Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crazy for God

I have been spending a significant part of these past two days of awe reading 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 by Frank Schaeffer, and found much more in this memoir than I expected to find.

I first learned of the book through an interview on Fresh Air back in December. I was expecting an expose of the inner workings on the beginnings of the Christian "Right" movement, and a detailed explanation of how relatively innocent people allowed it to mushroom into something that has become terribly ugly and powerful. What I found was a beautiful memoir about an extremely unusual childhood in a family with larger-than-life parents and larger-than-life freedoms in extraordinarily beautiful places, interspersed with vignettes involving personally-moving experiences with music and art.

Frank Schaeffer's father, was, in addition to being a self-taught theologian, a pure humanist with a great love and understanding for art, music, and the beauties of nature. He was also, by Frank's account, a emotionally uneven (perhaps bipolar) and often absent father who showed one face to his religious disciples and another to Frank's mother, who put up with a great deal of abuse in exchange for the opportunity to hold a highly important place in what was to become a superstar-studded world-wide religious movement.

It is rather riveting to read about being a child living in a religious-retreat-community in the Swiss Alps during the 1960s. Frank's childhood was unusually free. Everyone was always busy with their work (or rather "The Work"), and he tells wonderful stories about the mostly American guests that he got to know at the retreat.

Frank's undiagnosed dyslexia made it impossible for his homeschooling-minded family to teach him his basic subjects, so he was sent to a series of English boarding schools for much of his childhood. His coming of age (and his escape from a particularly unfair boarding school) coincided with the dawning of hippie culture. The religious community was visited regularly by young Christian pilgrims interested in finding some kind of "truth." They came to learn at the feet of Frank's father, while indulging in all the trappings that came with being a young person in the early 1970s. Frank's father bent with the times, and became a kind of "cool" Dad for a while, before eventually reverting to the staunch ideology of his earlier years.

Frank apologizes for his father again and again by mentioning at every opportunity just how much his father cared about art, music, and beauty. He draws a loving portrait of a flawed human being. There are also apologies for his mother, who talked very frankly (sorry--but there is no better word) about things that he really didn't need to know concerning her relationship with his father.

Frank grew up to become a "propaganda" film maker for the religious right. His father, who became an icon of the movement, was the star. They made lots and lots of money. There was (and still is) a lot of money to be made in the religious media business, and, as Frank points out, a lot of influence to be won. Eventually he left the religious media business and the evangelical movement altogether. This is both his confession and his apology. Every time this book is read, the apology is repeated. May it be read many, many, many times.


Anonymous said...

During Yomim HaNoraim as 5770 comes and for balance, one might remember that propaganda film makers included Lili Riefenstahl whose "right wing" hero was Germany's National Socialist Hitler, Sergei Eisenstein whose "left wing" hero was Soviet Socialism's Stalin, and Roberto Rossellini whose hero was Italian Fascism's Mussolini.

Given the millions which "right wing" and "left wing" heroes as the above mentioned managed to murder, and the lack of murder victims among the denominations of the Judeo-Christian world, it seems an apology should more clearly come from the right and left wings of socialism than from a propaganda film maker for some sect of non-violent, non-murderous Christians.

To think in terms of right and left when referring to Christians or Jews is to confuse religion with politics, and a heinous politics at that. The theme of Yom Kippur is repentance, not apology.

Elaine Fine said...

But the theme of this book is apology. This post is about the book, which I happened to read this week, during a time when I happened to be doing the kind of personal reflection that I tend to do between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Anonymous said...

How did you come to choose this book in particular during your observation of the holy days as your reading material and subject of the post?

Elaine Fine said...

It arrived by way of interlibrary loan on Monday. I read it on Tuesday and Wednesday, and thought I'd write a post about it right after I finished reading it.

Anonymous said...

It is clear you received the book through an interlibrary loan. It remains unclear how you chose the book to begin with, in order to arrange for the loan.

Elaine Fine said...

Actually, I saw Frank Schaeffer on the Rachel Maddow show on television a couple of weeks ago, and I remembered the interview I heard. I assure that there is no great mystery to this.

Anonymous said...

" great mystery."

I meant none nor disrepect. After looking at something about Schaeffer, it reminded of a PBS documentary made by an ex-Orthodox woman who made the remarkable comment that what she missed about Orthodoxy was the sense of "certainty" that she had given up and was attempting to retrieve in reexamining her Jewish roots after other newer certainties had also seemed to fail her.

Schaeffer seems to have escaped a Calvinist certainty to adopt a new Greek Orthodox certainty, and I suspect this is true for so many who resent one certainty from the safe perspective of another certainty in an uncertain world.