Friday, August 28, 2009

Frank Schaeffer: Engaging the Mind through the Heart

Frank Schaeffer is a masterful storyteller. His Calvin Becker Trilogy recounts the adventures of Calvin Dort Becker, the son of Evangelical Christian missionaries in Switzerland, between the ages of ten and fifteen. The Calvin Becker Trilogy consists of these novels.

  • Portofino, about the Becker family's annual summer vacation in Portofino, Italy
  • Zermatt, about the Becker family's annual winter vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Saving Grandma, about the Becker family's experience when the outspoken, profane Grandmother Becker comes to live with them in Switzerland
I believe that Frank's message in the Calvin Becker Trilogy is the same as his message in his memoir, Crazy For God: there is a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity which, when carried to its extreme, will drive you crazy. We see this craziness unfold through the eyes of the life-loving and adventure-seeking young Calvin Becker. And Frank's wonderful storytelling takes us to such emotional depths that we experience the craziness not only with our minds but also with our hearts. I'll try to explain how this works for me.

HUMOR. The Calvin Becker Trilogy is funny--and I mean laughing-out-loud-for-minutes-and-minutes funny. The stories are constantly funny. What's funny? Calvin's theological misunderstandings are funny. Church splits over miniscule points of doctrine are funny. Grandmother Becker's profane outbursts are funny. Elsa Becker's extensive talks about sex with her children are funny. Puberty and sex are very, very funny. Obviously, my list isn't the least bit funny--but Frank's stories are! Sometimes as I'm going about my day in what I hope is a relatively sane manner, a Calvin Becker story will flash into my mind and I'll start laughing out loud!

BEAUTY. Frank weaves many passages of absolute beauty into the Calvin Becker Trilogy. I think of Frank's wonderful descriptions in Portofino of the town's aromas and of the sensuous meals the Becker family ate there. I also think of Calvin's memories and fantasies in Saving Grandma about his best friend, Jennifer from England, whom he sees only during his family's annual Portofino vacation. While taking care of Grandmother Becker back in Switzerland during the year, Calvin remembers and fantasizes about Jennifer: the time Jennifer's bathing suit strap slipped as she pushed off from the bottom of Portofino Bay, giving Calvin a view of her breasts; Calvin's fantasy of diving with Jennifer into the deep waters of an isolated cove and their struggle to regain footing on land; Calvin's fantasy of having sex with Jennifer for the first time. These are exquisite.

HORROR. Frank includes a few truly horrifying stories. One of the most horrifying is the beating Calvin receives from his father, Ralph Becker, for drinking alcohol at a yacht party. Frank's description of this incident causes me to gasp in horror. (I realize that I keep repeating the word, "horror," but this is truly the most fitting word here.)

THE WHOLE. The whole of the humor, the beauty, and the horror--told so masterfully by Frank and therefore experienced so deeply by me--affects me profoundly. The laughing out loud is enjoyable and opens me to "get" the point of the story. The beauty, too, has an opening effect. Then, somehow, the fact that I've laughed so heartily at Calvin's antics makes the horror all the more horrifying. I believe that I feel the horror more deeply because I've gone so far in the direction of laughing. I experience how funny this extreme version of Christianity can be and how horrifying. And the beauty Frank creates draws me in yet further. I find myself thoroughly enjoying the Calvin Becker Trilogy, experiencing a full emotional range, and receiving insight after insight about life and faith as a result of the way Frank engages my mind through my heart.

Thank you, Frank.

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