I have a confession to make: I recently read the autobiography of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and I really enjoyed it. Happy, Happy, Happy was fun, winsome, informative, illuminating, and also, interestingly enough, instructive.
On the surface, Robertson’s book presents the backstory to an immensely popular and likable family. Beyond this surface enjoyment there are deeper pleasures, because not only does it document a genuine rags-to-riches story (what I think is fair to call the American Dream), it also speaks about real transformation—of Phil, Phil’s family, and Phil’s land (which I think is fair to call the American Need). Still yet—even further beneath these—there is something else which comes through—the most instructive lesson of all—because the true allure of the Robertson family is not their novelty, nor their redneckerry, nor even their explicit faith, but their contentment. Phil Robertson’s is a success story in the truest sense of the word.
Phil Robertson is best known as the heavily bearded patriarch of the Robertson family, that clan of unexpectedly famous Louisiana Rednecks who hunt ducks, make duck calls, produce television shows, pray before their meals at the end of each show, and are currently milking the merchandizing cow through A&E and Walmart for all its worth. But before he was famous, Phil Robertson was poor—really poor. And the story of his journey out of poverty is just one arc of the many remarkable events he relays in his autobiography. Truth be told, although he appears to be only one man, it seems to me that he is actually composed of four different geniuses. There is Phil the hunter, who loves the outdoors, loves the land, knows (because of his family poverty) how to live off the land, and who has labored to essentially terraform and rehabilitate the property he owns in Louisiana. There is also Phil the evangelist, saved by faith from his own drunkenness and depravity and now passionate to reach as many people as he can with the good news of Jesus Christ, baptizing guests in the river behind their house, taking every speaking opportunity given to him as an occasion to preach the gospel. (Note well that Phil has probably told more people about faith in Jesus than a roomful of pastors.) There is also Phil the creator, who can imagine how to build a better duck call and then laboriously perfect it, a craftsman and visionary. And lastly there is Phil the entrepreneur, who can turn his own river into a successful fishing business, his own duck calls into a multi-million dollar organization, who sees in his land the potential to hire out the space to others. Phil Robertson is one remarkable man.
Reading about the four geniuses of Phil made me look closer at my own life. Phil loves his land—what have I done to love my own yard lately? (Answer: I went out and cleaned and mowed after reading the book.) Phil loves the Lord and wants to tell people about Jesus. How am I considering the opportunities to share the gospel? Phil is a creator—how am I working to maximize the creative gifts God has given me? And Phil, of course, is an entrepreneur—am I doing all that I can to provide for my own family? Each of these were solid queries to the status quo of my life, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to ask them.
Of course, if you are familiar with the television show then these facets of Phil’s personality take on even more clarity, because each of these four Phils has been implanted in his four sons. Alan, the eldest, is a minister in the church—i.e., Phil the evangelist. Jason, the second, is Phil the hunter, building duck calls. Willie, the next, is Phil the entrepreneur—taking Duck Commander to its present fame. And Jep, the youngest, is Phil the creator, responsible for much of the video work for the show.
Despite all this, the Robertson family seem an unlikely set for television fame. Phil himself is an avowed Luddite, and the family’s redneck sensibilities and overt Christianity jar against the world-saturated content of their television contemporaries. There’s no sex or swearing on the show. No drama to compete with other so-called ‘reality’ shows. There are no demeaning insults and nobody gets kicked off. Consequently, the mystery of their popularity has confounded many. Some claim it is the novelty of rednecks on television—except that when you watch the show and read about them they don’t seem so much novel as, well, normal. Originally it may have been a producer’s thought that this family would be funny to viewers like a circus show is funny, but time has shown that they are funny because, well, they’re really funny people. Perhaps it is the American ethos they convey—Walmart shopping NASCAR watching red-blooded hunting Americans are drawn to this display of down-home sensibilities. While doubtless some of the sensibility of Phil and family appeals to viewers and readers, I don’t think it’s the main thing that keeps people coming back. I would guess that others from the disposition of the Christian faith conclude that the Robertson’s are popular precisely because of their faith. At a time when kids can’t pray in school, the Robertson’s are praying on A&E, and something of the rightness of that appeals to the American sense, even implicitly. But I don’t think that is the reason either.
I think the real reason for the appeal of Duck Dynasty is Phil Robertson’s success. Now, by success I don’t mean his successful business ventures, nor do I mean his wealth. I mean that Phil has achieved, and exhibits plainly, a sense of success and contentment with his life that is unheard of today. He is a mystery, not because he wears a long, flowing beard, but because he is genuinely happy, happy, happy.
There are a variety of reasons for his happiness—the first, and deepest of course, is his faith. And while some have taken the overt signs of Robertson Christianity as the markers of their faith, the real marker is the peace and contentment with which he lives life. There is no striving with career, or making, or worldly ideas of success. There is love between family members. There is love between husband and wife. There is the ability to rest and enjoy hobbies both passive and active. There is joy, and peace, and, yes, happiness. These are the real fruits of the Christian life as manifest in the Robertsons.
But another reason for this happiness is that Phil is genuinely a success in the truest sense of that word. ‘Success,’ you see, is linked to the word ‘succession.’ The primary idea behind success is to hand off to someone else the work you have done—to take pleasure in seeing someone else do well what you have trained and equipped that person to do. That Phil has been successful with his four sons is self-evident—he is at ease, they are at work, and they also are learning the lessons of true contentment and happiness along the way. These things, more than anything else, set the Robertson family apart, and I suggest are the ground of their wide appeal. The real reason we watch is because we ourselves want for a measure of their contentment.
And as a test of this contentment, remember that the Robertsons know fame is fleeting. They are enjoying it while it lasts, but they do this knowing it won’t last. And if they were to lose their fame, they would still be happy. If they were to lose their business, they would still be happy. If no one were ever to speak the name of the Robertsons again, they would still be happy. And maybe it’s the fact that they don’t really care about their fame that makes them most mysterious of all.