently that got me thinking. One is a novel, Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain; the other is a piece of medical journalism, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. Each features a tenuous relationship between an overbearing, even obsessive, father and a sensitive son. Further, since the authors narrate the relationship from the son’s perspective, they tend to map the legacy of the father into and beyond the son’s generation.

In Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Paul Farmer, an impassioned doctor of infectious diseases with a heart for Haiti, is told from birth to adulthood. Kidder, the author, can’t help but peek into the genes that spawned his subject. With Paul’s help, he tells a few anecdotes that picture a strong-willed and pretentious Paul Farmer, Sr. implicating his family in all measure of hillbilly adventures and get-rich-quick schemes. Paul is certainly not without affection for his deceased father; yet there’s a combination of admiration and criticism in these anecdotes that causes me to wonder about Kidder’s (and Farmer’s) motives for including them. It’s almost as if the portrait of Farmer’s father is an apology for Farmer himself—an excuse for his quirks and imperfections, an explanation for his otherwise inexplicable zeal.

On the other hand, Stegner’s portrait of Bo Mason, a rough-and-tumble son of the American West and heavy-handed patriarch of the Mason family, is less an apology for Bo’s son Bruce as it is his charge. We know that a fair bit of autobiography went into to telling the Masons’ story, so it’s no surprise that Bruce’s attitude toward Bo is one characterized more by chastisement and regret than respect. (Stegner’s own father, like Farmer’s, was a drunken quester after “Big Money” and easy living.)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain ends with Bruce’s silent eulogy at his father’s funeral. He’s the only surviving member of the Masons, and as the priest—who didn’t know Bo a lick—mumbles through the liturgy, Bruce conjures his own mental assessment of his father’s life:

This man whom today we consign to the grave, this Harry Mason, was a man whom I and many others have condemned. We have sat in judgment on him, and have found him guilty of violence, brutality, willfulness…

But I tell you at his funeral, and in spite of the hatred I have had for him for many years, that he was more talented and more versatile and more energetic than [my mother]. Refine her qualities and you would get saintliness, but never greatness. His qualities were the raw material for a notable man. Though I have hated him, and though I neither honor nor respect him now, I can not deny him that.

Even in his condemnation of Bo, Bruce can’t hold back his admiration. In fact, Bruce is brutally aware of Bo’s greatness, for it is the only hope for greatness Bruce has. Though Bo’s recklessness and idolatry eventually caused the downfall of the Masons, and though Bruce charges Bo with “destroy[ing] one son and turn[ing] the other against him,” the real charge lies at Bruce’s feet. The novel’s last thought steers the reader in this direction.

Perhaps it took several generations to make a man, perhaps it took several combinations and re-creations of his mother’s gentleness and resilience, his father’s enormous energy and appetite for the new, a subtle blending of masculine and feminine, selfish and selfless, stubborn and yielding, before a proper man could be fashioned. He was the only one left to fulfill that contract…

Bruce’s condemnation of his father leads to an awareness of his own (potential) condemnation. In the course of bearing the burden of his father’s sins, Bruce is called to attend to his own sins, to the web of relationships and commitments wherein his own moral rectitude may be assessed.

Relationships with our parents often mark the only genuine occasions for many of us to peer into the face of eternity. Eternity begs us to take account of ourselves, to give reply to the questions, “What am I worth? What have I done?” And where must we look for a reply? To the sum of our deeds? If that doesn’t sufficiently explain the guilt and the condemnation we experience, must we look further? Must we take responsibility for our parents’ deeds as well?

There is a very real sense in which our parents’ moral choices and decisions implicate us. The Bible first introduces this intuition in an often misunderstood portrayal of God: “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Ex. 20:5). Some read this as an example and a confirmation that the God of Israel is a vengeful overlord. Yet if we remember that the primary way God interacts with folks in the Old Testament is through a network of covenants, the portrayal in Exodus begins to make sense.

In the moral economy of the Old Testament, covenants were established between God and the families of the Israelites, with the fathers acting as representatives (“heads”) for their families. So when the head of a household disobeys God, that disobedience involves all members of the household, not because God takes out his anger on innocent people, but because a covenant is a way of living responsibly. God intends to make us responsible—to him, to each other, to the earth, etc. A covenant recognizes both that our moral choices affect others and that one way to prevent destructive behavior is accountability.

Destructive behavior, however, is not always preventable. I think that this is what gives us the sensation Stegner articulates: that we are somehow accountable for, and even somehow a product of, our parents’ deeds.

Let me drive this home by way of a personal example. A while ago my father brought shame and hardship on our family by dabbling in financial shortcuts. He even spent some time in jail for it. When I asked him why he did it, he responded that, besides the obvious incentive (saving money), the act itself game him a sort of thrill. It was exciting to cheat the system.

Wrestling with this bit of family history has made me significantly overcautious about cutting corners in financial matters. Overcautious, and yet the temptation remains. I feel the thrill of “cheating the system” when I can weasel my way out of a speeding ticket, or even (as laughable as it seems) eat someone else’s leftovers from the office fridge to save myself from buying a sandwich for lunch. Not only have the social implications of my father’s sin haunted me, but the patterns of behavior that sin involves have bled over into my experience as well.

My friend Jamie’s father works with a ministry that focuses on the doctrine of adoption to counteract the ambiguous guilt bound up with the sins of our fathers. He points to texts like Galatians 4 to tell a different story of sons and fathers. Without demeaning earthly relationships, the concept of adoption by God the Father in Christ presents the hope of a parental relationship outside the cycle of sin and—therefore—condemnation, either self-imposed or as a consequence of our parents’ deeds. Paul says,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

(Gal. 4:4-6)

When we embrace our adoption by God, the Compassionate Father, our answers to the questions “What am I? What am I worth?” begin to look radically different. Rather than looking to the sum of our parents’ deeds (or, God forbid, to the sum of our deeds) for our worth, we are invited to find our worth and work in our Heavenly Father’s work, which is nothing less than making all things new. 

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