Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Review of Frank Schaeffer's 2013 Novel: AND GOD SAID, "BILLY!"

I have just read Frank Schaeffer's latest book: a novel titled And God Said, "Billy!" This post will present a review of the novel.

First, a summary. The main character of And God Said, “Billy!” is an ultra-fundamentalist Christian who believes that God has instructed him to leave his wife, Ruth, and their three-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in New Hampshire and move alone to California to make a film about the end of the world, when Christians will be raptured into heaven. His name is Billy Graham—his parents named him after the famous evangelist. As the novel opens, Billy has been away from home for three years without seeing Ruth and Rebecca, who is now six. Although he misses his wife and daughter terribly, Billy believes that obedience to God requires him to concentrate fully on his film-making mission. However, no one in Hollywood has expressed any interest in his apocalyptic film script. Eventually, Billy is persuaded that he must first make a more crowd-pleasing film as a “stepping stone” into the Hollywood film world—and he finally finds someone who engages him to direct a “sexy thriller” in South Africa. This turns out to be a very shady business deal and multiple problems ensue. Billy finds himself trapped in an extremely dangerous situation, from which he is rescued in an amazing way that I won’t reveal in this post. The rescue is not only physical but also spiritual—for Billy’s narrow fundamentalist views have been sucking the very life out of his soul.

And God Said, “Billy!” is Frank Schaeffer’s answer to the question “Who is God?” through a novel-length story. While acknowledging that no definitive answer can be given to this question, Frank Schaeffer has nonetheless found a satisfying answer that embraces the mystery, love, and paradox at the heart of the universe.

Frank Schaeffer dealt extensively with the question “Who is God?” in his 2009 non-fiction book Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism). In Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer very effectively inter-weaves stories and explanations to show that it is through giving and receiving love, rather than through any system of doctrine, that we experience God. And God Said, “Billy!” makes this point in another way—through fiction. Here, we have a whole novel in which to engage with the main character, so that what the main character learns, we also learn at a deep level because of that long-term, novel-length engagement.

And God Said, “Billy!” is extraordinary in showing the machinations of the human mind in justifying wrong behavior. Sometimes we hear of Christian pastors who have sex with prostitutes or who embezzle church funds, and we wonder how someone who purports to follow Jesus and to lead others in the ways of Jesus could do such wrong things. And God Said, “Billy!” shows precisely how. Frank Schaeffer takes us inside Billy’s mind, where we listen to Billy’s thoughts as he justifies lying, stealing, attending a night club featuring nude women, and directing a film full of sex and violence with no artistic merit whatsoever. Frank Schaeffer takes us through the twists and turns of Billy’s “logic” as Billy convinces himself that these actions are actually God’s directives. Some of this is quite funny, and I found myself laughing aloud at some of Billy’s mental gymnastics.

And God Said, “Bllly!” is also extraordinary in showing how our view of God will result in suffering or in freedom. The novel illustrates the intense suffering inherent in seeing God as a judge who sends people to hell for wrong beliefs and wrong actions. We really “get” that suffering because we see it up close as we walk through the novel with Billy. And God Said, “Billy!” also opens the freeing possibility of seeing God as a mystery of love. We “get” this, too, as we walk with Billy through the aching love he gives to his daughter, Rebecca, and the gratuitous love he receives from his rescuers. Could it be that the love we experience—both as giver and as receiver—is a stronger and clearer indicator of who God is than the body of doctrine put forth by any religious institution?

To fully appreciate And God Said, “Billy!” I think we need to see it as a satire, perhaps even a lampoon, of ultra-fundamentalist Christianity. Frank Schaeffer stretches the exaggeration inherent in this type of writing almost to, but not beyond, the breaking point. As a result, I found certain sections of the novel a bit tedious, though the novel as a whole offered more than enough intrigue for me to continue through the rough patches. I’m very glad that I did, because the last four chapters of the novel contain exquisite gems of truth that ring all the truer for me because I stuck with Billy through all that he endured in order to learn them.

Frank Schaeffer is in a unique position to write And God Said, “Billy!” As a young adult, he himself earned his living as a Christian fundamentalist speaker and writer, but eventually he became deeply dissatisfied with this worldview and converted to Greek Orthodoxy, where the mystery of God (rather than facts about God) is emphasized. Frank Schaeffer has also directed several films, at least one of them in South Africa. And God Said, “Billy!” is enriched by Frank Schaeffer’s own inside experience as a film director, as a former committed Christian fundamentalist, and as one who has adopted a deeper but less defined view of God.

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