Saturday, December 26, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God--Gospel Walnut and Its Implications

In his novel Portofino, Frank Schaeffer writes about the Gospel Walnut. The Gospel Walnut appears as the Beckers, a family of fundamentalist Christian missionaries in Switzerland, travel by train to their summer vacation destination of Portofino, Italy. Hoping to lead a fellow passenger to Jesus, Mrs. Becker pulls out one of her favorite witnessing tools: a walnut with a crank which, when turned, causes a multi-colored ribbon to emerge from the nut--first black for the damned condition of the unsaved sinner's soul, then red for the saving blood of Jesus, then white for the soul's pure state after accepting Jesus as Savior, and finally gold for the streets of heaven where the saved will go upon death. As his mother spools out the ribbon while giving her salvation spiel to the fellow passenger, ten-year-old Calvin cringes in embarrassment.

This is a very funny scene in Portofino, and I laughed out loud for minutes and minutes as I read it--but I assumed that, since this was a novel, Frank had made up the Gospel Walnut as a spoof of typical witnessing tools. Well, you can imagine my surprise upon reaching page 29 in Patience With God, a book of non-fiction, and reading this sentence: "When I was a young child, and to my eternal mortification, Mom used to carry something called the Gospel Walnut."

Oh, my God! I thought. The Gospel Walnut is REAL???!!! You have GOT to be kidding!!!!

My thoughts then continued, and not necessarily in a good direction. To return to my original reading of Portofino for a moment, there is a scene where Calvin's father beats Calvin severely with a belt for drinking alcohol at a yacht party. This scene is truly horrifying. I know that Frank Schaeffer drew heavily upon his own experience in writing Portofino, but Portofino is a novel, and I chose to just let that beating scene be fiction in my mind.

Somehow, though, when I read Patience With God and realized that the Gospel Walnut is real, my thoughts took this turn: Oh, my God! What else is real in Portofino? Maybe that beating scene is also real. Maybe that really happened to Frank. And I suddenly had the sensation of looking over the edge of a mental cliff, being poised above a frightening abyss, where horrible things happen to children, where Francis Schaeffer could have beaten his son Frank with a belt, where you can never ever be safe, where life is a horror and every moment is a terror, where . . .

And then the voice of sanity welled up: Stop. Just stop. Now back up. Back away from that cliff edge. Good. Now think about this from your adult perspective.

And, of course, I was able to do so. Maybe Frank Schaeffer was beaten with a belt as a child. Far too many children are beaten with belts and abused in other ways.

Although it's ultimately not my business which parts of Portofino actually happened and which are fictional, I nonetheless have some thoughts about this. I absolutely think that Frank was working things out internally by writing Portofino. Yes, he was also writing a novel and telling a marvelous story and hoping to earn his living as a writer. In addition, I believe he was doing some important internal work.

I haven't seen any reference to Francis Schaeffer beating his children in any of Frank's non-fiction works, though Frank does write non-fictionally about his father's abuse, both verbal and physical, of his mother. If Francis Schaeffer did beat Frank, probably the only way Frank can write about it is fictionally. It's probably too painful for him to include in a non-fiction book, such as his memoir. In fact, I heard Frank say in an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" that there are things that were too painful to include in Crazy For God and that readers can draw their own further conclusions from what is there.

I conclude that Frank Schaeffer is an inspiration. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian enclave that was in many ways crazy-making. He tells us that he witnessed his father's abuse of his mother and that he and his sisters used to huddle together in one bed as his father raged. I'll bet, too, that Frank sometimes suffered beatings from his father. Frank has also had to contend with severe dyslexia, depression, and his own anger. He grew up in an environment where all of the above had to be covered up for the sake of the ministry.

Yet Frank has turned out to be a truth-teller, unflinchingly honest about his own faults. He has become a marvelous writer and story-teller. He has found a way to be a Christian with integrity within the Greek Orthodox Church. He has grown in humility over the years. He loves his parents and chooses to emphasize the many good things in his up-bringing. I admire him.


  1. I know this is a few years after your post, and you have probably already come across this info, but I think it's interesting that Frank also suffered from having polio as a boy and had to overcome great pain while learning to walk again. I believe he worked for years to become free of a limp or irregular gait. What a life experience! And how uniquely odd!

  2. I have one of those. It was just called "Gospel Nut" when it was sold. :-) The ribbon changes colors, and there are things to say about each color, as it's cranked back in. Very odd.