Not all fathers are fathers. Those we call "fathers" are often simply men who step into the role when no one else can or will. If you love reading, you'll know this is especially true in literature: Anne Shirley's Matthew, Cosette's Jean Valjean, Eppie's Silas Marner, and the multiple surrogate fathers of David Copperfield are all adoptive.
For Christians, these usually selfless adoptive fathers remind us of our true Father, God. His fatherhood is so far above any merely human fatherhood as to be incomparable, but these portraits of men laying down their lives for the children they love points us to the truth of God's love for His people.
Natural fathers do this, too. As a pioneer dad, Charles "Pa" Ingalls does this time and again. His family (all girls!) is often in danger, and he does whatever it takes to preserve them, even to the point of putting himself in danger. Or Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, who puts his sterling reputation on the line to do what's right.
These are the kind of fathers everyone wants, or (if your dad was like them) the kind that evoke good memories. Not all of fatherhood is hard work, and Pa Ingalls spends as much time playing with his girls as he does guiding them in work and wandering alone in the snow. Perhaps the most "fun" dad in this regard is Frank Gilbreth Sr., from Cheaper by the Dozen.
Those of us who are fathers are sometimes put to shame by how good these literary dads can be. Tender narratives tend to soften hard edges and fill up what is lacking in a man's character, but even taking these elements into account, Georg Von Trapp is a good father. As principled as Atticus and as fun-loving as Gilbreth, the Baron consistently does right by his wife and kids.
Sometimes, however, fathers are rotten. Literature has its share of bad dads, too: for instance, every father in any fairy tale ever who marries another woman after his wife dies. King Lear is pretty awful, though more in a clueless and self-absorbed kind of way than intentionally evil. Still, that doesn't get him off the hook, and if fatherhood is intended to demonstrate our relationship to God, it actually implicates him even more.
Which leads us to problem dads. Just as Shakespeare had problem plays (they can't technically be categorized as comedies, tragedies, or histories), so literature in general has problem dads whom it's difficult to judge correctly. Probably the most glaring example is Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame, a man who is level-headed and fairly wise but who also lets his ridiculous wife and headstrong girls do pretty much whatever they want.
A few problem dads appear in some of our favorite lesser-known books. Cassandra's father in I Capture the Castle, for instance, isn't terrible, but he also isn't really there and doesn't provide as well as he could for his family's needs. As a result of his aloof habits, his family crumbles around him, much like the old castle they live in.
Thyra Ferre Bjorn's memoir Papa's Wife features a father who is the overworked, principled pastor of a small congregation in northern Sweden (and later America). Less problematic than other problem dads, he still has his ups and downs, his moments of great joy and great frustration. In other words, Papa is problematic because he's so believable and so real.
Bad fathers are indicative of God's fatherhood because they show what fathers shouldn't be; problem dads, on the other hand, are simply illustrative of the humanity of all earthly fathers. We need examples like this because they show us our hidden faults and the damage they can actually cause. They also often show us traits we lack, and encourage us to seek them.
One of the best dads in all literature is the unnamed father in The Road, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel about a father and eight-year-old son traveling through the nearly empty North American continent. He's so good because literally everything he does is intended to preserve and sustain his boy, whom he loves more than he loves himself.
This is exactly the character of God. Not that He does everything for us, His adoptive children—He does everything for Jesus Christ, His one true Son. God has exalted Jesus Christ above everything, and as His adoptive children we reap the benefits of this singlemindedness. We, too, ought to do everything for Jesus Christ; one of the best ways to do this being to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
Toward that end, the fathers in literature ought to guide us. Whether it's the self-sacrificial love of good fathers, the evil and selfishness of bad fathers, or the utter humanity of problem dads, all these should conspire to guide us toward the ideal of true fatherhood presented most perfectly for us by the love of God the Father for His perfect Son, Jesus Christ.
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