Looking for Fathers in All the Wrong Places
Simeon Zahl

The second-best thing about the Christian doctrine of imputed righteousness is that it offers hope for us guys with dating. And let’s face it: we need all the hope we can get. If I am honest, I must admit I devoted the vast majority of my emotional and intellectual energy at Harvard to women: thinking about them, avoiding them, playing psychological games with them, and—very occasionally—actually interacting with them. And to say that I was not alone in this commitment of resources would be a bit of an understatement. But for all the thought and mind games that went into this all-important area of my life and the lives of so many guys around me, I seem to recall seeing very little results among my male friends (or in my own life) in terms of genuine, honest, and confident romantic interaction with actual, flesh-and-blood women. I think this is because we boys—I wouldn’t call us men, yet—are deeply afraid of women; deeply afraid of not measuring up to the expectations we perceive them to have on us. We are afraid, more than anything in the world, of rejection.

I would like to propose (modestly) something like an answer to the nearly universal problem of the fear and paralysis young men feel when it comes to women. I cannot speak for women. But I do have something to say to the legions of paralyzed, insecure, female-fearing dudes out there. I hope it is helpful. I repeat: we need help!

I loved Spiderman 2. I related profoundly to the insecurity, confusion, and desire to please that characterized Tobey Maguire’s superb take on Peter Parker. His excruciating inability to tell Mary Jane what he was really feeling was spot on. The depiction of the boy trying, and generally failing, to become a man was moving to me, because its diagnosis was so accurate to my own life. But I have a bone to pick with the movie. Remember the solution it offers to Peter Parker’s problems and insecurities? Basically, he is not able to step up to the plate and “be a man,” much less a hero, until he is roused to it when Mary Jane is put in mortal danger. His fading powers return at last, and his conflicting needs and desires merge into one stable identity when he feels genuinely needed by a girl. His question is, “How is a boy like me to become a man in this day and age?” The answer he comes up with is, “Find a girl.”

We boys are all trying to figure out how to become men, how to stop being insecure, and how to get the girl—in short, how to grow up. And, like in the movie, we think that the love of a woman can give us what we need. So we obsess over the women in our lives, paralyzed in our headspace, too needy and unconfident ultimately to be all that attractive. “We were just as good/ as married in my mind/ but married in my mind is no good” (Weezer). I believe that the answer to our problem, the key to the door to confidence and adulthood, cannot come from The Girl. And so, in this sense, Spiderman 2 is giving us the wrong message.

The bottom line is this: what we boys really need first is the affirmation of a father, not of a woman. The confidence that leads to healthy romantic relationships does not come from romantic relationships. It comes from outside—from fathers and father-figures. Enough resenting women for not giving us what we need! Guys: the love of a woman, though wonderful and important, can never stand in place of the love of a father. We need both, but we need the father first. And we will inevitably be disappointed, even angry, when we look to Her in vain for what only the father can give. This resentment we feel toward the opposite sex­—and show me the man who does not harbor some resentment towards women!— is an evil thing, especially because it all too often turns violent. Let’s stop demanding from them what they cannot give, and then despising them for it. We must take our neediness to fathers, not to women.

Has anyone noticed that Spiderman is first and foremost a boy in search of a father? I don’t think many have, but it’s true. Peter Parker is an orphan, raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. In the first sequence of the first movie, Parker loses even this father-figure: Ben is killed by a criminal, and his death serves as the catalyst for the rest of Spiderman’s story. The movies go on from there to paint an even darker picture when it comes to fathers: it is no coincidence that both of the main villains in the films begin their relationship with Parker in an obviously fatherly capacity. Mr. Osborne loves Peter more than he loves his own son, Harry, and his hatred for Spiderman only really begins when Spiderman rejects his offer of partnership; his offer to be a proxy father. The eight-limbed villain of the second film, Doc Ock, enters the movie initially because he is impressed by Peter’s scientific acumen, and sees the potential for Peter to become a great student of his. The kindly professor even invites Parker over for dinner to give him some advice on how to use his gifts. He is Peter’s hero—as a student at Columbia, Parker is even writing a paper on Dr. Octavius’ work. But quickly Octavius, too, turns evil and becomes Spiderman’s greatest nemesis. Poor Peter Parker! Every new father-figure he comes across soon turns on him and tries to kill him. I submit that Peter Parker’s number-one problem, the problem to which so many male viewers have been able to relate—though often without realizing it—is his need for the love, affirmation, and non-judgmental guidance of a father. And yet fathers in the Spiderman movies are either absent (Pete’s natural father; Uncle Ben), or evil (Osborne, Octavius). With this dark portrait of fatherhood, it is no wonder that the films find the answer to Parker/ Spiderman’s problem in the love of a woman—if there are no fathers to be found, surely romantic love is the next best thing, right?

But the reason that we boy-men must reject Spiderman’s answer to our neediness, our lack of confidence, and our fear of women, is simple: it does not work. My friends and I spent our four years at college (I am only slightly exaggerating) looking to romantic relationships, or at least the idea of romantic relationships, to solve our problems, and it did not work. We played mind-games with women, and when that didn’t work we watched pornography, and when that just depressed us we opted out of the whole mess and played Smash Brothers for 15 hours a day (although, let it be noted, Smash Brothers is completely awesome) or just sat in our rooms and drank beer. The affirmation that turns, ahem, “boys II men” cannot come first from the opposite sex; rather, we need the affirmation and love of a father. Only when we have received this love and it has freed us to grow up are we ready to love a woman without smothering her with our neediness.

Let me tell you about someone who has had a profound ministry with my family over the last few years. Dr. Rod Rosenbladt is a Lutheran theologian, and appears on a weekly radio talk-show based in California called The White Horse Inn. About two years ago, my Dad, an episcopal minister, invited Rod to speak at his then church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that Rod started saying the most remarkable things to me, my Dad, my brothers, and the rest of the men in the congregation—things that really did change our lives. His main message was that a boy needs his father’s (or father-figure’s) affirmation—his grace—in order to understand the affirmation and grace of his Heavenly Father. This is why a good Christian minister is, for men, nearly always a father-figure. And where the love of the earthly father is not present, Dr. Rod said it is nearly impossible for the son to believe that his Heavenly Father really does love him. Rod spoke to the deepest places in us of the love of our True Father for us—words of profound comfort and release. We immediately started sending tapes of Rod’s talks to friends and loved ones far and wide. This was good news that needed to be heard.

For my brothers and me, one of the most profound things Dr. Rod did was to show that it is OK for us to love our father—that such love is not a sign of weakness, but rather a source of strength. This is important. It means that freedom and maturity come not from the rejection of the father, as worldly wisdom would have it, but from his acknowledgement and reciprocation of our love for him.

The myth is that we are free only when we do not need love—when we are “strong.” The truth is harder, and more profound: only when we are loved are we free. This is hard because we do not finally have control over whether or not we receive love. Thus, we do not have control over our freedom. This truth leaves us fundamentally in a place of weakness. We who would have control over our lives find this conclusion very unsettling. Can anyone really deny that the mind-games we all play in the so-called “battle of the sexes” are nothing more than the attempt to force love? That the underlying assumption in the movie “Swingers” (wonderful as that movie is!) is that love will never be given unless it is forced? Manipulation, my friends, is not love. It is the enemy of love.

Unfortunately, what I am saying here about fathers and sons raises a pretty big problem: what about when we have bad fathers? Unloving, self-involved, impatient, judgmental, cruel fathers? Or—more insidiously—apathetic fathers? Or even dead fathers? How are we to become men if our fathers do not love us they way we need them to? Are we doomed to be the hollow men, the grey men, Fitzgerald’s ashen figures of West Egg, playing video games and watching sports in our “fortress of solitude” until we crumble to dust? No, thank God, we are not. There are two solutions to our dilemma. The first, though real, is provisional and limited. It is but a shadow of the second.

Truth to tell, I believe that we are all like Peter Parker: we are all sons in need of a new and more loving father to replace the one who has inevitably failed us. This is because even the best earthly father cannot be perfect. I myself happen to have a wonderful father—one who is neither cruel nor apathetic nor absent, and who tells me he loves me. But even fathers as wonderful as my own Dad cannot but fail us eventually, and leave wounds that need healing—“For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

So for us Peter Parkers, wounded and bleeding to one degree or another, the first option is to search for a proxy father; a father-figure. This new father can be a teacher, a coach, a grandfather, or even just an older friend—any older man whom we love and respect. I am a grad student right now, and nowhere is the not-so-subtle male search for a father-figure more obvious than among men in graduate school. We cannot help ourselves: we live and die for the affirmation of our supervisors. The Germans call Ph.D. supervisors “Doctor Fathers”; I believe they are onto something.

Through proxy fathers it is possible in some cases to receive the love and affirmation needed to become an adult; to become a man. But this is an imperfect solution, because, like our natural fathers, father-figures can never be perfect. We can never be sure that he, too, won’t let us down: what if our father-figure dies, like Uncle Ben, just when we need him most? Worse, what if he turns on us for reasons of his own, like Osborne turned on Peter Parker when he became the Green Goblin, or Octavius betrayed him as Doc Ock? We need only look to the recent crisis in the Catholic Church to find non-fiction examples both darker and much closer to home. Important as flesh-and-blood father-figures can be to us in our lives, they can never be the final answer we need, at least not on their own.

Enter Christianity.

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ ministry began with the greatest fatherly affirmation of a son in the history of the world. As Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven, speaking simple and mighty words: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22b; also Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11). These are the words every boy longs to hear from his father. These are the words without which, in some form or other, no boy can become a man. These are the words that have the power to make us shed our insecurities and our paralyzing fear of women (which is really fear of vulnerability, and therefore rejection) like a snake sloughs off an old and burdensome layer of skin.

Some of you may disagree. You may be thinking that the affirmation of your father is not actually something in which you are particularly interested. You would be wrong. I submit as evidence the profound burden of neediness that we lay at the feet of the women in our lives, and the crucial, troubling, but empirically obvious fact that they are simply not able to give what we demand. It may not immediately be apparent, but it is true time and time and time again. What we boys need are loving fathers. We need to hear the words that Jesus heard.

On first read, however, God’s words to his Son are tantalizing in their power, but crushing in their remoteness from the rest of us. They are tantalizing but remote because God is calling Jesus his beloved Son, with whom he is well-pleased. Not Simeon. I know deep down that there is far too much wrong with me for God ever to speak those amazing, life-giving words to me. Why would he be pleased with my intractable selfishness and small-mindedness? God was pleased with Jesus because Jesus was perfect. Jesus never did wrong. He loved without expectation of love in return. He did not wait for us to give away our hand before he came as an infant into this world of darkness on our behalf. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b). He made himself utterly and totally vulnerable to us, and we responded with a cold shoulder like none other in history. We did not just look the gift horse in the mouth—we blew it up with a rocket launcher. We have had the arrogance to believe that we can force love; that we can create it from nothing with our pathetic strategies and head-games. Or we have opted out, avoiding love at all costs, even though the world needs it so desperately. We are hollow men, playing hollow games, and we know it. Jesus deserved his Father’s affirmation. We deserve nothing but the ashes in our hands.

I opened this article with a reference to the theological concept of “imputed righteousness.” As I said up there, I think this doctrine is the key to male dating problems in this day and age. I suppose it is worth adding that I think it is the key to all the problems of humanity at all times as well—but that is a secondary issue. Imputed righteousness is a doctrine in Christian theology that says that those who have faith in Christ became perfect in God’s sight at the precise moment that Jesus became sin on the cross. Those who believe are saved from God’s judgment because, when he looks at us, he sees only Jesus’ righteousness (with which he was “well-pleased,” remember?). And, conversely, when he looks at Jesus on the cross, he sees only our unrighteousness. Our goodness before God is based exclusively on a goodness that belonged to Jesus, but which was imputed to us. That is why we say that Jesus “saves” us: he makes us good in God’s sight, and thus rescues us from the damnation we otherwise deserve. The flipside is that, in order to give us his righteousness, Jesus had to take our sinfulness from us and keep it for himself. That is why the Bible says that on the cross Jesus “became sin” and “[became] a curse for us” (2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:13). That is also why he died and descended into Hell—the just punishment for a sinner. The doctrine of imputed righteousness says that it is as if, through the cross of Christ, God took a picture of us and of Jesus, and then turned it into its negative. The light became dark, and the dark light; the bad good and the good bad. Nowhere is this doctrine expressed more clearly than in 2 Cor. 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The really good news about imputed righteousness is that it means that God’s wonderful, fatherly words to Jesus apply to us as well. He sent Jesus in our place because He loved us so much He desparately wanted to give us the affirmation we need—“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son…” (John 3:16). Because of our imputed righteousness, given out of love through His Son, the Father can look at us, too, and say, “You are my sons, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” Because of what took place on the cross, when our photograph was replaced with its negative, Christianity offers us the loving and perfect Father we boys so desperately need. Where our fathers have been absent, He will be present. Where our fathers have been harsh, He will be forgiving. Where they have been silent, He will speak. And where they have let us down time and time again, he will be our advocate, with his strong right arm, mighty to save. This Father will never leave us, never turn on us, and never cease to let us know how much he loves us. Thanks be to God.

The Christian gospel has the power to turn boys into men. God the Father himself enters into the lives of those who believe in his Son, so that wherever we go, whatever we do, we cannot escape the loving whisper in our ear: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” The Father’s voice gives birth to confidence and to security in a man. And it takes away our fear of women, and our need to manipulate them, so that we might be free, at the last, to love them, and to be loved by them. Loved by our Father, we may become heroes—men who actually have something to offer the women around us other than neediness, manipulation, and resentment. Like Spiderman, in the end, even if he got there for all the wrong reasons.


Simeon Zahl '04, a graduate in History and Literature from Currier House, is currently studying theology at Peterhouse, Cambridge.