Jonathan B. Hall and Beau T. Underwood
Chalice Press, 160 pages | Published March 29, 2022
Fathers are supposed to raise our boys to be tough. Wait, no; we should shun toxic masculinity and adopt a progressive notion of manhood. Or does “manhood” even exist in an increasingly gender-fluid world?
Into this disorienting landscape comes Dear Son: Raising Faithful, Just, and Compassionate Men, a rich collection of letters from Disciples of Christ ministers Jonathan Hall and Beau Underwood to their young boys. Or rather, the letters are to the boys’ future selves, as the writing reads like mainline sermons for adults and precocious teens.
Dear Son seems to have two projects — one culturally safe, the other contentious. The first is to inspire fathers like me to reflect on our role as dads and to write letters on important topics to our own sons. To that end, every chapter contains one letter from each author and covers issues such as money, racism or pressures facing young men, with the messages embedded in social commentary and personal stories. As I’d expect from ministers, there’s Scripture. And as I’d expect from fathers, there’s love.
A practical touch is that each chapter is followed by blank pages for readers to draft our own letters. I sketched out mine and found I was sometimes less coherent and thoughtful than I imagined. And that’s the point. Dear Son provides a needed jolt to dads who too often let momentum hurl us from one urgent parental obligation to the next without pausing to communicate with our sons in a methodical, lasting way. Hall and Underwood give us a poignant model for upping our game.
The second project is more fraught: to take a stand as Christians against toxic masculinity. Hall and Underwood reject a tough-guy model of manhood in which strength means bullying and vulnerability means weakness. Their approach stands in welcome contrast to books like James Dobson’s Bringing Up Boys, the genre’s quintessential anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, boys-don’t-cry jeremiad.
Yet I wish that, in making the case for a less harmful masculinity, the authors discussed what is worth saving about traditional masculinity. Hall and Underwood lay out many worthy virtues they hope their sons will embrace on the way to manhood, some stereotypically feminine (empathy, vulnerability and emotional openness) and others not associated with any gender archetype (honesty and standing up against injustice, among others). Few, if any, are conventionally masculine.
The authors often highlight a masculine term to reconceive it. Hall, for instance, defines strength as “making the most of the worst situation.” That’s a fine virtue, and I’m all for a wider concept of masculinity than many cultural conservatives articulate. But our sons should know that some virtues historically associated with their gender have a role to play in a healthy society.
Will fathers who read this book answer the authors’ call to write letters to their boys? I hope so. What vision of manhood, if any, will we present in those letters?
We’ll have to figure that out for ourselves.
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