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My Ecumenical Summer

Two recent books of advice for Christian fathers of young teens with all the usual attitudes.

By 6.14.11

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There are better ways to greet a teenager who wakes up and asks where the newspaper is than by reminding him that he can't read the paper until he's cleaned the cat box and watered the hydrangeas, but I hadn't yet finished the French roast in my Chincoteague Island coffee cup, and I couldn't think of any.

Thomas threw me a look that meant "Give it a rest, dad." His sister has the same look in her repertoire. With children ages 13 and 12, my wife and I need all the help we can get, and two recent books of advice for Christian fathers will help to make ours a better summer. Both books are written by pastors, but one author has roots in the Campus Crusade for Christ movement, and the other is a Catholic priest from an inner-city parish in Pennsylvania.

Any book that recommends Jesus Christ as a model for authentic manhood deserves kudos just for saying that. Interestingly, Robert Lewis, author of Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father's Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood (Tyndale House, 2007) also goes medieval in advising fathers how to best encourage their sons to follow Jesus. Lewis sees in the code of chivalry a time-tested framework for practicing Christian virtues on the journey from page to squire to knight. Our lives have changed, he concedes, but chivalry once imposed order on chaos, and it remains appropriately countercultural even today, especially when embodied by the likes of William Marshall (1146- 1219), an English earl and jousting legend who was mourned even by his enemies at his death.

Looking at Jesus the way men like Marshall did, Lewis defines a real man as one who rejects passivity, accepts responsibility, leads courageously, and aims his life at "the greater reward," meaning union with God in heaven. That four-part definition of manhood is the antithesis of the aimless drift too often celebrated by American culture.

My one criticism of Raising a Modern-Day Knight concerns what Lewis does not do: In spite of having familiarized himself with knighthood, Lewis nowhere acknowledges the exclusively Catholic character of the patrimony that he is trying to build on.

The omission does not seem malicious, and it's a common failing among evangelical Christian authors, but it weighs more heavily in a book that mines the historical record than it would in a devotional tract.

By the time the 95 theses that Martin Luther famously nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg ignited the Protestant Reformation, the Middle Ages had been over for two generations, and the balance of power in warfare had tipped decisively away from knights, first to archers wielding longbows, and then to foot soldiers carrying firearms. Consequently, there were no Protestant knights.

This does not mean that the code of chivalry cannot be practiced by any Christian. Obviously many Christian men not in formal communion with Rome have led knightly lives. The Dutch Reformed watchmaker Casper ten Boom, for example, carries a whiff of Don Quixote in the memoir by his daughter Corrie, and that's all to the good. Yet Lewis would have done well to be more forthright about how much the church shaped the vocation of knighthood in its heyday.

Lewis writes movingly about the power of ceremony without connecting that insight to liturgy as ceremony par excellence. Similarly, he leaves it to historian Will Durant to note in a single paragraph that squires invariably went to Confession and Mass before being dubbed knights. In his description of initiation into knighthood, Lewis mentions that candidates kept a "night-long vigil" but readers who don't already know better are left to think that the vigil might have been in front of the village smithy's shop where a new sword was being forged, or on a lonely hilltop in the equivalent of a Native American vision quest. In fact, the vigil was in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Similarly, Lewis underscores the value of pursuing a transcendent cause, yet says nothing about that best-known of medieval legends, the quest for the Holy Grail. Small matter to him that the "Cup of the Last Supper" would have had little more than antiquarian interest, were it not for the pervasive influence of Catholic theology in the lives of those who looked for it.

Omissions of that kind don't make Becoming a Modern-Day Knight any less useful, but they're frustrating, especially for Catholics in the Bible Belt all too familiar with the defensive crouch that comes from starting prayers with the sign of the cross when Baptist and Presbyterian friends prefer downcast eyes and improvisations that open with "Father God, we just want…" or words to that effect.

Defensive crouching is a foreign concept to Fr. Larry Richards, author of Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, which makes a wonderful complement to the book by Robert Lewis. Self-deprecating asides in Be a Man! sometimes fall flat, but its tone of straight-shooting bonhomie seems genuine.

What most differentiates this book from others of its type is how Fr. Richards emphasizes from the outset that we're all going to die. That insight -- that the quest for authentic manhood begins with the end in mind -- drives the rest of the book.

Unlike Lewis, who worked with a single metaphor and had to be more narrowly focused, Fr. Richards' approach to manhood makes room for occasional asides.

Sin kills, he reminds us, and that killing is often insidious. Of the classic Frank Sinatra song, "My Way," Fr. Richards writes, "I love that song. [But] you realize that that is the theme song of those in hell, don't you?"

In another point that any Christian could agree with, Fr. Richards notes that "Morality does not make you a disciple of Christ. A disciple of Christ is a person willing to die to himself and enter into a relationship with Jesus."

Be a Man! ends with a list of "30 Tasks You Must Accomplish To Help You Become the Man You Were Created to Be" ; it's summary worthy of refrigerator magnets on both sides of the Continental Divide. The list resists cherry-picking, but does include several items that Robert Lewis would agree with, such as that real men pray, repent, and accept challenges.

Not leaning on the good advice in the two books reviewed here would be as unthinkable as refusing to sing along with Van Morrison on the chorus to "Brown-Eyed Girl." Moreover, wisdom meant for fathers and sons might also have a positive effect on daughters. Given that Jane O'Hannigan was the other night using wax ear plugs to create what she said was a voodoo doll of me while her brother encouraged her with comments like "Make dad's stomach bigger," I hope for great things from Messrs. Lewis and Richards.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.