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Searching for a Dad in Hell

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It is not often that a successful, celebrated artist tells The New York Times that he has been to hell.

Singer Rufus Wainwright, however, details for a Times profile his descent into anonymous sex, self-loathing, and methamphetamines into “a subterranean world that he described in the most lurid terms as a ‘gay hell.’” And yet, what is most striking about this article is not Wainwright’s frank acknowledgment of the horrors of hedonism. It is what he admits is at the root of it all—his desperate quest for his dad.

The article notes a revealing song from Wainwright’s newest album about a meal the artist had with his father, also a famous singer, after they had done a photo shoot together for Rolling Stone magazine. Wainwright speaks of the vindictive joy he had in telling his father that he had gotten the older man into Rolling Stone, letting him know that the son’s career had surpassed his. After this, they didn’t speak for an extended period of time. Wainwright traces this complex relationship back to a childhood that has left him scarred forever.

“Mr. Wainwright’s parents divorced when was 3, and the abandonment he experienced when his father left home still roils at the core of his personality,” the Times reports. And it is a vacuum in the son’s life that transforms his art.

“Anger, regret, self-loathing, bitterness and a desperate need for approval contend with one another in the lyrics, as Mr. Wainwright recalls the circumstances of his father’s leaving from the vantage of a prideful, but rickety adulthood,” the article notes, citing Wainwright’s lyrics. “But why is it so/That I’ve always been the one who must go/When in fact you were the one/Long ago…in the drifting white snow/Who left me?”

Thus while reeling about in “gay hell,” the younger Wainwright says he was really looking not for physical pleasure or a chemical high, but for the approval of the father he never knew. “During my drug phase and my subsequent breakdown, it all came back to my father,” he said. Speaking of his time in group therapy in a psychiatric hospital, Wainwright acknowledged, “the minute they would get to their father, the tears came.”

And, while Wainwright insists he is trying to get his life back on track, his lyrics reveal that even his quest for musical success is itself in some sense a longing for his father. As one song from the newest album cries: “I really don’t want/To be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen/I just want to be my dad/With a sprinkling of my mother.”

The tragic tale of a drugged-out artist is hardly news. And yet there is something terribly revealing here in the midst of a popular culture that both celebrates this kind of gender-bending rebellion and assures us that fathers aren’t really necessary. It is a sad story that can be repeated a million times—of a father with “more important” priorities than his wife and child; of a son moving through life adrift without the compass of a father. We see in Wainwright’s lyrics the same kind of agony the last generation saw in another flamboyant homosexual artist, Elton John, who complained that he “had a ‘quit me’ father and a ‘love me’ mother/I had forty years of pain and nothing to cling to.”

Psychologist Joseph Nicolosi documents this pattern, along with its tragic outworking, in his groundbreaking book, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. The book is actually misnamed. It should have been titled A Father’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, since he argues that the common denominator in every homosexual man he has ever counseled has been a longing for the kind of male affirmation that can only come from a dad. “In fifteen years, I have spoken with hundreds of homosexual men,” Nicolosi writes. “Perhaps there are exceptions, but I have never met a single homosexual man who said he had a close, loving, and respectful relationship with his father.”

Wainwright testifies that his search for dad led him to what he considers hell. But Scripture has already spoken here. After all, the New York Times is not the first to note the “hellish” end of the quest for pleasure. The ancient Book of Proverbs uses precisely such language to speak of the way of folly (Prov 7: 27). And it does so as the counsel of a father to his son (Prov 1:8). Scripture testifies that the father-child relationship is not simply a matter of psychological health or some kind of early childhood imprinting. The father/child relationship is critical because it reflects the archetypal Fatherhood of God (Eph 3:14-15; Heb 12:9). And Wainwright is not the first to speak of fatherlessness as “hell.” Jesus did so when he compared the lost sinner to a son who left his father’s house for a far country of senseless hedonism (Luke 15:11ff).

All is not lost for those without earthly fathers. We should pray that Wainwright might come to realize that he will never find the father he needs in the exploitative embrace of another man, or in the mind-numbing ecstasy of illicit drugs. He will find it only through adoption into the household of the Father (Gal 4:1-9).

Even so, we must face the stark reality that there is so much at stake here. Evangelical churches need to recover the biblical imperative of fatherhood—equipping men to shepherd their homes with a strong and Christlike love. We need to emphasize that every father is a graphic presentation of systematic theology—one that is internalized within the psyches of the sons and daughters who learn from him what it means to call out “Abba Father”. We need to emphasize that the apostolic call to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18) is not simply a matter of personal religious experience. After all, Paul defines the Spirit-filled life as, among other things, the way a father relates to his wife and children (Eph 5:25-6:4). And we need to emphasize that fatherhood is not just about emotional health or personal responsibility. It is a matter of evangelism—preparing the way of young men and women to see a Father God reflected in the reign of His beloved Son.

If we don’t know the alternative to godly fatherhood, let’s just listen to the cries of young Rufus Wainwright. He says it leads to hell.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.

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