Cover image for Growing pains : learning to love my father's faith
Growing pains : learning to love my father's faith
Balmer, Randall Herbert.
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Publication Information:
Grand Rapids, Mich. : Brazos Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
142 pages ; 24 cm
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BR1725.B333 A3 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Christianity Today 2002 Book Award Winner. "Balmer's superb writing and mature theological ruminations deserve a wide audience." -Publishers Weekly

Author Notes

Randall Balmer is professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio, and has written and hosted three television documentaries on American religion with the Public Broadcasting System

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Like so many other of the best evangelical Christian writers--see the autobiographical passages of Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor [BKL S 15 01]--Balmer had a troubled early relationship with his faith, compounded by being a pastor's eldest son, expected to follow in his father's footsteps. He didn't, of course, in part because, unlike his parents, who converted as adults, he didn't come to faith with a consciousness of sin serious enough to elicit a powerful reactive sense of being born again in Christ. This provocative insight, which Balmer applies to other second-generation evangelicals like him, informs this essay collection's first, most cohesive part, concerned with the urgency of transferring faith to the next generation. This first part is grounded in beautiful reminiscences, yet the pieces of the second part, "Family Matters," glow even more warmly with personal tenderness. The more desultory writings in the last part weigh the fortunes of grace in postmodern, latter-day California. Balmer's eulogy for his father movingly concludes a book that is consistently a joy to read. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Balmer (Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory), a professor of American religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, poignantly comes to terms with the fundamentalist Christianity of his childhood by explaining the "lover's quarrel" that he and his father sustained until shortly before Clarence Balmer's death in 1997. Clarence Balmer, a conservative Midwestern minister of some renown, placed his hopes for a successor squarely on the author's shoulders, even providing him with a three-foot-tall wooden pulpit on his fifth Christmas. But in college, Randall Balmer began questioning the faith of his parents (a "ritualized rebellion," he calls it), and decided to pursue an academic career instead of ordination. Balmer beautifully describes the tensions this choice created in his relationship with his father, in his first marriage and in his own self-understanding. Several of the essays are simply piercing; in particular, "Sins of the Fathers," which describes how Balmer's own experiences of fathering two sons helped him to better understand his father, is a pain-filled and deeply moving expression of spiritual growth. But while Balmer is an outstanding writer, the collection lacks cohesiveness. The undated essays, written at different times and for varying audiences, often repeat information and even use the same phrasing. Their chronology can also be confusing; in one chapter, for example, Balmer explains that his grandmother is in a nursing home, but two chapters later she has passed away. This said, however, Balmer's superb writing and mature theological ruminations deserve a wide audience. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One FAITH OF OUR FATHERS Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! Thou hast said, "Seek ye my face." My heart says to thee, "Thy face, Lord, do I seek." Hide not thy face from me. Turn not thy servant away in anger, thou who hast been my help. Cast me not off, forsake me not, O God of my salvation! For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up. Psalm 27:7-10 (RSV) * * * On my desk in New York sits a photograph of a seven-year-old boy. He's wearing a pair of glasses, a freshly ironed shirt buttoned to the neck, and his best smile. I placed that picture on my desk at the suggestion of a friend who understood that, as someone who grew up fundamentalist, I was having a difficult time finding my way as an adult. Just look at that picture of yourself as a child, he suggested, and try to recall what it was like to be that child.     For weeks, the only response that picture inspired in me was laughter. The photograph was taken in 1961, and all my hair was chopped off. That, combined with the spectacles perched awkwardly on my nose, made for a comic figure.     But then one morning, while seated at my desk, it all came back. In 1961, we lived in a parsonage next to the church out in the farm country of southern Minnesota, and there was nothing in the world more important to me than baseball. One day my father returned from town with a plastic bat and ball. "Let's play ball," he said. I couldn't have been more excited, in part because I knew, even then, that my father had no interest whatsoever in sports of any kind. I recall what happened next as though it were yesterday. After swinging wildly at a couple of pitches, I decided to let a few go by. Somehow, even in first grade, I had learned enough about baseball to know that four balls constituted a walk and, perhaps to save myself the embarrassment of swinging and missing more pitches, I elected to draw a base on balls.     "Well, what's the point of all this?" my father huffed. "If you don't swing I'm just wasting my time." He tossed the ball in my direction, turned, and headed back to his study.     We never played ball again.     I tell that story not to elicit sympathy and certainly not to suggest that my father acted out of malice, for I realize now that he brought his own brokenness to his role as parent. Yet it would be difficult to overestimate the loneliness and abandonment felt by the kid in glasses. I relate that story because, just a bit more than halfway through my allotted three-score-and-ten years, I have come to believe that we, all of us in the community of faith, have stories to tell. "We are healed by our stories," Terry Tempest Williams declares. And perhaps, through luck or coincidence or even grace, my story might help you understand your story.     As I stared at the picture on my desktop and remembered that breezy Minnesota afternoon, I began to realize that, throughout my life, my perception of God was very much tied to my childish perception of my father--distant and austere, disapproving and abandoning. Psychologists call this conditional love. I will love you, provided that you meet my conditions. And if you fail at any time to live up to my expectations, I will withhold that love.     In the midst of my tears that morning in my office I recognized that I had spent most of my life hoping that my father would pitch to me again. There I was, a gawky kid in glasses and a crewcut, standing in the middle of the Minnesota prairie with a new baseball bat slumped over his shoulder, waiting to play ball. Maybe, just maybe, if this kid smiled harder, if he excelled in school, if he suffered through piano lessons, if he obeyed all the rules, or if he memorized enough Bible verses, his father would emerge from his study to hit a few grounders or to pitch a few more. This time, he vowed, he would swing at every pitch.     As this kid moved from childhood to adolescence, he continued to work hard to win the approval of his father--getting good grades in school, becoming president of the youth group at church, attending an evangelical college, and marrying a "good Christian girl." Then, later, on to seminary and graduate school, an appointment at an Ivy League university, tenure, and a string of professional successes.     But something, somewhere, went wrong, although I tried to ignore it for a long time. Why did my life seem empty, despite all of my achievements? Why did I find going to church such utter drudgery? Why was my Bible gathering dust on the bookshelf? Why did God--this same God I had celebrated for years in Sunday school as "closer than a brother"--why did that God seem so remote and distant? What happened to the triumphant Christian life that I was supposed to experience, moving from victory to victory until I tasted sweet union with Jesus?     For a long time I despaired of answering those questions. That "happiness in Jesus" was so elusive that I gave up the quest. For the better part of a decade I tried to put my childhood and my fundamentalist past behind me, not so much out of rebellion as out of personal dissatisfaction. The evangelical faith of my parents simply wasn't living up to its billing. "Victory in Jesus" remained beyond my grasp. God was preoccupied and elusive, and when I called on him for guidance or comfort or solace, as I did often, he couldn't be bothered; he was, no doubt, working on a sermon for next Sunday.     Why was I having such difficulty sustaining my faith? Why was I so indifferent toward God? Some time ago, deep in the midst of a personal crisis, I visited Doug, an old friend on the West Coast, someone who, like me, had grown up fundamentalist. He pointed out that many evangelicals, including the leaders of evangelicalism, projected their views of their fathers onto God. Many of the spokesmen for postwar evangelicalism, for example, had been abandoned, either physically or emotionally, by their fathers. The evangelical God they wrote and talked about, Doug suggested, was an austere God of judgment, a stern and demanding father rather than a gentle and compassionate friend.     This made sense to me. I recalled some of the prayers I had heard in church through the years--"O Father, come and be among us; let us feel your presence"--and I began to wonder if I wasn't hearing the anguished cry of a son searching for his daddy. Why did evangelicals impose so many rules and strictures on themselves and on their children? Perhaps it had something to do with the way they viewed God--as a parent, judgmental and demanding, always keeping a tally of our shortcomings and prepared to withhold his approval, his love, from anyone who fell short of the standards. The book of Genesis tells us that God created humanity in God's own image, but it seemed that we fundamentalists had done the opposite: We had created God in our image or, more precisely, in the image of our fathers. We had concocted this deity whose love was conditioned on our behaving in certain ways. This God was distant and disapproving. This God's love was conditional.     As Doug and I talked about this God we decided that he (and I use the male pronoun advisedly) was not very attractive. This was a God who, like our fathers, demanded perfection. If we hoped to gain entry into heaven, we had better toe the line, otherwise we could expect utter abandonment, consignment to hell. This God of our projections was not a God who gave us permission to embrace life in all of its ambiguity and complexity, let alone to embrace ourselves in all of our ambiguity and complexity. This, in fact, was a God who refused to recognize ambiguity altogether, who forced us to see the world in dualistic categories--good and bad, black and white, right and wrong--with no allowance whatsoever for anything in between. This God, just like the evangelicals who invented him, viewed the Christian life as a steady ascent toward holiness. Once you had been born again, once you had "prayed the prayer," you could expect to move onward and upward in your faith, and if that trajectory didn't hold, if you faltered along the way, well, you were doing something wrong.     As Doug and I regarded each other on that chilly morning in November, we both knew that something was very wrong. The triumphant Christian life that evangelicals talked about couldn't have been more alien to us. Both of us had been neglected by fathers who were too busy doing the Lord's work. We had been beaten and battered by life. We had betrayed those who loved us, and we had been spurned by those we loved. We were riddled with guilt. So many times each of us had felt lonely and abandoned, and the faith of our fathers offered precious little comfort. We had known grief and sorrow, and we found a camaraderie in our suffering.     At that terrifying moment in my life, perched on the edge of hopelessness and despair, Doug looked me in the eye, for he is a true friend, and he saw into my soul. With the wisdom and compassion of a fellow pilgrim, he suggested that I consider anew the good news of the New Testament. Coming from him, this advice, I knew, was not empty piety. Jesus, after all, had come into the world not to anoint the saints but to save that which was lost. Jesus, having tasted of our humanity, understood our suffering. He of all people knew that what we now so blithely call the Christian life was not some kind of cosmic victory lap.     Doug encouraged me to take seriously the ancient Christian teaching that, in Jesus, God became man, and suggested that if I wanted a truer picture of God, I had to set aside, at least for the moment, my notions of God as father, with all of the psychological baggage that implies, and consider God the son, Jesus.     Some time later, I began to catch a glimpse of this Jesus. I was sitting in church just before Christmas when suddenly the sermon faded to black, I turned my head upward, and in some intuitive way that I cannot explain, I saw Jesus. Not the Sunday school Jesus I thought I knew and found I didn't like very much, but a Jesus of compassion, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. This is the Jesus who wandered in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. This is the Jesus who was betrayed by his friends. This is the Jesus who embodied the abandonment of all humanity, who while hanging on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth with his arms outstretched, cried out in despair and sadness and utter abandonment, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani," which is to say, "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"     And if I can translate those words yet again, I hear the anguished voice of a distraught son. "Daddy? Daddy! Where are you, Daddy?"     As I sat in church that wintry December morning I saw the humanity of Jesus for the first time. I saw him during his moment on the cross not as the Son of God proclaiming victory over sin but as the Son of Man, alone and abandoned, at the end of his rope. I identified with Jesus in his moment of utter despair and hopelessness.     But many Christians, Protestants especially, are uncomfortable with this vision of God, a God who, in Jesus, somehow reflects the alienation of all humanity--alienation from God, from one another, from ourselves, from our fathers. How many sermons have we heard about the empty cross, signifying the resurrection and triumph over sin, rather than Jesus on the cross , as in Roman Catholic iconography? We like victory. We prefer winners, a God who has conquered, which, as the feminists remind us, is a very masculine view of God, a kind of marauding deity who vanquishes evil and doubt and darkness. The Almighty as Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger. We like this triumphant God because we too fancy ourselves conquerors, marching from victory to victory. We don't like the idea of God hanging on the cross. It suggests travail and suffering and defeat, and it makes us uncomfortable.     I confess that I no longer find much in common with traditional Protestant conceptions of God the Father, with God as the conquering hero. There are not many days when I feel like a conqueror. More often, at least at this juncture of my life, I feel broken and alone and abandoned, and in those moments I feel solace from Jesus on the cross, because he too was broken and alone and abandoned.     I know that in some profound and intuitive way I feel connected to this Jesus on the cross. I identify with him, with his abandonment, his loneliness, his alienation. I can even say that I love him, not because, in the unfortunate words of that Sunday school ditty, he first loved me, because that suggests duty or obligation. I love him because I see in him the abandoned child, the suffering servant, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, and I know that, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, my travails pale before his.     This is the God of liberation, not judgment, of hope in the face of despair. This God, who took on human form, allows me to embrace my own humanity.     How does all this relate to the child in glasses, the one whose picture sits on my desk in New York? I no longer laugh when I look at him, for I can now see beyond the spectacles and into his eyes. I see his innocence and his vulnerability. I see how desperately he wants to be loved. I see how hard he tries to win the approval of those around him. I see him in Sunday school singing, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." And I know that seven-year-old boy has no idea, as he belts out the melody at the top of his lungs, how much he will come to rely on the profound truth of those simple words three and four decades later.     The kid in glasses still loves baseball. Every year at the beginning of spring training he still half expects a telegram from the Detroit Tigers. It would read something like this: DEAR MR BALMER STOP WE'VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE STOP HAVE AN OPENING AT SECOND BASE THIS SEASON AND THINK YOU STILL HAVE A COUPLE OF GOOD YEARS LEFT IN YOU STOP PLEASE REPORT TO THE TRAINING FACILITY IN LAKELAND IMMEDIATELY I passed yet another February without receiving my telegram, and I think that, closing in on my forty-somethingth birthday, I may soon be grown up enough to recognize that I will never make it to the major leagues. But I have more confidence about my pilgrimage toward God. I have come to see the Christian life no longer as a steep and steady ascent toward holiness but as a tortuous journey full of twists and turns and switchbacks and perhaps a rockslide or two along the way.     But in the course of that journey I feel the embrace of a God who accepts me as I am in all of my humanity, who loves me unconditionally, in spite of my shortcomings. It is a pilgrimage of joy and sadness, of loving and suffering, triumph and tragedy, but it culminates in sweet union with Jesus, who somehow takes our sad and broken lives and makes us whole. That's the gospel, I think. That sounds like good news to me.     And at that moment of wholeness, perhaps I can persuade Jesus, this man of sorrows acquainted with grief, to hit me a few grounders. Excerpted from GROWING PAINS by RANDALL BALMER. Copyright © 2001 by Randall Balmer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 11
Part 1 Father, Hear My Cry
Faith of Our Fathersp. 17
The Generation of Faithp. 25
Christian Piety through the Generationsp. 35
Gospel and Gossipp. 41
Finishing the Coursep. 51
Keeping Faithp. 57
Discerning the Callp. 65
Sins of the Fathersp. 73
Part 2 Family Matters
Searching for Grandpap. 83
Postcardsp. 87
My Father's Carsp. 93
The Passing of an Erap. 97
Some Thoughts on Attending a Fifteen-Year College Reunionp. 101
Eyes on the Fencepostp. 107
Part 3 Glimpses of Grace
California Dreamin'p. 111
New York City, George Steinbrenner, and Common Gracep. 115
Orange County Journalp. 119
Remembering John Lennonp. 123
Silicon Valleyp. 127
Epiloguep. 131
Eulogyp. 133
Acknowledgmentsp. 141
About the Authorp. 143