Writings by Cole Huffman

Respect in the Ruins

Art school is the devil. So I was told by a man who has seen two of his sons’ faith metastasize in matriculation. He wasn’t blaming the college. No one takes your faith from you, you lay it down. Apostasy becomes its own art form in places where peers like to sepia wash their souls.

Heartbroken for his sons, that man nevertheless wanted to maintain relationship with them. So he had a conversation with them. He told them something about themselves, something undeniable: They want their dad’s respect. All sons do. He can kick against the goads of his evangelical upbringing. He can reject the biblical faith of his parents as so much claptrap. But a son still wants his dad’s respect. Dads and sons both know it innately. That father then told his sons how they could get it and keep it: Be someone other people can count on.

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3) Much, it turns out. All is not lost when a kid punts his faith, yields himself to Faustian impulses, dons—in N. D. Wilson’s inimitably descriptive style—“tapered corduroys with the flapjack butt,” becomes “a catechumen of cool” with no more time for dogma and indoctrination.  

When that father appealed to basic respectability as the way forward in relating to his sons, being men other people can count on, he was appealing to a function of the image of God in us. Even if his sons no longer believe they can count on God, the righteous dad sits them down on the ruins and says There is this yet: Become men others can count on and you’ll have my respect.

When the foundations are destroyed the righteous seek to salvage and build again. I remember a sermon by Joe Stowell years ago in which the former president of Moody Bible Institute made application off the different names Brits and Americans call their tow trucks. In America we call our tow trucks “wreckers”; in the UK a tow truck is “recovery.” Wrecker assumes the car is totaled now, junk. Recovery conveys a hope of salvaging it, restoration.

When the foundations are destroyed the righteous recover what’s left and we bricolage. It’s a French word for improvisational construction, making something out of whatever materials are at hand. When the concept of “righteous” no longer appeals “respect” becomes bricolage, something by which a father can still build his boys into men. It’s a way forward for the relationship.

We’re too all-or-nothing with our kids at times. I’m reading a book right now by sociologist Vern Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations. Bengtson’s group did a longitudinal study of generations, begun in 1970 and concluded in 2005. Over those thirty-five years they returned to the same families to chart transmission of faith from grandparents through to great-grandchildren. In families where parents demonstrate their devotion winsomely, sharing it but not forcing it on their kids (especially as their kids grew more independent), the kids usually embrace their parents’ faith, whether the faith is Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, or “None.” According to Bengtson’s findings, a parent’s piety and good example matters less in the long run than the child feeling close to the parent. In one place Bengtson puts it this way: “[A] distant or nonaffirming parent-child relationship—particularly with a father—is often mentioned in our interviews as a catalyst for conversion to another faith or dropping out of religion altogether.” (78-79)

As I read the book, I think an all-or-nothing approach is part of what Bengtson calls “distant or nonaffirming” parenting, particularly in fathering. Fathers are more prone to lay down all-or-nothing mandates borne of disappointment: If you don’t share my faith you don’t have my respect. That disappointment can curdle into disdain. A child moving away from the faith of his upbringing is a parental hardship to be sure. It is grieved as a loss, experienced as a failure.

And yet we’re interested in recovery, aren’t we? We’re interested in maintaining relationship with our kids, finding ways to make it work. Their unbelief or their flagging belief or their residing in ambivalence doesn’t make relationship impossible. A son wants his dad’s respect but not his dad’s faith? Well, it doesn’t necessarily take faith to be someone others can count on, does it, someone who accepts responsibility and sees things through? One of the worst things the world can say about a man is he doesn’t have the respect of other men.

So the savvy father establishing respectability as a baseline for his son’s manhood puts a shaft of light in his son’s chosen darkness. If he conducts himself respectably as called to it by his dad, the son will “image the image” of God, if you will, even though Junior won’t recognize he is, and is for now, rejecting Christ being formed in himself. But who knows? God has accomplished stupendous turnarounds with far less material to work with.

But don’t call it a comeback just yet. It’s a way forward relationally. Putting it parabolic (cf. Luke 16), it’s the sons of light getting shrewder in dealing with their own sons to call them still to what’s good for them and others even if they’re now BFFs with the devil’s acolytes at the art college. And yet, as Billy Sunday used to say, only stupid is forever. His exact words: “A sinner can repent but stupid is forever!”

Our disaffected sons and daughters, in their unbelief are not stupid; merely sinners. I’ve never respected a stupid man. But every man and woman I respect is a sinner, and my deepest respect is for the repentant ones.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 1:16 PM
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