29 June 2011

Forgiveness, part two: families and forgiveness

(Forgiveness, part one)

I went through my childhood knowing that there were two things we children were never going to tell anyone. The first was that Dad got insanely angry with my mother; the second was that from time to time he threatened suicide.
"We children" included the author of these lines, Frank Schaeffer; these secrets are included in his 2007 book, 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. His father was evangelical author Francis Schaeffer. He and Edith Schaeffer founded the Christian community and retreat center in Switzerland known as l'Abri. I first became acquainted with the writings of Francis and Edith Schaeffer when I worked at a Christian bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia. This bookstore was in some ways dedicated to the Schaeffers (and to C.S. Lewis). In those years, Francis and Edith were on the top level of the conservative Christian intellectual celebrities, along with J.I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, Malcolm Muggeridge, and a few others.

This book isn't the first to tell us what it can cost to grow up in the family of celebrities, but he is fascinating on the subject of the spiritual dimension of those costs. Instead of writing a full review of the book myself, I'll refer you to Jim Forest's good Amazon.com review, and just make a few additional comments.

Some reviewers of Crazy for God have been very unhappy with Frank Schaeffer's revelations. He was accused of exploiting his parents' notoriety, betraying their privacy, being an "Accuser of the Brethren" (i.e., a tool of Satan), and in general of having a vindictive, bitter spirit, unable to recognize that his parents "did the best they could." (Ah, that familiar cliche!)

I'm not sure I'd like Frank Schaeffer if I knew him personally--sometimes he doesn't seem like a very nice guy, even though he seems to attract loyal friends. He comes across as bitter, abrasive, at times raunchy. But he's also wicked funny, scathingly self-critical, and, taking the book as a whole, capable of much more depth and nuance than his critics give him credit for. Even as he's describing his parents' pandering to the good opinion of wealthy people, his father's violent temper, his mother's very frank approach to sex education, he goes on to credit them warmly for their militant unwillingness to judge those who faced condemnation from many of their guests and visitors, particularly homosexuals and unwed mothers. They had no patience at all for racial discrimination. Frank says,
I saw that my parents' compassion was consistent. Their idea of ministry was to extend a hand of kindness, and to truly practice the rule of treating others as you would be treated. It was such a powerful demonstration that it gave me a lifelong picture of what Christian behavior and love can and should be.
A little later, he says,
I once thought Dad's ability to present two very different faces to the world--one to his family and one to the public--was gross hypocrisy. I think differently now. I believe Dad was a very brave man.

Suffering from bouts of depression, I have come to understand that the choice is to carry on or not, no matter how I feel. And since my dad literally had no close friends, let alone a confessor or therapist to talk to, his suffering was in near-total isolation. When that bleak grayness envelops everything for a few days or hours and sucks all the joy and air out of a day, as a writer I can just shut the world out, if I want, and retire to some inner cave and nurse my depression. Dad craved privacy, too, but his work was people. And Dad never sought counseling.
There are implications in Frank Schaeffer's writing for us religious consumers and followers as well. As a reader, I could choose to treat a memoir such as Frank's account of the Schaeffer family as a 100% reliable recording of family life--despite his disclaimer right up front: "What I've written comes from a memory deformed by time, prejudice, flawed recall, and emotion." Alternatively, I could reject it as a betrayal of some code of no-dirty-laundry. What I choose to do is to read the book as nothing more nor less than a phenomenon, an artifact of life in an evangelical subculture that "generates saints and neurotics in roughly equal proportions" as one of my friends once described Holiness Christianity. What matters, then, is not whether Schaeffer's account is fair and accurate; what matters is whether he has faithfully presented his own viewpoint. If so, then it's up to us to think as honestly about our biases as he has been in reporting his own.

And what might our biases be? In two separate comments, Schaeffer mentions several of them. First, Schaeffer comments on the crises of faith experienced by Billy Graham (a family friend) and by Francis Schaeffer himself, and how these two men resolved these crises.
To an outside observer, these self-fulfilling miracles of renewed faith might be open to question; they might even seem to have something to do with the fact that Dad and Billy, and many others,had a vested interest in their belief, belief through which they found meaning, the respect of others, and also earned a living.
In general,
. . . the less one knows about the "holy" people we follow, the better. One of the mysteries of human need is that religious leaders must become more than the sum of their fallible, sometimes awful, parts, because other people need them to be more. This does not make the religious leader a hypocrite; it just shows that the rest of us are desperate.

In his helpful review of Crazy for God, the Internet Monk (the late Michael Spencer) said,
We all must forgive our parents. If we are parents, we must ask our own children to forgive us. We are all human beings, sinners and beggars. When Schaeffer finds the confessional in his Greek Orthodox tradition, he says he was finally able to start apologizing to his own family. Will we ever learn this lesson? Or will we just continue down the insane road that assumes somehow everything is all right because we have a collection of Bible verses propping us up?
One of the blocks to my forgiving my own parents was a clause added to the family will after I left home--a clause which explicitly removed me from the will. Somehow I obtained a copy of the will--I can't remember how--and kept it among my papers. One Sunday I preached a sermon on forgiveness at Reedwood Friends Church, and toward the end of the sermon, I tore up that document. Up to that point, I hadn't realized the tangible power that piece of paper had to block my ability to forgive.

Bible verses can do, of course, far more than simply "prop up." I'm still turning over and over in my mind the revolutionary implications of Psalm 130, cited last week. Here's Eugene Peterson's version of verses 3 and 4:
If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings,
who would stand a chance?
As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,
and that's why you're worshiped.

Merry Emergency Christmas (today)! This year I'm not "left behind."

More links:

The late R.W. Tucker's article on "Revolutionary Faithfulness" is online here. Much has changed in the forty-plus years since he wrote this diagnosis of Quaker theological drift and critique of "the cult of middle-class nonviolence," but the article hasn't lost its relevance.

"Should Christians pursue external beauty?"

News from Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends: Search Committee proposes Becky Ankeny as next superintendent.

Prayer request for Peacemaking Conference in Congo, July 8-12.

"At troubled Crystal Cathedral, a new ministry outstrips the traditional one." (Thanks to mondaymorninginsight.com for the reference.)

Helena Cobban, "Eyes Open in Gaza."

Department of Ephesians 5:8-13: "DOJ Conducting Criminal Investigation of Deaths of Two Detainees."

Chris Hedges, "Gone with the papers."
There is nothing, of course, intrinsically good about newspapers. We have long been cursed with sleazy tabloids and the fictional stories of the supermarket press, which have now become the staple of television journalism. The commercial press, in the name of balance and objectivity, had always skillfully muted the truth in the name of news or blotted it out. But the loss of great newspapers, newspapers that engage with the community, means the loss of one of the cornerstones of our open, democratic state.

Tomorrow is the opening day of the Waterfront Blues Festival. On Sunday evening, Buddy Guy will be on stage...and there are times when nothing else will do but to see Buddy showing off. A sample:

1 comment:

Carol H. said...

The R. W. Tucker essay is important! And I had never heard of it before. Thank you for posting that link, Johan.

I haven't had nearly enough time to absorb it and comment on it, given the pressure of these past weeks. But I have passed it along to others.

Thanks, again.