Saturday, December 26, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God--Problems of Integrity with Fundamentalism

In Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer goes to great lengths to illustrate the problems of integrity that plague fundamentalists. Frank understands these problems very well because he experienced them himself. In fact, the problems grew so intense for Frank that they eventually propelled him out of the fundamentalist fold. I also understand these problems because of my childhood experience on the fundamentalist side of Catholicism and later my membership in another fundamentalist Christian church some years ago.

Frank's message in the novels of his Calvin Becker Trilogy (Portofino, Zermatt, Saving Grandma), his memoir Crazy For God, and his most recent book Patience With God is that fundamentalist Christianity will drive you crazy. This is because fundamentalism does not match reality. The real world is based on paradox. Fundamentalism demands a certainty that is impossible. Thus, fundamentalists are constantly butting up against reality.

One huge problem is that fundamentalists are required to believe crazy things about God. The one that caused me the most problems in my Catholic childhood was trying to twist my mind inside out to hold these two ideas together--to believe that God loved me and that I loved God, and also to believe that God would clamp down immediately with harsh punishments for small infractions. After all, God demanded that a man be stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath as the Israelites wandered in the desert, God killed Uzza instantly for reaching out to steady the Ark of the Covenant on its way to Jerusalem, God would send me to hell for eternity if I missed Mass on Sunday or ate meat on Friday or had impure thoughts and then died before making a good confession, God sent people to hell for eternity if they denied God even in the face of excruciating torture. God was terrifying. I was terrified of God. But I had to believe that God loved me and that I loved God because it was a mortal sin not to do so. So I tried to convince myself that God loved me and that I loved God. The strain of trying to believe that a cosmic tyrant loved me and that I loved this tyrant was intolerable.

Another telling problem of integrity for fundamentalists is the way fundamentalists treat those among themselves who begin to question fundamentalist beliefs and who leave the fold. On page 26, Frank asks, "What does it say about the nature of faith in God that when a believer--say, a former evangelical/fundamentalist like me--questions his or her faith or changes it, there are otherwise seemingly sane people so threatened that they take the time to call down God's judgment on the questioner?" Frank points out that fundamentalists see themselves as a minority voice for "truth" in the face of a monolithic secular culture and that any depletion in their numbers frightens them. I also think that deserters suggest the intolerable idea that there may be holes in the fundamentalist belief system. To a fundamentalist, an unbeliever can be seen as ignorant, but a deserter KNEW. If fundamentalist truth is so compelling, how can an insider dissent? Could it be that fundamentalist faith has holes after all? Fundamentalists cannot face the thought that their belief system is not watertight, so they must destroy the deserter, whose very desertion suggests the possibility of holes.

Frank says that fundamentalists, particularly leaders, who continue in their fundamentalist beliefs end up in one of two ways. On page 147, Frank says that "they either go nuts . . . or they secretly quit believing but don't say so." Those who go nuts do so because, as Frank also says on page 147, "they are forced to try to reconcile the irreconcilable." They manage to stay in the fold, though, by strictly limiting their interactions to other fundamentalists, so that their beliefs, however crazy, receive constant reinforcement. Those who secretly quit believing are too frightened of life in the real world to voice their doubts openly. To leave the fold would mean having to find work in the real world and all they know how to do is to preach fundamentalism. Frank confesses that this is what kept him a fundamentalist for so long. Frank did finally leave because he courageously recognized that he was well on the way to losing his own soul if he stayed, for he was preaching what he knew to be a lie.

Tellingly, Frank says on page 100, "Making my final break with my evangelical/fundamentalist past was like turning on some sort of creative tap." On page 147, Frank says, "I started to treat Genie and my children better too. Unhappy men serving a weird, angry God make bad husbands, especially if 'serving God' provides an excuse for covering up (and thus never dealing with) one's faults in the name of protecting one's ministry." Also on page 147, Frank says, "And conversations became conversations rather than evangelistic ploys." In other words, when Frank left fundamentalism, things fell into place in terms of creativity and relationships.

I believe that this is another reason why Frank is so honest about his own failings in his books. I think that it is just such a sheer relief for him to tell the truth. As Frank says on page 105, ""As someone raised on the idea that my loyalty wasn't to the truth but to 'our faith,' writing the simple truth (as I understand it) still feels revolutionary. With my first novels it was such a relief to be writing whatever I wanted to write, where the point was to let the story's needs, rather than the needs of 'Christian' propaganda, let alone the rules of the Church Ladies (or even Orthodox propaganda), dictate the direction of my work."

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