Monday, May 30, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: The Blessing in the Shadow Part II

In this post, I will try to show something of how Frank Schaeffer moves from revealing the shadow side of L'Abri in Crazy for God to revealing the blessing within that shadow in Sex, Mom, & God. First, I will zero in on the way Frank tells the story of his mother's almost love affair with a sensitive young poet in the two books. Then, I will compare the shadow within Edith, the blessing withing Edith, and the blessing for Frank.

I will begin with Edith's almost love affair. After reading the two accounts of this in Crazy for God and in Sex, Mom, & God, I would describe what actually happened like this. A sensitive young poet, twenty years younger than the very youthful-looking Edith, showed up at L'Abri and began to pay Edith special attention. Edith and this young man spent time in the woods together and prayed together. The young man collected ferns and flowers for Edith's artistic table arrangements. He understood Edith on a soul level in a way that Edith's husband, Fran, simply could not. He also asked Edith to marry him, but he and Edith never went so far as to have sexual intercourse. In the end, though, he went away, and Edith remained married to Fran.

In Crazy for God, Frank tells us the story of this almost love affair in a way that emphasizes Edith's failing. Here is what Frank says on pages 216-217:

On some days, Mom was hiding bruises on her arms; on other days, she was flirting shamelessly with Roger, a handsome "sensitive poet" from San Francisco, twenty years younger than her. This was the source of my parents' biggest fights.

Mom would take Roger to pray with her in the woods, to her prayer trees--a great and unique honor!--where he would collect moss, twigs, and flowers and make lovely Japanese-style arrangements. Dad was reduced to glaring fury by these activities. He never so much as picked a bunch of flowers, and now here comes this Roger, writing poems, empathizing with Mom's "if-only" wistful remembrances of opportunities lost, and endlessly seeking her spiritual advice.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank tells this story at greater length and with far greater sensitivity to his mother. Here,
Frank emphasizes Edith's longing for someone who understood her deeply and Edith's brave and selfless ultimate choice of her husband, her family, and continuity. On page 91, Frank speaks of his mother's need with sensitivity and understanding:

I think she also ached for someone in her bed who understood her flower arrangements soul to soul.

For Edith to contemplate a relationship with this young man--something so out of keeping with her professed beliefs--shows how deep her inner ache and longing must have been. For Edith to choose her family in the end shows how deep her sense of what is right must have been. Edith's ache and longing and her commitment to what is right--not Edith's failing--is what comes across in Sex, Mom, & God, where Frank recognizes not only the shadow but also the blessing within the shadow.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank describes the paradox that was his mother--a woman deeply committed to a narrow Christian fundamentalist worldview and to what she understood as God's restrictive call on her life yet also deeply committed to beauty and creativity. Within this paradox are shadow and blessing. The shadow is emphasized in Crazy for God, the blessing in Sex, Mom, & God.

THE SHADOW IN EDITH. The shadow predominates in Crazy for God. Edith drives her family crazy with the way she practices her faith. She prays long prayers before meals. She turns every conversation into an opportunity to witness for the Lord. She invades her children's privacy by sharing their private moments with others as illustrations of how God works. She overloads her children with sex information. She neglects Frank's education because she is so busy with the L'Abri ministry. She subtly criticizes her husband and his working-class background. She flirts with a sensitive young poet who visits L'Abri.

THE BLESSING IN EDITH. The blessing predominates in Sex, Mom, & God. Edith welcomes marginalized people to L'Abri; in Edith's mind, there should be no such thing as a marginalized person. Young pregnant women, for example, are welcomed and guided through their pregnancies. Edith loves literature and reads nightly to her children from the great literature of the world. Edith loves music and takes her children to concerts and operas. Edith loves art and nature and prepares beautiful artistic flower arrangements for the home. Edith is a wonderful and beloved grandmother to Frank's children. Edith gives up her opportunity for a soul-mate life-partner in favor of faithfulness to her husband and family and of providing continuity for them. Edith has the soul of a dancer and an artist. I should mention that the blessing of Edith also comes through in Crazy for God, but the shadow predominates in that book, while the blessing predominates in Sex, Mom, & God.

THE BLESSING FOR FRANK. In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank shows that his mother has been a great blessing to him. On page 91, Frank says, "I simply chose to follow the 'other' Edith Schaeffer, the one whose heart was elsewhere than in the lifeless theories she paid lip-service to." In following the "other" Edith Schaeffer, Frank has been greatly blessed. Here are some blessings that I see in Frank's life, stemming from his mother's legacy:

  • AN ARTIST'S LIFE. First, Frank loves art and derives great pleasure from art--visual art, music, film, writing. Second, Frank practices art and enjoys the flowering of his own creativity. He does this in writing, painting, cooking, and gardening, to name a few fields of his creative endeavors.
  • PARADOX. Although Edith espoused a one-right-way-only view of Christianity, she herself was a paradox in that she professed belief in a narrow version of "truth" yet practiced a wide love of people, the world, and art. Frank picked up on this paradox in his mother. The fact that Edith herself embodied paradox may have helped to pave the way for Frank to embrace a different version of Christianity, one that emphasizes life as paradox and God as Mystery. It is worth noting that Frank was able to see paradox within Christianity itself--he did not feel that he had to reject Christianity and move into some other belief system. While it is certainly fine to move into a different belief system, it is also good to recognize the many possibilities within one's own. Frank moved from the evangelical fundamentalist version of Christianity to the Greek Orthodox version. Christianity itself embraces the paradox of those who hold to a rigid and literal interpretation of the Bible with very exact and certain ideas about God as well as those who interpret the Bible more selectively and welcome the Mystery of God.
  • FRANK'S WIFE, GENIE. Frank married a wonderful wife, Genie, whom he loves deeply. Frank seems to have found in his marriage the depth of love that his mother craved. An important factor is that Frank chose Genie with his heart, not his head. Ideas of God and God's will or God's call were not part of Frank's choice of Genie, as I think they were in Edith's choice of Fran. When Edith chose Fran, she was (I believe) coming from the Christian fundamentalist side of herself, causing her to see Fran as a man with a firm dedication to God that matched her own and a strong intellect to support his beliefs. Edith's passionate artistic side would have chosen Fran as a friend but not as a husband. Frank, in contrast, chose Genie because his heart leaped toward her from the moment he first saw her. Clearly, this was a strong physical attraction, yet Frank's descriptions of his now forty-year marriage and his ever-deepening love for Genie indicate that the attraction went beyond the physical to the soul level. Frank shares with Genie the type of love that Edith craved to share with her husband. In choosing Genie, Frank was following the "other" Edith Schaeffer.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: The Blessing in the Shadow Part I

What impresses me most about Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Sex, Mom, & God, is that Frank has moved from revealing the shadow in his Christian fundamentalist upbringing to revealing the blessing in that shadow. In this post, I will explain what I have seen over the years of Frank's parents' ministry and later of Frank's books. In my next post, I will focus specifically on how Frank's latest book reveals the blessing in the shadow.

Frank's parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, were U.S. American evangelical fundamentalist Christian missionaries to Switerzerland, where they founded the L'Abri ministry. L'Abri, which now has branches all over the world, began at the Schaeffer home in the beautiful Swiss Alps, where people would come to ask heartfelt life questions that they were struggling with. At L'Abri, the guests would receive well-thought-out biblical answers provided by Frank's father and the lovely hospitality of Frank's mother.

Francis and Edith Schaeffer complemented each other in the L'Abri work. Francis Schaeffer was a scholar not only of the Bible but also of popular culture and of art history. He could discuss the songs of Bob Dylan, the poetry of Alan Ginsberg, the philosophy of Timothy Leary, and the art of Salvador Dali, and he could show how the Bible provides answers to the issues raised by these contemporaries. Edith Schaeffer served lovely dinners and teas, provided spiritual counsel, and generally ministered to the more personal needs of the L'Abri guests. The Schaeffers also opened their home to people in need, particularly to unmarried pregnant women. The Schaeffers helped these young women through their pregnancies, accompanied them during the birth of their babies, and coached them through the initial months of motherhood.

Francis and Edith Schaeffer were also prolific authors. Francis Schaeffer's books set forth the ideas on which L'Abri is based, and Edith Schaeffer's books describe the personal side of the ministry. I read almost all of Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books as they were being published, mostly while I was in my twenties. This was at a time when I was trying to follow a version of Christianity that had some fundamentalist overtones.

I loved what I knew of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Their ideas and life seemed to validate what I believed. Francis was so clear and logical, and the entire Schaeffer family was so dedicated to their Christian beliefs and to following the Lord. When I speak of the entire Schaeffer family, I mean Francis and Edith Schaeffer's four children (Priscilla, Susan, Debby, and Frank) and all their grandchildren. I learned about this through Edith Schaeffer's books. Priscilla & John Sandri, Susan & Ranald Macauley, Debby & Udo Middlemann, and Genie & Frank Schaeffer--all were raising wonderul Christian families.

So, with Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books, I absorbed the attractive side of the L'Abri ministry, filled with the light of logic, beauty, and love. Then, I learned that Frank Schaeffer is now writing books with quite another take on L'Abri. In his Calvin Becker novel trilogy and in his memoir Crazy for God, Frank writes about the shadow side of this ministry. Here are some of the things we learn in Crazy for God:

  • Francis Schaeffer had a mood disorder that caused him, at times, to be angry or depressed. The anger often took the form of physical abuse of Edith. The depression often took the form of threats to kill himself.
  • Edith was a powerhouse of energy who wore out her daughters and other L'Abri workers, none of whom could keep up with her. The eldest Schaeffer daughter, Priscilla, actually suffered several complete nervous breakdowns.
  • Edith overloaded her children with sexual information that was inappropriate for their ages.
  • Francis and Edith Schaeffer neglected Frank's education because they were so busy with L'Abri.
  • The "call of God" bound Francis and Edith Schaeffer to the L'Abri ministry and prevented them from enjoying professions that would have been much more fulfilling for them: art history and popular culture scholar for Francis and dancer for Edith.
  • Powerful chains bind professional Christians, especially second-generation ones, to their ministries and make it very difficult to break away when disillusionment sets in. These chains include the need for certainty, the perceived lack of preparation to do anything in life but continue the work of their parents, and the access to money and power.

All of this and more is revealed in Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God. What a different picture of L'Abri this gives us! L'Abri was not simply a place of truth and love, as depicted in Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books. L'Abri also had a dark side, a shadow side.

But even this doesn't complete the picture. Recognizing the light and recognizing the dark is not the end of the story. Frank demonstrates this in his latest book, Sex, Mom, & God, which goes a step further. In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank reveals the blessing in the shadow. In my next post, I will show how Frank reveals to us the blessing in the shadow.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: Bible Interpretation

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank Schaeffer writes a great deal about how we interpret the Bible. Frank himself grew up in a home where the Bible was interpreted literally: God created the world in six actual days (Genesis 1:1-2:3); Adam and Eve were actual people who ate an actual piece of fruit in disobedience to God's command and were thereafter banished from an actual Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4-3:24); the sun actually stood still for an extra twenty-four hours so that Joshua could finish his battle against the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-14); Jonah was swallowed by an actual big fish and lived three days in its belly before being vomited back up (Jonah 1:17-2:10); and so on. Frank grew up with the idea that it was important to believe, literally, everything that the Bible says because the Bible is directly inspired by God, and God does not make mistakes.

Unfortunately, as Frank points out, the God of the Bible says and does a great many terrible things--things that would be considered seriously wrong if anyone else said or did them. The God of the Bible sanctions sexual slavery of virgin women captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), commands the slaughter of conquered men and women and children (I Samuel 15:3), orders the stoning to death of Israelites who gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), and personally kills Uzzah for reaching up to steady the Arc of the Covenant when God had said that no one but the Levites must touch it (II Samuel 6:6-7).

Trying to believe that God is all-good and all-loving while also believing that God condones sexual slavery, deliberate war-time killing of civilians including children and infants, and the death penalty for disobedience of minor commands requires some mind-twisting mental gymnastics. We wind up denying what our hearts tell us about good and evil so that we can affirm that otherwise evil actions are good simply because God is the one who does them. After all, if God does something, it has to be good, right? So, somehow, all this God-endorsed sexual slavery and civilian killing must be good simply because it is endorsed, or even committed, by God. When I was trying to so believe, I found this a terrible mental and emotional strain (as did Frank).

But then one day I actually found myself thinking something like this: Wait a minute. We are constantly told that we have to accept God's actions as good simply because God does them and that we must measure our own thoughts and words and actions by what the Bible says. But suppose we turn this around. Suppose we measure the words and actions of the God of the Bible by what our own hearts tell us. How about that, for a change?

Frank says something similar. First, Frank makes a distinction between the God of the Bible and the actual God who really created the universe. On page 83, Frank makes this wonderful statement, which I love: "[M]aybe the best thing a believer in God can do is to declare that a lot of the Bible is hate-filled blasphemy--against God." Wow! Those parts of the Bible where God is depicted as condoning such atrocities as sexual slavery and civilian killing are actually evil lies against God! How terrible to feel trapped into believing that one must honor and defend these despair-producing lies!

And these lies are despairing-producing. I remember my mother expressing to me how trapped she felt within the Catholic Church. She told me that she was afraid to leave the Catholic Church because it might actually all be true and she would find herself condemned to hell for eternity for rejecting the One True Church. On the other hand, my mother was also concerned that, when she died, she would find herself before the Real God, who would say to her, "I condemn you to hell for being a Catholic." How awful to believe that maybe the Real God condemns the Catholic Church and the Bible and the people who adhere to them, but then maybe the Catholic Church and the Bible are all true and people who reject them are the ones who will be condemned. How awful to believe that, whoever God may be, God is caught up with condemning.

The idea expressed above, that God is in the business of condemning, is despair-producing. I think that it is very important to realize that, when an idea is despair-producing, it is wrong. This should be a rule of thumb: When an idea leads to despair, let us reject that idea. If we think about God and feel despair, we can be sure that there is something seriously wrong with our ideas of God. This doesn't mean that we reject painful facts; it does mean that we refuse to interpret those facts in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that I am facing an imminent and inevitable death, I can accept that fact in a peaceful rather than in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that we are destroying our earth with pollution (and this should be clear to us), we can accept this fact and work to change our direction rather than succumb to despair.

Well, back to what Frank says about interpreting the Bible and God's words and actions therein. After stating that the Real God may not approve of the God of the Bible, Frank says that the sane way to interpret the Bible is with our hearts. On page 87, Frank says:

To reject portions of the Bible is not necessarily to reject God or even the essence of Christianity. A great deal of the Bible is contradicted by the Love that predates it and, more importantly, survives in you and me. And that Love edits the Bible for us. Call that editing the Holy Spirit, or call it a more evolved sense of ethics and human rights, but most people know what to follow and what to reject when it comes to how they live. Sacrifice for others, not sacrifice of others, is the message of the "better angels" of spiritual faith.

To boil this down to its essence, Frank says that "Love edits the Bible for us." Yes! Yes! Yes! You are so right, Frank. LOVE EDITS THE BIBLE FOR US! Our hearts shout out: No! Sexual slavery is wrong! Slavery itself is wrong! Deliberate war-time killing of civilians is wrong! Our hearts know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

Our hearts, informed by love, know how to edit the Bible. Here is an example.
When we read, "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters" (Colossians 3:22a), our hearts say, No! Slavery itself is wrong! When we read, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Timothy 2:12), our hearts say, No! Women are not inferior to men! But when we read, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), our hearts say, Yes! Yes! Yes!

Frank points out that there is much good in the Bible. Our hearts know how to zero in on the good and reject the bad. Frank also says that the Bible can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it is interpreted. On page 99, Frank says, "Sometimes belief in the Bible leads to building a hospital. Sometimes it leads to justifying perpetual war and empire building. Same book--different interpretation."

I will end this post with a final thought: It is an act of maturity to move away from swallowing, whole and literally, whatever the Bible says and to move into interpreting the Bible with one's own heart informed by love. Frank shares this idea on pages 86-87 of Sex, Mom, & God by quoting from page 168 of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). So here is what Thom Stark (as quoted by Frank) has to say:

An infallible Jesus, just like a set of infallible scriptures, is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development. To have a book or a messenger dropped from heaven, the likes of which is beyond the reach of all human criticism, is a dangerous shortcut. It is no wonder humans have always attempted to create these kinds of foundations. And it is a revelation of God's character, from my perspective, that cracks have been found in each and every one of those foundations.

To expect the Bible to give us all the answers in a literal and wholesale way is a mark of immaturity. For God to provide such ready-made answers, says Thom Stark, would be to cut short our spiritual development. In fact, says Thom Stark, God shows God's character by refusing to provide us with ready-made answers even when we clamor for them (just as a good parent shows his or her character by refusing to give in to a child's clamoring to gorge on unhealthy sweets). No, God insists on supporting our maturity. The Bible will not work as a wholesale revelation dropped directly into our laps from God. The Bible will only work when we interpret it with our hearts informed by love.

Frank Schaeffer, thank you so much for this beautiful truth: We interpret the Bible through the love in our hearts!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: Appreciation for My Own Sex Education

One result of reading Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, is that I have come away with a greater appreciation for the way my own parents taught me about sex. In fact, they did a very good job of providing me with appropriate information.

Before reading Sex, Mom, & God, I had always compared my parents with parents who never breathed a word to their children about sex--and I was grateful that my parents had talked to me about these matters. After reading Sex, Mom, & God, I now realize that it is possible to give one's children too much information about sex or inappropriate information. Frank Schaeffer's mother, for example, revealed to Frank that his father required her to have sex every single night
, she showed Frank (when he was eight years old) the diaphragm she used to space her children, and she talked to Frank so much about sex and the importance of doing it only with one's spouse after one's wedding that Frank could think of nothing but when and how he might have sex!

Here are some of the points my parents followed when talking with me about sex.

LET THE CHILD GUIDE THE KIND AND AMOUNT OF INFORMATION. My parents simply answered my questions about sex or where babies come from. If I asked a question, they simply answered it and let it go at that. If I asked more follow-up questions or wanted to have a discussion, then they went along. They didn't push information at me. In contrast, when Frank asked a question, this seemed to open an unstoppable fountain of information from his mother on the topic of sex.

USE CORRECT TERMS. My parents used correct terms, such as menstruation, intercourse, vagina, uterus, and penis, when talking to me about reproduction. Frank's mother used euphemisms, such as falling off the roof for menstruation and little thing for penis.

DO NOT SHARE YOUR PERSONAL SEX LIFE WITH YOUR CHILDREN. My parents never used themselves as examples or talked about what they themselves did in their sex life together. They talked about the man and the woman or the husband and the wife.

DO NOT SURROUND SEX WITH WARNINGS. My parents did not go on and on about the importance of being a virgin on one's wedding night or saving oneself for one's spouse or the danger that boys and men might pose. They did always put sex within the context of marriage when they talked about it, but they did so in a natural way, as though it were a given that sex would be performed within marriage. They said things like this: "When a man and a woman get married, they show their love for each other in a very special way." Or: "Husbands and wives show their love for each other in a special way."

Now, here are some other interesting things about my sex education from my parents.

SILENT PARENTS OF THEIR OWN. My parents had parents of their own who never breathed a word about sex to them as they were growing up. This is true of my father's parents and of my mother's parents. Sex was a taboo subject in their households. My parents decided to do things differently with their own children. They decided to answer their children's questions as those questions arose, and to give clear information using correct terms. Both my father and my mother would answer questions about sex.

OTHER SOURCES. My parents also provided other sources of information. My mother gave me a booklet about menstruation and arranged for me to attend optional talks about menstruation given for fifth and sixth grade girls at my school. She explained that it would be good for me to have these other explanations as well as her own, and I did like having the booklet and attending the talks with other girls in my class. I might mention that I attended a Catholic girls school, and the talks were given by the father of a girl in the class two years ahead of me. He was a gynecologist, and his talks were interesting and informative. For some girls in my class, these talks were all the information they got about menstruation because they had parents who would not breathe a word about these subjects.

CURIOSITY ABOUT HOW IT'S ACTUALLY DONE. While Frank's sex education caused him to want to have sex as soon as possible, mine did not have the same effect. Having a boy or a man put his penis into my vagina just didn't sound like something I'd want to participate in. Frank was curious to try it, but I was curious to see it done. I just couldn't imagine even how it was initiated. Or, if I did try to imagine it, I imagined something like this. One spouse says to the other, "Well, shall we have intercourse now?" The other spouse says, "Okay." So they both pull down their pants and the husband puts his penis into the wife's vagina, sends the sperm up into her uterus, and takes out his penis. Then they pull up their pants and go about their business.

From this, you can gather that my parents didn't provide much information about what leads up to the actual act of intercourse.

Anyway, so curious was I about how intercourse was actually negotiated that I once asked my mother, "Mommy, the next time you and Daddy do this, can you let me watch to see how it's done?" My mother very nicely explained that, no, I couldn't watch because this was a very special way that married people showed love for each other and it was private.

SEX OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE. My parents always assumed a marriage context when they talked about sex. They didn't push this overtly, but they always talked about the husband and the wife. This eventually caused me to wonder what would happen if a man and a woman had intercourse but weren't married. Did this ever happen, I wondered. And it it did, would it work. That is, could intercourse lead to a baby if the two people weren't married. I vaguely remember asking about this and being told that, yes, two unmarried people could have intercourse, but it was very wrong. I can't remember if I asked about the baby.

OMISSIONS. There were some omissions in my sex education. My parents never said much about foreplay, and they didn't mention homosexual sex. But this was in the 1950s and 1960s, so homosexual sex wasn't much talked about anyway.

UNFORTUNATE RESTRICTION. My parents did put an unfortunate restriction on the topic of sex. They often told me that this was a special topic that should be discussed only with Mommy or Daddy, not with other people. Their idea was that they didn't want me to receive misinformation from unreliable sources, such as other kids. But this meant that I couldn't talk with friends about our bodies without disobeying, so I missed out on conversations that I think it would have been good to have with my friends. (I wish I hadn't obeyed this injunction from my parents as long as I did.)

MORE UNFORTUNATE FACTS. Another unfortunate fact was that my father could be quite frightening with his rages, so I thought it best to avoid men as much as possible. As a child, I remember thinking that the world was set up to be painful in so many ways. One of those ways was the institution of marriage, where a woman would have to share her life with one of those frightening men. I wondered why it wasn't possible for two women to share their lives together. (I didn't realize that it was possible because I had never heard of it.) I wasn't thinking of this in a sexual way--as far as I knew, there was no way for two women to have sex, and I didn't experience sexual attraction to women. I was thinking of it in a friendly way--two women living together and sharing their lives and maybe even raising children. How safe and comfortable that would be. I wondered why no one had considered it.

Another unfortunate fact is that I was being raised in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Probably because I had a rageful father, I tended to zero in on the rageful aspects of God the Father as presented by the Catholicism of the time. I zeroed in, for example, on how a person could be sent to hell for just one unconfessed mortal sin, such as impure thoughts. We learned things like this at my Catholic girls school, and I don't think my parents were aware of how this aspect of my Catholic education was affecting me internally. I was learning that sex was bad, some parts of my body were off-limits even to me, touching those parts of my body was bad, and thinking about those parts of my body or those parts of others' bodies was bad. When one is going through puberty, it is not easy to avoid thinking about what is happening within one's body! And yet this was a sin (or so I thought)!

My parents would never have agreed with this heavy sex/sin connection. They were a voice of reason on the few occasions when I did ask them a question that seemed to relate sex (or just bodies) and sin. For example, I remember once dreaming about running around naked with other girls in my class. I think I was about eight at the time of this dream. I was worried that this dream might have been a mortal sin since it obviously involved thinking about naked bodies. After all, dreaming takes place in one's mind, so dreaming about naked bodies would be the same as thinking about naked bodies, which would be indulging in impure thoughts. Fortunately, I asked my mother about this, and she explained that we did not have control over our dreams, so a dream could not be a sin. (I can't remember if she commented on my underlying belief that thinking about naked bodies was a sin--perhaps she did--but I know that she would not have subscribed to such a belief.)

Well, to get back to my original thought, I am grateful that both my mother and my father in his better moods gave me good information about sex. Some people get no information from their parents, and others (like Frank) get an overload!

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God

One of my favorite authors, Frank Schaeffer, has just come out with a new book: Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.

Frank is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, evangelical fundamentalist Christian missionaries to Switzerland, who founded the L'Abri ministry, where Francis Schaeffer provided thoughtful biblical answers to visitors' life questions and Edith Schaeffer served lovely dinners and teas and ministered to the more personal needs of the guests. Francis and Edith Schaeffer espoused a literal view of the Bible, a view that Frank has since rejected in favor of a spirituality that honors the Mystery of God rather than certainty about God. Frank has written about the shadow side of L'Abri in his memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank illuminates each word in the three-part title:

  • SEX: his unusually explicit and early sex education
  • MOM: his unusually creative and energetic mother, Edith Schaeffer
  • GOD: his conflicted relationship with the God of the (very literally interpreted) Bible

One of Frank's key messages in Sex, Mom, & God is that our thoughts are tethered to our feelings; that is, the carefully constructed intellectual framework of our worldview is often undergirded by strong emotions and psychological currents. In fact, Frank shows how, in his own life, Sex and Mom and God all generated feelings that led to the extreme Christian fundamentalist stance of his young adulthood during which he worked diligently (and angrily) to convert the United States to a Bible-believing nation, as well as to his later embrace of a God of Mystery, his growing comfort with not knowing the exact nature of Ultimate Reality, and his own life of creativity.

Now, here are some wonderful points about Sex, Mom, & God.

STORY: Frank is a gifted storyteller. Frank's stories are charming, outrageous, and often hilarious. Two of them particularly stand out. In one, Frank describes how he sculpted an ice woman and then tried to have sex with it as a child. In the other, Frank recounts
how his childhood bath-time was supervised by a kind-hearted babysitter who was obsessed with the Queen of England.

THOUGHT/FEELING CONNECTION: In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank juxtaposes stories and essays to illustrate his points. The essay-type parts of the book are fascinating. As a former extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalist, Frank understands that mindset from the inside. From his own experience, Frank knows that the intellectual gloss of fundamentalist thought is undergirded by strong emotions and psychological needs. Frank excels at making these thought/feeling connnections clear and vivid.

Having read Sex, Mom, & God, I now have a far better understanding of why it is so very difficult for fundamentalists to recognize the paradoxes of life and the possibility that there may be other equally valid ways to truth besides their own, of why the second generation of Christian fundamentalist preachers like Franklin Graham tend to become more extreme and strident than their fathers, and of why the pro-life and pro-choice factions have become so terribly polarized on the issue of abortion.

THE BLESSING IN THE SHADOW: This is the most wonderful thing about Sex, Mom, & God. Sex, Mom, & God is a gentler book than Crazy for God, where Frank, who is an inveterate truth-teller, reveals the shadow side of his parents and their ministry. In Crazy for God, we learn that Francis and Edith Schaeffer had some serious weaknesses that were kept hidden so as not to tarnish their Christian ministry. Now, in Sex, Mom, & God, we see the blessing in the shadow.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank presents us with some of the stories about Edith Schaeffer from Crazy for God, but in a very different light. A case in point is Edith's almost love affair with a sensitive young artist. It is fascinating to compare the way Frank tells this story in the two books. In Crazy for God, we see Edith's failing; in Sex, Mom, & God, we see Edith's courage and love for her family.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank honors his mother, Edith Schaeffer. Edith was a tremendously creative, life-loving, and energetic woman who was not able to fulfill her deepest longings because of her dedication to what she believed to be God's call on her life. On page 91, Frank describes his mother like this: "Edith Schaeffer herself was the greatest illustration of the Divine beauty of Paradox I've encountered. She was a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her own judgmental rules in favor of creativity."

I especially love this sentence on page 91: "Mom was just so un-Edith-Schaeffer-like in person!" And I absolutely love Frank's response to his experience with his mother, also on page 91: "I simply chose to follow the 'other' Edith Schaeffer, the one whose heart was elsewhere than in the lifeless theories she paid lip-service to."

I, too, am very thankful that Frank chose to follow the "other" Edith Schaeffer!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Harry Potter: Thestrals

A very interesting creature in the Harry Potter novels is the thestral, a creature that figures prominently in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

We first meet a thestral when Harry and his friends prepare to enter the carriages that will take them from the Hogsmeade train station to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts. In previous years, the carriages have appeared horseless and have propelled themselves from the train station to the Hogwarts castle with no visible means of locomotion. This year, however, Harry notices that the carriages are being pulled by a strange horse-like creature, described on pages 196-197, like this:

The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts; if he [Harry] had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither--vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves.

Interestingly, Harry's friends cannot see these creatures, except for Luna Lovegood. Only Harry and Luna can see the thestrals. To the others, it appears that the carriages are moving forward under their own invisible means of locomotion.

Later, we learn more about thestrals, and as we and Harry and his friends learn about them, the thestrals become much dearer. Here is a later description of the thestrals from page 762, as Harry and his friends are preparing to mount them to get to the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic in London to rescue Harry's godfather, Sirius Black.

Harry whirled around. Standing between two trees, their white eyes gleaming eerily, were two thestrals, watching the whispered conversation as though they understood every word.

"Yes!"" he whispered, moving toward them. They tossed their reptilian heads, throwing back long black manes, and Harry stretched out his hand eagerly and patted the nearest one's shining neck. How could he ever have thought them ugly?

As it turns out, thestrals can fly, which means that they can carry a rider from one place to another quite quickly.

Also--and here is the most interesting point about thestrals and the reason that Harry and Luna can see them while their friends cannot--Thestrals can only be seen by people who have seen death. Prior to his fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry could not see the thestrals because he had not seen death. However, at the end of his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry saw the death of Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory during the Triwizard Tournament; therefore, when Harry arrives at Hogwarts for his fifth year, the thestrals are visible to him. Luna saw the death of her mother when Luna was a little girl, so the thestrals have been visible to Luna from her first year at Hogwarts.

I believe that there is a deep truth behind the thestrals and the fact that they are visible only to those who have seen death. The truth is that some experiences are key to seeing, or understanding, certain things. Here are some of those key experiences:

  • Deep loss: loved one, work, health or physical capacity, home and possessions, freedom
  • Giving birth to a child
  • Living on one's own

Each of these experiences, and I am sure that there are others, opens our eyes and our hearts to see and to know things that we would never see or know otherwise.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Harry Potter: Squibs

In reading the Harry Potter novels, I have found myself very interested in squibs. A squib is a non-magical person born to magical parents.

The Harry Potter novels divide people into two groups: magical and non-magical. Magical people are witches and wizards. Non-magical people are called muggles. Every person is born either magical or non-magical, meaning that magical ability or the lack thereof is innate. If a person is born a muggle, there is nothing that he or she can do to procure magical ability.

Muggle parents sometimes produce magical children. Unfortunately, magical parents sometimes produce non-magical children, but this appears to be rather rare. Nonetheless, it does happen. A non-magical person born to magical parents is called a squib.

Magical people -- witches and wizards -- tend to look down on squibs. But they shouldn't, because being a squib is not a matter of choice.

It is interesting, though, the way J. K. Rowling introduces squibs -- she does so in a way that actually invites us, the readers, to look down on them. The first squib we meet is Argus Filch, the castle caretaker at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Filch is not a sympathetic character. He hates Hogwarts students and is always trying to catch them breaking school rules so that they can be punished. Filch would like very much to bring back the severe punishments of older days, such as whipping students, chaining them up, and hanging them by the feet or the hands. The fact that Filch is a squib is discovered when Harry Potter finds that Filch has been consulting a book of remedial spellwork in a futile attempt to master basic magic. This discovery seems to explain Filch's hatred of Hogwarts students -- he is jealous of their ability to do magic. Nonetheless, it almost seems that being a squib is a punishment for Filch's nasty character.

But then, we meet another squib, Arabella Figg, a much nicer person. Arabella lives inconspicuously in the same neighborhood as the Dursleys. Petunia and Vernon Dursley, Harry's aunt and uncle, are very reluctantly raising Harry. Harry's own mother and father, Lily and James Potter, were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort when Harry was one year old. Lily Potter was Petunia Dursley's sister. The Dursleys are muggles with a very anti-magical bias, and Harry's parents were a witch and a wizard. The neighbor Arabella Figg takes on the task of watching over Harry as he grows up in his aunt and uncle's muggle home, not knowing about his magical background. Arabella has been commissioned with this task by Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, and she fulfills her role admirably. She does what she can to watch over Harry surreptitiously and make sure he is safe.

Arabella Figg even courageously serves as a witness in Harry's defense when he is accused of using magic illegally as an underage wizard at age fifteen and threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Harry must appear before the Ministry of Magic for his trial. His defense is that he was using magic in the face of life-threatening danger -- to protect himself and his cousin, Dudley, from two attacking dementors. The Ministry of Magic, however, does not want to believe it possible that dementors could be operating outside their control and appearing in a muggle town. Arabella Figg, having witnessed the dementors' attack, is brave enough to give testimony on Harry's behalf in court despite the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Ministry of Magic.

So we now have a very sympathetic squib, Arabella Figg, to contrast with the highly unsympathetic squib, Argus Filch. Both were born to magical parents, but they themselves lack magical ability. Argus Filch uses his knowledge of the magical world to become bitter and jealous over what he cannot have. Arabella Figg uses her knowledge of the magical world to serve as a bridge between the two worlds, magical and non-magical, and to be helpful. She seems to take a stance of "I will concentrate on what I can do, not on what I can't -- and there is much that I can do."

It is also worth mentioning that Argus Filch is terribly ashamed of being a squib and tries to hide this fact. Arabella Figg, on the other hand, freely acknowledges that she is a squib. For Arabella, being a squib is a simple fact about how she was born, not something to feel ashamed or or to hide.

Now--who might be the squibs of our world? I think that Martha Beck, author of Steering By Starlight, and her husband provide a good example: they are very high-achieving intellectuals, and they have a son, Adam, with mental retardation. In fact, I think that something like squib-hood happens when high-achieving people give birth to an average child or a child with a mental or physical handicap.

I would also say that a kind of squib-hood happens when society values certain kinds of intelligence above others, so that those who excel in the valued intelligences are held in esteem while those who do not are frowned upon. I am referring here to Howard Gardner's idea of multiple intelligences. These intelligences include the two that are most valued in one of the first social environments that children enter--our schools:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence

But people who are not strong in those two intelligences may excel in one or more of the other intelligences:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence--dancers and athletes
  • Existential intelligence--those who connect closely with life's larger meaning
  • Interpersonal intelligence--those who excel in relating to others
  • Intrapersonal intelligence--those who excel in self-understanding
  • Musical intelligence
  • Naturalistic intelligence--those who relate closely to nature
  • Spatial intelligence--those who excel in the visual arts

So we might ask ourselves how we view and treat the squibs of our world.

Harry Potter: Dementors

Dementors are horrible non-human creatures that appear in the Harry Potter novels. Dementors serve as guards at the wizard prison of Azkaban.

Physically, dementors are repulsive. They are draped in black cloaks, but what is under the cloaks is not clear. However, one can often see the dementors' hands, which are bony, moldy, and grasping. One can also hear their rattling breath, which smells of death and decay.

Dementors affect the entire environment when they are present. Everything grows cold and black. The cold is not only external but seems to enter a person's very heart. The person, then, finds all joy seeping away, leaving only blackness, hopelessness, and despair. It becomes impossible to remember any happy memories, and one feels as though one will never ever be happy again.

The worse thing about dementors is that sometimes, as a punishment for a particularly bad human, a dementor is allowed to perform the dementor's kiss. The dementor puts its mouth, or a round hollow where its mouth would be, over the human's mouth -- and sucks out the human's soul. After the dementor's kiss, the human continues to exist, but devoid of his or her soul and of his or her personality. There is no full description of what existence is like for one who has been kissed by a dementor, but such an existence is clearly a hollow one, utterly lacking in joy, purpose, meaning, or humanity.

Humans are not completely defenseless before dementors. A witch or a wizard can use a patronus spell to produce a patronus spirit. This is a protective spirit - often in the form of an animal - that will chase the dementor away. Harry Potter's patronus takes the form of a stag. Hermione Granger's takes the form of an otter.

As I see it, the dementor is a personification of depression. The dementor, like depression, kills all joy and meaning in life. The ultimate end of untreated depression is, indeed, a soul-less existence -- and this is so unbearable that many people with severe depression actually kill themselves.

Suicide used to be considered a terrible sin, but how much compassion we should have for someone suffering from severe depression. We now know that depression has physical causes -- it is not a moral failing of the depressed person. The severely depressed person finds himself or herself simply unable to find ANY joy or meaning in life -- to a such a degree that existence becomes excruciating. Rather than blaming a person for killing himself or herself, we might do better to ask ourselves what unbearable degree of pain that person must have been feeling.

I believe that J. K. Rowling does a wonderful service for us in at least three ways with her description of dementors in the Harry Potter novels. First, if we can make the dementor/depression connection (which seems quite obvious to me), we can feel something of the horror that a severely depressed person must feel. As we identify with Rowling's characters and feel their horror in the presence of dementors, we get a small taste of what a severely depressed person may be feeling. This can lead to real compassion for the severely depressed.

Second, personification of an inner state is very salutory. When depression is roiling around vaguely and horribly inside us, we can hardly get a firm grasp of what is happening to us. But if we can find a way to put depression outside ourselves by picturing it -- so that we can look at it squarely -- then we can begin to find a way out.

To look at depression objectively, words help and pictures help. I first understood my own moderate (not severe) depression when I read a magazine article describing depression in my thirties. Until then, I had thought that something unique and probably shameful was wrong with me. But this magazine article described what I had been feeling in clearly articulated words. I now had a name for this condition, a description of its characteristics, and the knowledge that others suffered from it, too. Objectifying depression in this way was a wonderful revelation and set me on the path to healing.

As part of the path to healing, I found that pictures were very helpful. I often drew pictures of depression, thus putting it outside myself where I could look at it. This, too, helped to objectify depression -- depression was not something that I was, but something that I felt or experienced. It was a feeling or an experience, not a core part of me. This is an important function of the dementors -- they are a picture of depression.

Third, Rowling tells a story that includes vanquishing the dementors by using a patronus spell to call forth a patronus spirit. Each person who suffers from depression can find his or her own patronus. What chases away the dementor, the depression? Sometimes it may need to be medication. It may also be a deliberate change of thought, an activity, a mental picture, or a story we tell ourselves.

So, with the dementors, J. K. Rowling gives a picture that allows us to objectify and look at depression outside ourselves, and she tells a story that can help us to find a way out of depression and to have compassion for those who are severely depressed.