A Review: Dynamic Dads: How to be a hero to your kids, by Paul Pettit.

Paul Pettit is a man’s man. The president of Dynamic Dads and a former sports broadcaster who writes on a level geared to the average dad, this book is best suited for a man who either doesn’t have the time to invest in a 300 page tome, or would turn apoplectic at the simple thought of a 300 page tome.  This book is a mere seven chapters, punctuated by inset ‘Dynamic Dad’ textboxes. Prefacing each chapter is a selection of quotations drawn from surveys, journals, Scripture, and various other luminaries, while each chapter ends with discussion questions ostensibly written with a ‘Dynamic Dad’s’ accountability group in mind. Pettit begins with the following statement, reflecting his desire that this book would serve its readers:  “I hope reading this book helps you become a better father. Or to be more precise, I hope reading this book helps you to father better.” This incident of inversion is a promising opening to a book that promises much by its allusion to heroic fathering.

Yet another propitious early sign is the author’s assurance that this is not another “nine steps” or “follow this proven plan” type of book; he does not claim to possess some “secret formula that unlocks the fathering code.” Pettit draws the parallel that just as God is mysterious and His ways are “often difficult to track or explain,” so fathering is a messy business with no surefire manual, nor recipe for success. With these humble statements Pettit launches into the rationale for writing this book, supporting his findings by proffering disturbing statistics, helpfully placing them in proper perspective: “Statistics, however, are cold, lifeless numbers. They alert us to a problem and for that I am grateful. But rarely do they move us to feel or to act. In addition, numbers do not have names. Statistics represent people and things, but numbers are not the people themselves. My heart does not break for the statistics but for the children: children who have never had a bedtime storey read to them by an adult male…” Throughout the book Pettit reveals his burden for children who lack fathers, or truly fatherly figures. Here is the wellspring of this book, and it goes deep.

The second chapter addresses the priorities of a godly father. Firstly, Pettit underscores the field on which fatherly heroics are performed: “It’s in the day-to-day, run-of-the-mill activities of our life that we impact our children the most. Habits, routines, and heroes are made in the normal days, not at the annual visit to the theme park.” That’s not to say that regular family vacations aren’t indispensible opportunities which serve to bind a family together, but the point is taken. Secondly, Pettit places people priorities over against time priorities, in correct sequence: “I personally know of no better way to accomplish [the task of being a hero] than to be a hero at home. How? Work hard each day at becoming a servant leader in your home. Honor your wife. Interact with your children at a deep level. And commit yourself to great character and integrity.” Later he states, “Your family will only be as solid as your marriage”, yet he realizes that fathering is a sacrificial endeavor on the part of both the husband and the wife.

Theologically, I was fairly impressed. Not only does this book root all fatherhood in God the Father, which many books on fatherhood do, but it is solidly Trinitarian, which is quite a bit rarer: “what is the Father is saying repeatedly? He is saying, ‘Listen to my Son!’ Jesus Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself…” Not only is Pettit concerned with the practical how-to’s of excellent fathering, he is careful to set out the theological underpinnings of fatherhood. He reflects a refreshing God-centered view of fathering: “we can’t compare God with an earthly father because doing so demeans God, but we can compare the actions of a good father with God and say, ‘In the ways that a father is acting as a good father, he’s acting like God acts.’ ”

Obligingly, Pettit brings theology home to roost. He owns that “In the real world that you and I occupy, dads engage us in the same manner as all humanity; fathers are fallen, imperfect beings with flawed motives and actions.” Therefore, we ought to teach our children that not only all fathers “trace their lineage back to the father of fathers, apple-crunching Adam”, but we ought also to actively instruct our children about sin, since “there is only one perfect Father and He is in heaven. The job of perfect father is filled. You need not apply” (author’s emphasis).

This book’s blemishes are few but worth mentioning. Most jarring is a recollection of a locker room event that monopolized an entire page of type and seemed only tenuously related to the point at hand. The author’s broadcasting roots are showing. Likewise, some references to pop psychology concepts such as father wounds, performance anxiety, self-esteem and natural male aggression didn’t seem to jive with the biblical care exhibited in the rest of the book. And I couldn’t really fathom that children would be excited about composing a family mission statement, nor that many dads would enjoy constructing a Legacy Map calculating net end results of quality time spent with their children. Those points aside, this book is a useful bottom-shelf introduction to excellent fathering. It’s appropriate to close with quote ardently calling for God-centered fathering, the only truly successful parenting in light of eternity:

“Let’s jump into this fray we call fathering. Let’s father as hard as we can until our sides ache and we feel like we can’t father one more day. Let’s father in selfless ways, continually pointing our wife and children to the Father of fathers.” Amen.

This review is taken from


Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

There is something particularly special in listening to children pray, and in praying with them. This was brought home afresh to me today when I read Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. While some of the prayers included in this volume seem not merely humorous but silly (to an adult), most betray a deeper cognition. All betray, however, a glaringly beautiful honesty and unpretentiousness that God not only makes possible for us, but encourages in us by the Spirit.

Here’s a few that I like:

  • Dear God. Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?
  • Dear God. Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?
  • Dear God. Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?
  • Dear God. Who draws the lines around the countries?
  • Dear God. I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that OK?
  • Dear God. Are there any patriarchs around today?
  • Dear God. It’s OK that you made different religions but don’t you get mixed up sometimes?
  • Dear God. I would like to know why all the things you said are in red?
  • Dear God. Is Reverend Coe a friend of yours, or do you just know him through business?
  • Dear God. I am English. What are you?
  • Dear God. Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.
  • Dear God. How come you didn’t invent any new animals lately? We still have just all the old ones.
  • Dear God. Please put another holiday in between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.
  • Dear God. Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
  • Dear God. I wish that there wasn’t no such thing of (sin. I wish that there was not no such thing of war.
  • Dear God. Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.
  • Dear God. I bet it is very hard for you to love everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.
  • Dear God. If you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes.
  • Dear God. I am doing the best I can.

‘… For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me’. (Matthew 18:2-5, The Message)

Children’s Letters to God is a great little book to use to open up the questions of life, of God, and of the world – and to encourage mutual and humble dialogue which, after all, is at least part of what we are engaging in when we pray. Warmly recommended … as is prayer.

I’ve just finished reading Peter Baylies’ The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook. Like every book on fathering, this one’s fairly hit and miss in terms of what I found most useful.

Baylies largely treats fathering as a ‘career move’, and the book is shaped to that end – that is, helping fathers enjoy their ‘new career’. While it’s not the way that I like to think of fathering, there are strengths in this (that will no doubt appeal to other personality types), such as helping new father’s approach their responsibilities thoughtfully, purposely and seriously. Adversely, although the book is clearly set out, and somewhat ‘practical’ (including a somewhat useful appendix of resources), it often lacks the personal warmth, and focus on the parent-child relationship, of many parenting books.

Whether it is just cultural or personality or values (and I suspect it’s all three and more), I found Baylies’ book just too basic. Although much of the ground that he covers is useful (the section on playgroups and networking with others for example), it is difficult to believe that most fathers have not thought through most, if not all, of the issues he raises. If you’re after a ‘Fathering 101’ handbook, this one may well be what you are looking for, though it wouldn’t be my first choice. If you feel that you could skip ‘Fathering 101′ and move up a grade or two, you would be better served to look elsewhere.

One of the strengths of the book, however, is that Baylies has clearly spent much time listening to other fathers. Although at times I was left wondering if he has spent too much time doing this – as the inclusion of copious fathering stories betrays – it does give the book a sort of common-sense, communal wisdom (or ignorance?) feel. Of course, it’s easy enough to navigate your way around the material and jump to the next section if you want.

In talking to at-home dads over the last ten years, Baylies has asked dads what they have changed for themselves that made for a more stress-free family. Here are ten useful things that he lists (pp. 152-3) that one can do to make the household a more pleasant environment:

1. Talk to them and listen to them. When your kids know you are listening to them, it makes them realize their input matters, and gives them a feeling of control and self-worth.

2. Treat them with respect. When you respect them, they will respect you back.

3. Give a lot of hugs and kisses. A feeling of being loved gives your kids a feeling of self-confidence.

4. Show you love your spouse in front of your kids. Seeing Mum and Dad show affection toward each other gives them two role models.

5. Allow kids to be self-reliant. Let them try things for themselves, no matter how foolish it may seem to you (provided it’s safe). For example, my kids liked to do experiments by mixing water with several objects and putting it in the freezer to see what happens. They couldn’t wait to see what it would look like the following day. After a while, when we trusted them with the toaster, we encouraged them to make toast. (My oldest son is twelve and is making a pretty good ham and cheese omelet now.)

6. Communicate with your spouse and agree on parenting styles. To avoid a public argument and mixed messages, make sure you and your wife agree on your children’s behavior.

7. Get to know your kids’ friends. As your children get older and a few neighborhood kids start to visit, listen to them and learn what they are like and how mature they are. This will give you better judgment when they start asking to do more outside the house.

8. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be a pushover. Pick your battles: some disagreements may not be worth the argument. For example, if your children want to walk to school without a raincoat, let them do it, and see if the consequences will help
them make a better decision next time. But if you have a serious issue, stand by it.

9. Avoid yelling at them at all costs. Always discipline with reason, not fear. When you don’t like a decision or action your children are making, calmly ask them why they are making the decision. Have them explain what might happen; sometimes they will see why you might be right.

10. Create as much adventure as possible for your kids. Creating adventure, although it may not be a popular pastime for the mums, is one way that many at-home dads deal with burnout. This does not mean taking the kids skydiving or white water rafting. It is amazing what adventures you can find within a few blocks of your house. In fact, many dads find that every time they take their children out of the house it can be an adventure.

I’ve just finished reading Gisela Preuschoff’s Raising Girls. Preuschoff is a psychologist and family therapist. The earlier chapters trace the developmental changes in girls, exploring why girls are different, their emotional world, and offers some thoughts on how parents could go about developing their relationship with their daughter/s in the earliest months and years. Two further chapters explore issues of social conditioning, and education (this was the most disappointing chapter).

In the final two chapters, Preuschoff turns the spotlight onto questions of family dynamics, the teenage years, peer relationships, communication styles, and self-esteem.

One of the real strengths of the book is its discouragement of a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, an approach all-to-commonly repeated. Rather, Preuschoff encourages parents to really get to know their daughters, identify and encourage their strengths and passions. I most appreciated this.

To be honest, however, I found the book overall a weak compliment to its cousin Raising Boys. My main disappointment with the book (and it is certainly not unique here) is that I felt that it was written to mums rather to dads. Dads, of course, get the obligatory 2-3 pages, but that’s about it. I’d be keen to hear how other dads found this book.

That said, it was worth reading, and I will devote the next few posts to sharing some thoughts/quotations from it.

Recently, I watched one of the most challenging films that I’ve seen in months. Shooting Dogs (entitled Beyond the Gates in the USA where it has shamefully not got a distributor) tells the story of an English priest – Father Christopher (John Hurt) – who heads up a school in Rwanda in 1994. Christopher is caught up in the growing violence between Tutsi and Hutu tribes which escalates into genocide. The film, whose official website is a blog, is based on a story co-written by BBC journalist David Belton who was working in the country at the time of the genocide. The film powerfully accounts the events that took place at the Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali between April 6th and April 11th in 1994.

The film depicts the experiences of the world-weary school headmaster Father Christopher (John Hurt) and Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy), a charismatic and idealistic young man taking a year out teaching in Africa. When the genocide begins to erupt, the school becomes a refuge for Europeans and Tutsis. A contingent of Belgiant UN soldiers is stationed at the school but as the Hutu government vows to eliminate all Tutsis, the refugees wonder if the UN will protect them from the machete-wielding Hutu militias who start to surround the school. The film paints the UN as spineless, toothless and racist.

Director Michael Canton-Jones elicits naturalistic performances from the actors, some of whom are survivors of the genocide, as are many of the support crew. The film was shot at the location where the actual events took place. Canton-Jones employs mainly handheld cameras in order to give the film a documentary feel. John Hurt and Hugh Dancy give strong, emotional performances as characters caught up in a series of moral dilemmas as to how they can help the Rwandans – both Hutu and Tutsi . By focusing on the fate of one school, this accomplished film succeeds in giving an overview of the devastating Rwandan genocide and the apathetic paralysis of various governments and organisations in dealing with the growing conflict which claimed the lives of somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 human beings.

I must say that despite watching the film with a bottle of good red (something which in itself requires reflection), it took me hours to get to sleep afterwards – such were the questions that it elicits: questions of justice, sense of call, costly discipleship, human limitation, the sacramentality of incarnational ministry, politics, love, racism, human depravity, hope, the sacrificial love of a parent. Moreover, it drove me to silence … and prayer.

Most reviewers have compared the film with Hotel Rwanda, almost unanimously preferring Shooting Dogs. I’m not sure it’s fair to compare the two films as is usually done. Although the overlap of historical subject matter is obvious enough, the films are attempting to do very different things. Both, I think, do it very well. Another film on the same theme is Sometimes in April, which I also watched recently. It’s also well worth watching.

Though its violent content makes it unsuitable for wee kids, I reckon that Shooting Dogs would be a great flick to watch – and discuss – with your teenagers.