Sunday, October 25, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Marine Corps Novel: Baby Jack--Who Is God?

In my previous post, I wrote about the way God behaves in Frank Schaeffer's novel about the United States Marine Corps--Baby Jack. In this post, I will discuss what Frank Schaeffer may be trying to say about God through the character of God in Baby Jack.

Here is a summary of God's behavior in Baby Jack.

  • God doesn't seem to care about human suffering.
  • God enjoys drama.
  • God loves the pure in heart.
  • God has a sense of humor about religion.
  • God uses strong language.
  • God insults and injures Todd.
  • God extends grace to Todd through Jack's letter.

To me, it is key that God's behavior ultimately results in reconciliation among people who have been alienated from each other: Todd has been alienated from his son Jack, from Jack's girlfriend Jessica, and from his grandson Baby Jack whom Todd doesn't even know about.

I think that perhaps God's initial harshness with Todd through SDI Jackson is a way of bringing Todd face to face with the wrongness of his behavior. Todd is filled with grief because he did not communicate with Jack after Jack's departure for boot camp, and now Jack is dead and it is too late. But perhaps Todd needs to see that it goes deeper than this--that Todd's life has been about fulfilling his own ambitions while Jack's life has been about true service. And yet more--in opposing Jack's enlistment in the Marines, Todd was trying to get Jack's life also to be about fulfilling Todd's ambitions. Todd wanted to weave Jack's life story into his own, so that he could say proudly to his friends that he had a son with a successful career.

In addition, Todd hadn't wanted to relent and reach out to Jack because of his ingrained stubbornness--Todd had told Jack that he would never speak with Jack again if Jack went through with his enlistment in the Marines, and Todd did not want to appear "weak" by relenting. Besides all this, Todd had shown deep disrespect for Jack at Jack's funeral when Todd exploded in anger at the objects of Jack's service--the Marines and the United States flag.

I think that God wants to focus Todd's attention on Todd's own selfishness and its consequences, and physical pain is a harsh but effective means of focusing attention. There is also something very concrete about an injury, such as Todd's broken ribs. The injury can't be undone, just as Todd's behavior and its consequences can't be undone. I think that the broken ribs say this to Todd: "The consequences of your behavior toward Jack are just as real and concrete as your broken ribs." The broken ribs will heal, but not overnight and not with the snap of a finger.

Once Todd reaches this realization, as shown by his shouting "I'M SORRY, SIR!" to SDI Jackson, God gently helps Todd to stand up and then gives Todd a letter from Jack--a letter that Jack had written to his father and asked SDI Jackson to give to his father if Jack should be killed in action. SDI Jackson had decided never to give the letter to Todd after hearing how Todd had spit on the United States flag at Jack's funeral, but that decision is now reversed and Todd receives Jack's letter.

Jack's letter brings tremendous grace and healing. First, Jack explains his reasons for enlisting in the Marine Corps. Todd had been obsessed with wanting to know WHY his son had chosen military service. Receiving an answer to this WHY puts something to rest in Todd. Understanding why really does help Todd to accept Jack's choice.

Second, Jack asks his father to be kind to Jessica. As a result of this request in Jack's letter, Todd goes to visit Jessica and is introduced to Baby Jack, his grandson, with all the joy that accompanies a new family member. Baby Jack's two families, Jack's family and Jessica's family, are reconciled.

Third, Jack encourages Jessica to live her life and to love another man. This frees Jessica to open her heart to the Marine recruiter Patrick, whom she is starting to love and who has given indications that he would like to marry Jessica. This will also give Baby Jack a father in physical form on earth.

So God's behavior ultimately results in reconciliation. God even points out that Jack's death, painful as it was for his loved ones, resulted in Baby Jack's being alive. Jessica had been thinking of aborting her baby but decided to let the baby live when she heard that Jack was dead, as the baby was her means of connecting with Jack.

But what about God's indifference to human suffering on a general basis and God's enjoyment of drama even when this drama results in great pain? I can't help but think that this is our perception of God's behavior. God takes a longer view than we do, an eternal view. This is why God isn't so interested in saving souls, while the Marine Corps Drill Instructors work intensely to "save the souls" of their recruits. The Drill Instructors have only three months to turn their recruits from nasty civilians into disciplined Marines. God has eternity to "save" us. If we don't "get it" in this lifetime, we will have eternity to "get it"--either in the spirit world or in subsequent lifetimes on earth if reincarnation turns out to be part of reality. Maybe Frank Schaeffer is presenting us with a God who is just plain lively--a God who doesn't get bogged down in suffering, who appreciates the drama of life, who has a sense of humor, who expresses feelings with strong language. Maybe we can say this: God knows that the final outcome is assured, we will all be reconciled with God in the end, so God can relax and enjoy the process even when it goes awry temporarily, say for a few thousand years.

It's certainly true that people do better in life when they hold pain lightly, especially their own--when they take a larger view and focus on something greater than themselves and their painful circumstances. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was completely paralyzed as the result of a massive stroke--his only means of communication was to use eye blinks to spell out words on an alphabet chart--and yet who wrote a book using this blinking manner of communication. I also think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been paralyzed from the shoulders down as the result of a diving accident at age seventeen (she's now sixty) and who has led an active life as an artist (drawing with a pen between her teeth), an author, an actor, a public speaker, a wife, and the founder of an organization that promotes independence for people with handicaps. I think, too, of my friend Ellen, who has had a blood condition for years that restricts her activities, necessitates regular medical treatments, and often exhausts her, but Ellen enjoys an active life of reading, writing, French teaching, babysitting for friends, attending plays, gardening, entertaining, and engaging in stimulating conversations.

I also want to comment on God's love for the pure in heart, like First Sergeant Stan O'Malley. I think that, for Frank Schaeffer, being pure in heart means being a person whose words and actions match his or her thoughts. Jessica, Jack's girlfriend, is also someone like this. Once Jack is dead, he can swim inside his loved ones, and Jack says this of swimming in Jessica: "The amazing thing about Jessica is that what she says and what she is thinking is usually the same thing. With most people there's an internal conversation that's different from what they're saying. Swimming in them is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses. Thoughts and words overlap but not exactly. But with Jessica her thoughts and words are in sync" (page 256). I think Frank is saying that God deeply appreciates a person like this.

So maybe this is what Frank Schaeffer is saying about God in Baby Jack.

  • God is who God is, not who we want or need God to be.
  • God's actions may seem harsh from our perspective, but they ultimately offer grace and lead to reconciliation.
  • God is a lively God who enjoys the process of life, knowing that the final outcome will be well.
  • God loves those whose words and actions match their thoughts.

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