Sunday, October 18, 2009

Patience with Frank Schaeffer

In discussing Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, James Pate suggested that I would be interested in Schaeffer’s upcoming book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion {or Atheism}, saying: “…it addresses people who aren't satisfied with fundamentalism or atheism. That kind of reminds me of what the top of your blog says: seeking a third path, other than secularism and religious fundamentalism.” I just got the book and read it over last night and this morning. I sincerely wished to like this book, since I see Schaeffer as being one of the people on “my” side. That being said, I found myself disappointed with the book as a whole, though there were parts that I found worthwhile. The fatal weakness of the book is that it lacks much in the way of a sustained argument. Rather it is a running meditation, one that fails to say anything that has not been said and better said in other places. This would not be considered a fault at all if this was a series of blog posts. If this was a blog I could just take it as is, the rambling chaff of an intelligent person written on the fly, which contains numerous valuable nuggets. I would like to pay my respects to those specific parts of the book worthy of consideration while acknowledging the larger failings.

The book opens with a beautiful prologue about Schaeffer feeling the need to pray upon holding his grandchild and a sober summation of the danger of our ghettoized media culture where everyone has created their own news and reality filters. The book itself is divided into two sections. The first part, containing the central thesis of the book, confronts both the New Atheists and Christian Fundamentalists, who Schaeffer sees as having a lot more in common with each other than they themselves would wish to admit. In particular Schaeffer goes after Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, on the atheist front, and Rick Warren and the authors of the Left Behind series, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, on the fundamentalist front. The chapters on atheism are the weaker ones. They certainly fail to match up to Terry Eagleton’s Ditchkins attack. Even here, Schaeffer has his moments. I particularly liked his comparison of Dawkins selling Scarlet A Letter pins to his mother’s Gospel Walnuts, which, much to Frank’s embarrassment, she used to start witnessing conversations with random strangers. “So Dawkins, it turns out, is my mother, circa 1959! Hi Mom!” (pg. 30) This illustrates an important thing about Schaeffer; he is strongest when talking about his personal life and experiences. There is also something to be said for Schaeffer’s discussion of Dennett, mainly because Schaeffer is actually quite positive about certain elements of Dennett’s thought even if he comes to different conclusions.

Patience takes an upward swing when Schaeffer turns to fundamentalism. Again, I think this is because Schaeffer is one of those writers who is best when there is something personal at stake. One may find it interesting that Schaeffer would target someone like Warren, who has risen to fame largely on his reputation for being a more “liberal,” social-action evangelical preacher. Schaeffer main objection to Warren is that he sees Warren as an example of one of the principle weaknesses of the entire Protestant legacy, its lack of a tradition and the need, in the absence of such a tradition, to create larger than life cult-figures to stand in its place. This argument is one of Schaeffer’s valuable intellectual points and it is a pity that he, in both Patience and Crazy for God, does not delve more deeply into this issue. I would love to see Schaeffer do a book just on this point. It would make it even better if he did more to place this attack on Protestantism in the context of an explicitly Eastern Orthodox position. I suspect that Schaeffer fears, and probably rightfully so, that such a book would fail to reach a general audience. My thinking is that, in this religious climate, the most important thing for American Christians to see is a serious and vigorous Christianity, any Christianity, that is not Evangelicalism. Similarly, on my particular front of the religion wars, one of the key things to defeating Haredism is merely to show that such a thing as a serious non-Haredi Judaism even exists.

I loved the fact that Schaeffer discusses C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and the fact that the same Christian colleges that adore them would never put up with their drinking and their theology. I must object, though, to Schaeffer’s categorization of Lewis as someone who “ruined what could have been a decent literary career by slavishly working Christian propaganda into his ‘novels,’ especially once he began to cater to the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture after he became a star.” (pg. 102-103) Lewis, to the end of his life was a professor of literature, who incidentally wrote books on Christian apologetics and one of the best-selling series children’s books of all time. Lewis never tried to make a living from being a “star” on the Christian circuit. Even Lewis’ most propagandistic novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, are filled with elements from pagan mythology. Lewis, long after he became a "Christian star," wrote Till We Have Faces, a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth that remained explicitly pagan, and a Grief Observed, in which he muses over whether God is a cosmic sadist, torturing us for his own amusement. One of Lewis’ strengths was that he did not sell out; he was willing to put people out of their comfort zone. As a Tolkien fan, I will treasure Schaeffer’s description of one of his school teachers, Bubble:

Having Bubble for a master was something like having Gollum for a teacher. Only Bubble didn’t disgust us by gnawing raw fish. Rather, he revolted and riveted us by snorting huge quantities of filthy, face-staining snuff, he never bathed, and he smelled oddly of pepper and was clearly drunk at times, although he did know a lot about music and made science interesting. (pg. 132)

Schaeffer’s attack on LeHaye and Jenkins also deserves mention. Schaeffer remarks:

If I had to choose companions to take my chances with in a lifeboat, and the choice boiled down to picking Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, or Christopher Hitchens, I’d pick Hitchens in a heartbeat. At least he wouldn’t try to sink our boat so that Jesus would come back sooner. He might even bring along a case of wine. (pg. 109)

Schaeffer’s primary concern with LaHaye and Jenkins, though he knows them both and personally finds them to be decent people, is that they feed a radical element that could easily turn to violence in order to bring their particular version of the end about. Schaeffer again makes an important point about the religious right and its failings.

The words left behind are ironically what the books are about, but not in the way their authors intended. The evangelical/fundamentalists, from their crudest egocentric celebrities to their “intellectuals” touring college campuses trying to make evangelicalism respectable, have been left behind by modernity. They won’t change their literalistic anti-science, anti-education, anti-everything superstitions, so now they nurse a deep grievance against “the world.” (pg. 113-114)

The second half of Patience is largely a rehash of material from Crazy for God, with some more theology thrown in. At this point it is still interesting to hear Schaeffer talk about his life, even if it is beginning to wear a little thin. This takes time away from talking about belief. All the pity, because it is precisely this element that could have used more elaboration. It is fair enough to say that belief is something that goes beyond reason, but if one is going to go this route one needs to make all the greater effort for clarity and, dare I say it, “rationality” in one’s writing in order to avoid the obvious counter argument that one has lost the argument and is now trying to cover up that fact by hiding behind mystery. Every chapter of Patience is headed by a quotation from Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian thinker who best exemplifies this notion of faith as a leap into the absurd. It is unfortunate that Schaeffer did not make the effort to integrate Kierkegaard more into the book itself.

For those looking to understand how Kierkegaard can be made relevant to modern religious issues, Abraham Heschel wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk called a Passion for Truth. I would particularly recommend this book to readers of this blog. It is about analyzing a type of religious “fundamentalism” that instead of walking lock stock and barrel behind the establishment, attacks and ultimately rejects the religious establishment precisely because the establishment fails to live up to the true standards of the faith. This is the sort of thinking that tells you that anyone sporting clothing that costs thousands of dollars in a world in which children are starving is not a real Christian regardless of how “orthodox” the gospel he preaches sounds. On the topic of Jewish thinkers influenced by Kierkegaard, another person who comes to mind is Rabbi Josef Soloveitchik. I first learned about Kierkegaard from reading Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith which discusses Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Probably the greatest flaw in the book is the fact that it lacks any footnotes or even an index. For example I would be interested in finding out Schaeffer’s source for Baruch Spinoza (yes Schaeffer refers to him as Baruch and not Benedict) being offered one thousand florins to remain within the Jewish community. Such a story smacks of legend to me. This indicates a book that was rushed to print without much thought or effort. In the end, in judging this book, I feel like I am in the position of a teacher being handed a B paper by a talented student, whom the teacher knows could have done an A paper if only he had put in the effort. My inclination would be to hand the paper back and say: “Please go back and write the paper that I know you can.” Mr. Schaeffer, you have written a mediocre book. From most people I would accept this, but I know you can do better. You have the talent to write the sort of defense of non-fundamentalist religious beliefs that needs to be written. Could you please go back and write that book!


James Pate said...

Hi Izgad. I haven't read Patience yet, since I'm waiting for the price to fall on Amazon. But I know about the Gospel walnut from Schaeffer's Portofino!

One Schaeffer book I have that I haven't read yet is Dancing Alone, which is specifically about Eastern Orthodoxy. It's an old book, and it was written when Frank was much more right-wing than he is now. But you may find it helpful. And I got it more cheaply off Barnes and Noble than off of Amazon.

What you said about Rick Warren also stands out to me, since his name almost always appears nowadays in the context of "this right-wing Christian." But, like you, I thought he was more left-wing because of his focus on social justice. Maybe his avoidance of social justice issues in his candidates forum, as well as his support for Amendment 8, gave people the impression he was right-wing.

Dan - Israeli Uncensored News said...

It's all very fine to decry religious fundamentalism, but those who do so would better be honest and stop celebrating Chanukkah, our holiday when religious fundamentalists slaughtered liberals for good.

Izgad said...

Thank you James for the info.

Christopher Hitchens actually has an essay where he takes a similar line to yours. He argues that Hanukah was one of the great disasters of world history because it marked the victory of religious fundamentalism.
There are different ways to understand the events surrounding Hanukah. For example Jason of Cyrene, the author of Second Maccabees, understood Hanukah as a celebration of the joining of Jewish and Hellenistic cultures and the defeat of the radical Jewish Hellenists who betrayed both Judaism and Hellenism by trying to destroy Judaism. No less a person than Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that Hanukah celebrated Greek culture, which unlike “imperialist” Rome, is capable of dwelling side by side with Judaism.