We never have any real information about anything important. It takes a lifetime for the ramifications to be worked out.
When I was eighteen or nineteen years old I stopped going to church. Prior to that, from the age of nine, I had been an active, passionate participant in the Baptist and later the Nazarene churches my family went to. I participated in choir, sang solos, was the president of my Sunday school class, gave “testimony”, led prayers, witnessed and led people to Christ. These were fundamentalist Christian churches (embracing the “inerrancy doctrine”—the belief that every word of the Bible is literally true, written by God through men), and up to the age of seventeen I was a true believer. What happened, in short, was that I lost my faith. It’s a long story, but when I was only ten God told me one night in prayer that He would no longer speak to me after that night. From then on faith alone carried me and by the time I reached seventeen it was not enough.
I was growing up. My brain was expanding. I discovered art. I could no longer hold the contradictions and illogicalities and above all the intolerances of the fundamentalists. One of the final straws came when our church conducted a book burning in the parking lot. There I watched as my friends and elders threw Tolkien and Bradbury into the flames, along with records—everything from Paul Simon to the Doobie Brothers. If it was secular it was not of God, and if it was not of God it was of the Devil. I was emerging in consciousness as an artist and a clear line had been drawn. I was on the wrong side of it.
I became a huge disappointment to my church and to my mother and older sister. They let me know—regularly—that I was condemned to Hell. They tried to save me primarily through disapproval, disappointment and scare tactics. Above all, if my art did not overtly glorify God according to the strict parameters of the church, then it was merely a sign of the path to Hell that I was going down. The very thing that I felt was saving me, that was expanding my mind and opening up innumerable possibilities with history and the wider contemporary world was the thing that, in their view, was corrupting me. There was no middle ground and no room for debate. They were right, I was wrong. One day I asked my mother what had happened between us and she admitted that I had become too smart for her. She no longer knew how to talk to me. But the language of love had always been enough before. Apparently, without God in my life I was unlovable too. I don’t remember trying to be obnoxious, but perhaps in her view I was insufferable. The more she pushed the more I resisted.
Concerned members of the church lent books to me through my mother, books by bigots and hate-mongers like Tim LaHaye, who defined the term “secular humanism” for my mother’s church and books like Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. But pounding away on the point that reading people like Nietzsche will send you straight to Hell was hardly the way to reach me. Allowing me to sing one of Bob Dylan’s Christian songs in church, like I had wanted to and was forbidden to, might have helped. Religious fundamentalism is aggressively anti-intellectual and antagonistic to the spirit of art, not to mention xenophobic, homophobic and fascist. My mother had occasionally gone into my room and confiscated books. One time it was a science fiction novel that showed a scantily clad woman on its cover. Another time it was a book by the theologian Karl Barth. To this day I haven’t gotten around to reading Barth. If I had been encouraged to read Barth would I be a Christian today? I don’t know, but it’s possible.
One of the books my mother gave to me was How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was considered the answer to converting those who were infatuated with worldly culture. He was, in the view of the fundamentalists, an intellectual, an expert on history and the world’s visual art, music and literature. Perhaps he was my mother’s last hope for me. But he became the nail in the coffin. No one I had read up to that point insulted my intelligence more than Schaeffer. By the time I threw his book away in disgust I was through with religion.
The notion that Francis Schaeffer is in any sense of the word a scholar, intellectual or thinker is laughable. The film series based on How Should We Then Live? is available on YouTube. You can watch the man himself draw entire cultures and societies into tiny cartoon boxes depicting what they tried and failed to do. His pattern: the Romans—they failed; the Post-Impressionists—they failed; the existentialist philosophers—they failed. They all failed to achieve a life of substance and meaning because they did not have Schaeffer’s slant on the Christian God at their foundation. A word strong enough for this kind of narrow-mindedness does not exist; I am forced to rely on the word stupidity.
Stupidity might be forgivable, but dishonesty is not. In Episode 8 the filmmakers have constructed an apparatus from which cans of paint are suspended. The cans have holes pieced into them and swing over a sheet of paper. This, Schaeffer tells us, is how Pollock created his paintings. Pollock, like John Cage, he tells us, embraced pure chance. But every first year art student knows this is not true. Pollock poured the paint and dripped it with sticks and brushes in a dance with paint and gravity over the canvases. He did not give way to chance; he “denied the accident”. Pollock had more in common with Bartok and El Greco than Cage. Scheaffer seems to have been afflicted with a curious inability to perceive metaphors, let alone think in metaphors. His literal view of the Bible extended to all cultural phenomena. Pollock’s dripped paintings looked random to him, therefore they had to be random (and don’t get me started on Schaeffer’s view of chance in art; suffice to say he saw it as evil). He makes this mistake repeatedly. Cezanne and the painters he influenced, such as Picasso, seemed to have “fragmented” humanity, therefore they in fact expressed fragmentation and offered fragmentation as a view. It never occurred to Schaeffer that they were developing a new way to explore the picture plane, in response to photography and other developments, and that this new aesthetic was itself a rich expression of humanity. No, he decides they failed to be deeply humane because the people in their paintings did not look realistic in the manner of the classical painters.
I have lingered over Schaeffer’s stupidities and lies because his son, Frank, who had directed the film series based on his father’s book, attempts in his book Crazy for God to allow his father’s status among the fundamentalists as an intellectual to stand. But since he (Frank) has parted ways with the Religious Right, this means that he wants his father to be seen outside that sect as an intellectual, and this attempt is simply not justified by his father’s writings.
Unfortunately this obscures a larger point that needs exposure. In Crazy for God Frank Schaeffer explains that one of the ways the Religious Right was able to become so powerful was that the mainstream media ignored their books and films. He suggests that had the New York Times bothered to review How Should We Then Live? then maybe the culture at large would not have been blindsided by the Religious Right. But one could not reasonably expect the New York Times to consider a book like How Should We Then Live? to be worth reviewing. The book should indeed be discussed, but in a forum that does not lend it intellectual legitimacy.
Frank Schaeffer’s larger point—that historically mainstream society ignores religious fundamentalism and is therefore blind to its dangers—is certainly true and well worth emphasizing. When George W. Bush first announced his run for the presidency I took a look at him and instantly recognized him as a fundamentalist. I had grown up with them and knew one when I saw one. I told everyone I knew that he was a fundamentalist and no one—not one person—believed me. But what’s even sadder is that to this very day I continue to talk to people who still cannot recognize Bush as a fundamentalist. This is because people refuse to educate themselves on what religious fundamentalism is—particularly how destructive it is. It destroys families and starts wars.
I am very puzzled by this wanton ignorance. After all, we were attacked on 9/11 by religious fundamentalists, Bush’s response—to invade Iraq—was motivated in large part by his us vs. them, good vs. evil mentality. Our whole world has been shaped for the past dozen years by religious fundamentalism, for even longer it has infiltrated the highest level of government, and yet Americans still don’t care to know anything about it. Frank Schaeffer’s book is an excellent way to begin learning about it. I did not know, before reading this book, how instrumental he was in the rise of the Religious Right. Throughout the memoir, Frank Schaeffer repeats phrases such as, “much to my shame”. He should, he’s got a lot to answer for. But I applaud him for his work, and encourage everyone to read Crazy for God.
Going back to when I was in my late teens: one day I brought in the mail and muttered some disparaging comment about the Falwell Ministies flyer. Hearing me, my mother physically backed me up against the wall and demanded to know what I had against Jerry Falwell. Startled by her uncharacteristic aggressiveness, I told her. I spewed the words out, about what a hate-monger and arrogant, evil anti-intellectual he was, the kind of person that quashes creativity in the bud. A person like you, I said. My mother instantly withered, seemed to actually crumple up and shrank away from me. I saw in an instant how weak she was, how easily I could wound her, and saw that her religion was the life raft she clung to. She, and thousands of others like her, were the kind of people preyed upon by the leaders of the Religious Right. I also knew that as long as she was under their spell there was no hope of communication between us. To this day I know of nothing more tragic than that.