Our barn-burner discussion of the non-spec-fic movie, C0urageous, reminded me (thanks, Stephen) that I haven’t talked about another sort of love (or lack thereof) we often find in speculative stories: parental love. More specifically, paternal love.
Fathers are most often a focus of dramatic conflict in speculative fiction, whether in film or on the page. Fathers spur the main character to action in many ways, including the following:
1. Our hero is trying to earn his father’s love or approval: In the Star Trek episode, “Journey to Babel,” we learn that Spock’s father never got over his son’s decision to enter Starfleet rather than attend the Vulcan Science Academy. Spock, meanwhile, is driven by an intense perfectionism as he tries to validate his choice. A crisis brings them back together, revealing a powerful love between these two stubborn, emotionally-repressed people.
2. Our hero is trying to live up to his father’s magnificent legacy: How to Train Your Dragon‘s Hiccup feels the weight of his Viking chieftain father’s accomplishments and struggles to emulate him in his own way, though he’s woefully unequipped for the task.
3. Our hero is trying to overcome his father’s despicable legacy: In Star Wars – Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker copes with the shattering revelation that Darth Vader is his father, and forges his own path as a Jedi.
4. Our hero is trying to escape his father’s control and establish himself as an adult: Thor chafes under Odin’s authority and yearns to take the reins of power in Asgard before he is fully mature as a leader and a man.
5. Our hero is trying to restore a broken relationship with his father: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows Dr. Jones the Younger overcoming years of conflict and estrangement, gaining new respect for his father as a professional and rediscovering his love for him.
As usual, I’m sure our brilliant readers can offer more and better examples of the father-son dynamic in spec-fic, and my apologies, ladies…father-daughter, mother-daughter, and mother-son issues are three other topics for three other days. I’ve got my hands full with fathers and sons here, but feel free to chime in with your perspective on this topic.
Where was I? Oh, yes, the fathers…
The fathers, meanwhile, usually blunder along, all unaware of the profound effect they have on their sons, whether through detachment, uncaring, ignorance, incompetence, or personal pride. We see the same sorts of patterns in the Bible. It’s frightening how many delinquent or just plain evil offspring are sired by God-fearing fathers who are otherwise praised and held up as paragons of virtue for our imitation. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David, Hezekiah…that’s just a partial list of patriarchs and kings with less-than-stellar father-son relationships.
Yes, they were flawed human beings. Of course, we can’t blame them for their children’s bad choices. We’d never do that to fathers today, as if their tally of well-behaved children who go on to follow in their righteous footsteps was the ultimate yardstick of their worth as parents, right?
“There goes Jack. Didya hear? One of his boys isn’t living for the Lord. Cleaned out the family bank account and took off east to the big city.”
“It was just a matter of time. Boy was always a little hellion. Jack should have reined him in tighter.”
“The other one’s doing fine. Near as I could tell, he treated them both fairly, set a good example, took ’em to church…what d’you think happened?”
“Lord only knows. Some guys can’t hold things together for the long haul. Two kids was one too many for him.”
“You think the boy will ever come back home?”
“Jack thinks he will. The poor sap stands out at the crossroads every night, waiting. Pitiful.”
“Yessir, it’s one sad story. There but for the grace of God go you and I.”
Anyhow, I don’t think anyone will argue that being a father is easy, and there isn’t much explicit direction in the Bible about how to do it. Paul directs Christian fathers to not provoke their children to wrath but to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” without providing further detail. Most of the guidance we receive is via illustration–as we often say around here, “showing, not telling.” We see Job’s continual prayer for his children. we see the strength of Abraham’s love for Isaac despite an incomprehensible command from God to sacrifice him. We witness the intensity of Jacob’s love for his sons (though he had his favorites and seemed most engaged when they were in peril). We see David’s steadfast love for Absalom in the face of that son’s rebellion. Jesus takes numerous opportunities to illustrate the love he shares with his Father, which often stands in stark contrast to what we may have experienced within our own families.
And perhaps that’s the key. Jesus characterizes God most often as “Father.” To be a good father is to become conformed to the image of God the Father, the Father who provides for us, guides us, and helps us in distress. The Father who loves us, even when we stray, and who welcomes us with open arms when we come to our senses and return to Him.
We can’t make that happen in and of our own power. The patriarchs couldn’t do it, and we’re no less broken than they were. All the guidebooks and checklists and good intentions and promises in the world won’t suffice. What we can do is be obedient to the direction and example God has provided us, asking for His strength, and relying on Him for the results. Will we still make mistakes and have problems? Yes. But we’ll have the best help in the universe along the way.