The following post first appeared on Breakpoint radio broadcast on June 11, 2014.
Two of my recent BreakPoint commentaries—the ones about the Epic Fatherhood initiative and film critic Ann Hornaday’s linking the shootings in Santa Barbara to the stories Hollywood tells us—would appear to be unrelated.
But looking back on them, I find that this isn’t true. Both touch on the same subject: what it means to be a man.
That’s obvious in the case of the one on Epic Fatherhood. But when Hornaday wonders about the possible cultural impact of “outsized frat-boy fantasies” and men being “raised on a steady diet of comedies” featuring “schubbly arrested adolescents,” she’s also talking about manhood.
When I was working on my book, 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, I thought about the way that our culture has depicted men, specifically fathers, over the past half-century or so.
It’s hard to believe today, but one of the iconic television shows of the 1950s was actually called Father Knows Best. And believe it or not, the title was not ironic! Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young, really did know best. He was kind, patient, generous, and firm when he needed to be.
As the saying goes, that was then and this is, well, not then.
Arguably the defining phrase of what’s been called “the long 1960s,” which ran from approximately 1967 to 1980, was “question authority.” As I wrote in 7 Men, since that time we’ve adopted the idea that no one is really in a position to declare that something is right or wrong. Authority figures and role models have taken a major hit in this process.
Perhaps no one more than dear old dad. Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best was replaced by Archie Bunker, a loud-mouthed bigot, followed by Homer Simpson, a buffoon. Both of them are lovable and fun to watch, but not role models.
Now this lack of male role models in popular culture is tragic for many reasons, one of which is that being a father is an essential part of what it means to be a man. That’s not the same thing as saying that you can’t be a man unless you’re a father—three of the seven men I profiled in 7 Men—George Washington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope John Paul II—did not have children.
But that did not make them any less fathers to the people in their lives. In his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel chronicled how the then-named Karol Wojtyla functioned as a father-figure to a group of younger people in his native Krakow.
Likewise, Washington was definitely a father-figure to his men. So much so that he was able to defuse a possible mutiny by unpaid Continental Army veterans, simply through appealing to their shared sacrifices.
And that is the essence of fatherhood and manhood: service and sacrifice. They are what enable a man to avoid the false choices of, on the one hand, “macho” domineering and, on the other hand, the emasculation that denies the differences between the sexes. The men I wrote about in 7 Men “seemed to know that, at the heart of what it is to be a man, is that idea of being selfless, of putting your greatest strength at God’s disposal … of giving what is yours in the service of others.”
We’re extremely unlikely to get the role models we need from mass culture. That makes it especially incumbent on us Christian fathers and men to be those role models, starting at home.
Eric Metaxas is a Christian biographer of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to end Slavery. He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. and currently is co-host of BreakPoint, a daily radio commentary launched by Eric’s mentor Chuck Colson.