[ This review originally appeared in
THE ENGLEWOOD REVIEW OF BOOKS - Vol 3 #13 - 09 April 2010 ]
Writing in a conversational tone that is both humorous and engaging, Donald Miller is a superb writer, certainly one of the finest living writers of spiritual memoir. And yet, for most of his adolescent years, he struggled with his schoolwork, wondering if he really was incapable of learning and doing just well enough in school to get by. The son of a single mother, who worked slavishly to provide for their family, Miller attributes many of his academic and emotional struggles to the lack of a father in his life. In his newest book, Father Fiction: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation (which some readers will recognize as a reworking of his 2006 book To Own a Dragon), Miller bares the scars on his soul left by growing up without a father figure. Miller tells the stories here of the many men who mentored him on his journey, serving as surrogate fathers for various lengths of time and to varying degrees of success. It was, for instance, a youth pastor in his church, who befriended him and saw the gift of words in him, encouraging him to write -- even in a phase of his life where he had yet to read a book from cover to cover.
Father Fiction is not a light book, full of brutal honesty that will get its readers (presumably mostly men, or women who want to understand the experience of maleness in world dominated by fatherlessness) to think about their own formational experiences with their fathers, fatherlessness. Miller observes that this book is about "the hard, shameful, embarrassing stuff ... me secretly admitting to you I needed a father, and how I felt like half a man until I dealt with those issues honestly." Indeed, the road that winds its way through Father Fiction is a bumpy one that must be taken slowly and attentively. Underlying Miller's spinning the yarn of his life and speaking frankly about the wounds he suffered from growing up in a home without a father, is a deep stream of social criticism, a poignant assessment of the contemporary brokenness of the family and its psychological and sociological implications that never waxes nostalgic (as many religious conservatives are wont to do) for the stereotypical nuclear family of a bygone era. Indeed, his frank critique of the Promise Keepers' concept of masculinity -- which has dominated evangelical understandings of masculinity over the last two decades -- was a breath of fresh air.
Ultimately, Father Fiction is a hopeful book, inspiring those of us who are fathers to be more attentive to our fathering and to reach out in compassion to those young men around us (or even one young man) who are growing up without the presence of fathers in their lives. It would be a fabulous book to be read in our churches, especially by groups of men (and even moreso if a diversity of ages are represented in the group). This is perhaps the finest book I have ever read on the topic of masculinity (a topic on which, admittedly, I have not read all that many books), steering a wise course between the authoritarianism of the traditionalists and the drum-pounding psychobabble of new age men's movements.