Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle is a maudlin song, meant to manipulate, and it hits me hard every time I hear it pop up, unpredictably and infrequently, on the radio. The song is a bit preachy, which is probably why it has been used in so many sermons, and why it has also been an easy target of parody and ridicule. It is about a father who is too busy to spend time with his son, who nonetheless admires him and wants to be just like him. When the son grows up, he is too busy with his own work and family to spend any time with his aging father. The son, in other words, has turned out just like his father, though in a way that the father regrets.

The irony of the song is a bit obvious, but it still packs a powerful punch, at least to guys my age. The song is partially autobiographical, because Chapin’s father, a musician, was on the road during much of his youth, but it is also about Chapin himself, since his wife is actually credited with writing the lyrics. She was worried that Chapin would not be around to help raise their newborn son, Josh. She wrote the song as a warning to her husband, and it has served as an effective wake-up call to fathers ever since. The song begins,

My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away.

Chapin took his wife’s words and added a catchy melody that makes the sad lyrics almost bearable.

Cat’s in the Cradle was released in 1974, reached the top of the Billboard music charts, sold millions, and earned Chapin a Grammy nomination for Best Song. In other words, it struck a chord.

The 1970s were a divisive decade. What began in the 1960s as a fairly elite and limited rebellion against traditional moral standards became in the 1970s the social norm, with catastrophic results. College radicals failed in many of their political objectives¯the backlash that began with Nixon’s election still has momentum today¯but they succeeded in transforming American culture. Even teenagers raised in the Midwest with solid traditional values fought their parents over trips to the barber and what to listen to on the car radio. I know that from personal experience. Rebellion was in the air, and rock and roll provided the soundtrack.

My students, as we would have said back then, just can’t relate. Every year I teach a course for freshmen on Christianity and Popular Culture. I try to persuade my students, all of whom are usually Christian, that having faith should force them into a protracted and messy battle with popular culture, but I’ve seen that message make less and less sense with each passing year. One of the hardest things I have had to learn as a teacher is that my story is not their story. This is a good thing, of course, given how low the 1970s sunk, but it is also something worth thinking about. My generation was raised in conflict. What do students today fight for, and what do they fight against?

When I tell my students that my father and I had constant battles over the length of my hair and the span of the bell bottoms on my favorite pair of purple plaid pants, they just laugh. They have been spared the ravages of a society trying to redefine itself through bad fashion. When I tell them that rock and roll was meant to tear families apart by promoting promiscuity and drugs, however, they think I am joking. They listen to the same music as their parents. Rock and roll has been made safe by Contemporary Christian Music. Rock is simply the way the world sounds.

Many of my students (I teach at an all-male college) tell me that their father is their best friend. That is great, but I wonder what they have lost when they do not experience fathers as a source of judgment and an obstacle to adolescent excess. As one of my students was talking about his father the other day, I noticed that he has a pierced tongue. When I asked if that bothered his father, he replied that his dad paid for it and thought it was “cool.” Other students have tattoos, although some of them said they had not told their mothers. Moms don’t want their sons to look like Aztec warriors, but dads are proud of the way their sons manage to keep on the cutting edge while still looking clean cut.

Other than piercings and tattoos, my students dress pretty conservatively, which means they wear the typical uniform of jeans and knit shirts with the logos of sports teams or running shoes. They find it hard to imagine a time when blue jeans were missiles in the war between the generations. I developed some of my intellectual cunning from the years I spent negotiating with my father over what was appropriate Sunday morning attire. First, I convinced him that wearing jeans to school was okay. Then I gradually earned permission to wear my school clothes to Wednesday night services. Finally, I fought for more casual wear for Sunday evenings, hoping that the slippery slope of permissiveness would free me from the drudgery of dressing up on Sunday mornings. It was a prolonged series of negotiations that should have made me a lawyer, not a theologian.

By the middle of the 1970s, most parents had given up defending the sensibilities of modesty and prudence, but they did not join teenagers in their flouting of convention. That trend would await another decade or two, when the baby boomers grew up and decided that they wanted to act and look just like their children.

I asked my students the other day if clothing should be used as a way of indicating the seriousness of a social situation. Most of them resisted this suggestion. Clothing, they said, doesn’t really mean anything. If that is right, I continued, why are so many of your shirts walking advertisements? After some interesting discussion, we decided that logos are needed to distinguish people by what they wear, but since so many shirts have logos on them, nobody risks standing out too much. But they continued to resist the idea that clothing could symbolize the sacred. I thought about this for a couple of days and came prepared with a question for the next class. Would they be comfortable with the nine Justices of the Supreme Court deliberating about constitutional issues in T-shirts and jeans? I finally found the place where they would draw the line.

Ordinarily, however, line drawing is not their forte. I envy their easygoing intimacy with their fathers, but I wonder about their lackadaisical approach to spirituality. Until the modern era, Christianity created the high culture of the West, but then it lost much of its creative potency as the arts, one by one, declared their independence from the Church. By the 1970s, popular culture was so alienated from Christianity that just going to public school during the week was a schizophrenic experience for those of us raised in conservative churches. The language of spiritual warfare came naturally to evangelicals because we were forced to decide, almost on a daily basis, whose side we were on. Most of us made a lot of bad decisions, but we learned that decisions had to be made, and that the worse decision was deciding not to decide.

Rock and roll, for example, was not a neutral musical genre. The music at my boyhood church was still stuck in the age of barbershop quartets. My parents thought Frank Sinatra was too racy, so they were hardly prepared for Elvis, Dylan, or the Beatles. Rock has to be played loud to be enjoyed, or at least that is what we told our parents, who were constantly yelling at us to turn it down. Rock deafens the senses, including the moral sense, with its incessant beat and garbled lyrics. My parents were not alone in taking me to revivals where I would be inspired to purge my record collection. Every album I burned in the backyard, putting who knows what pollutants into the air, cost me hours of agony and regret.

When the rumor that Bob Dylan had converted to Christianity reached Indianapolis in 1979, during my senior year in high school, I was overjoyed. That one of the greatest rock stars had become one of us was too good to be true. The three Christian albums he recorded, Slow Train Coming , Shot of Love , and Saved , spoke to my ears as much as my heart, because they brought together, for the first time, my faith and my musical taste. My students, however, have never heard of these albums, and they take it for granted that rock and Christianity can go hand in hand. They listen to Christian heavy metal bands that make me feel as out of it as my parents were thirty years ago. They do not think that the style of music has any affect on its message. Christianity is malleable to them. Faith can be poured into any cultural form without diluting or altering its essence.

Part of me, of course, envies their more peaceful adjustments to the modern world. Part of me too takes perverse pride in the battles my generation fought. Rock was divisive back then, but at least it wasn’t bland! I am actually very glad that my students do not have to fight my battles, because they were destructive, and little was gained. But those battles made me who I am, and I cannot shake the idea that struggle confers our most abiding sense of identity.

Students today do not resonate with the idea of being part of a generation. The 1960s generation took so much pride in their radical ideals that they practically invented the idea of a generation of young people set apart by the accident of chronology. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had to wrestle with the self-important weight of the 1960s. We bore the brunt of our elder siblings’ experiments in altering reality. In my freshman class on Christianity and Popular Culture, I used to teach books about the Gen X generation, which was defined by the emergence of new technologies, but all of that is old hat to today’s students. When I asked my freshmen to name their generation, the best we could come up with was the Security Generation, or the N-Security Generation, but even that did not seem to fit, since they do not feel all that threatened by overseas terrorists.

They are too secure, this generation. They are not forced to choose between popular culture and Christianity. And they are not rebelling against their parents.

That brings us back to Harry Chapin’s song. Fathers in the 1970s were too threatened by the rapid cultural changes to give their sons useful advice about how to negotiate adolescence, and anyway, it was an era when fathers went to work and left the child rearing to their wives. In the words of Cat’s in the Cradle .

My son turned ten just the other day

He said, “Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play.

Can you teach me to throw?” I said, “Not today,

I got a lot to do.” He said, “That’s ok.”

It is emotionally hard for me to type those words on my computer screen. They are too real. We should thank God every day that most fathers (I hope!) have learned their lesson about neglecting their children.

Yet we should also not be too hard on the fathers of old. It is always difficult to be a father, and it must have been especially challenging in the 1970s. We teenagers did not make it easy for fathers to be fathers. We have to forgive our fathers as the first step in becoming fathers ourselves. And maybe in forgiving them, we won’t overreact to the point of giving our sons everything they want, rather than the essential things that they need.

I usually teach a section on marriage and sex in my Christianity and Popular Culture course, and I often tell my students that popular culture has robbed them of romance. Even the most modest young men today, I argue, have been so immersed in a culture of pornography that we have been inoculated to female beauty. We men (I always include myself in this discussion) have been taught to treat the female form in abstract terms and thus to use it as an ideal template by which to measure the women we meet. We no longer know the joys of sensual pleasure that springs not from visual attraction but from the yearning of true knowledge for another. We don’t know how to let a spiritual soulmate shape our desires by teaching us to see others the way God sees them.

Yet something happened the other day that made me think I have been too hard on my students. I often try to describe to them the way their ancestors, not all that long ago, would have chosen the mates of their children, a practice they associate today with some backward part of India. I try to help them see that the choice of a marriage partner should be based on wider considerations than romance alone. To focus this discussion, I ask them a hypothetical question. Suppose you were to be guided in your selection of a wife by one, and only one, of two factors, either your hormones or your parents. That is, would you let your parents pick your wife or would you rather trust your sensual desire, that spark of attraction that makes you light up with sexual longing?

In past years, my students were horrified at the thought of their parents choosing their marriage partners. This year was different. Many of them said they would trust their parents. In fact, more said they would trust their dads than their moms. They thought their moms would look for a good girl and disregard looks altogether, while they thought their dads would probably get the balance of moral and physical attributes just about right.

I found their conversation to be very moving, and wondered if my two young boys, when they reach the marrying age, will have that kind of trust in me. We lose something when we do not have to fight for what we believe, but what we have gained in father and son relationships is so much more important that I do not regret that my boys will never be able to relate to Cat’s in the Cradle . They will have other battles in their lives, but, I pray to God, they will not have to battle me.

Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Taking Religion to School .

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