A cacophony of religious voices
PATIENCE WITH GOD
By Frank Schaeffer
230 pp. Da Capo Press $25
Reviewed by Sue Ellis
I hadn’t read this prolific author before, but the description of his book at Amazon hooked me—something to the effect that he finds a middle ground between religion and atheism; it’s a book aimed at the “hopefully uncertain.” That’s for me, I thought. If the author was searching for a receptive audience, he may have hit pay dirt with this one. It turns out that a lot of people might be looking for middle ground, having Patience With God, even guys like Frank Schaeffer, who have experienced it all in the modern world of religion.
His childhood was spent with his evangelist parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, on a mission to spread the word of God. Frank followed in their footsteps for many years—until he became dissatisfied with “the literal-minded religion and the political causes that had become indistinguishable from it.”
The first part of the book pecked at the flaws of atheism while admitting that there are some aspects of non-belief that appeal even to him. He names names when he criticizes the famous athiests: Richard Dawkins, Tracie Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens. One by one he characterizes them with candid looks at their lifestyles and beliefs. To my surprise, he goes on to criticize religious leaders as well—people like Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye. He says he can’t see much difference between their scare tactics and commercial marketing strategies. He even picks on himself, detailing the way his lifestyle and his faith have changed over the years—a process he believes is natural.
While that part of the book was a little dry for me, I could still see where he was aiming. What I didn’t find, and was relieved not to have found, was a guy stepping up to lead me down a new “correct” path. In fact, he admits there may not be one.
In the second half of the book, I related better to the stories he began to tell. He described personal experiences with the characters who have peopled his life and led him to believe that there is a higher power. He writes beautifully. Here’s a section that tells about his comeuppance at a tender age after he and a friend had bullied a schoolmate to tears. They were made to wait outside the headmaster’s study door for two hours in the middle of the night.
“Well?” asked Parke, looking up from his book, “How did you enjoy that?”
“Not very much, sir,” we mumbled.
Mr. Parke closed his book with a snap and sat back in his chair. He sighed, then nodded slowly before he spoke.
“Now you know how Higgins spends his days. You see, you chaps are happy boys. When you get up in the morning, it isn’t with a sense of dread. You’re expecting a pleasant day. When Higgins gets up, he’s expecting unpleasantness. He knows that chaps like you think it’s funny to wind him up, to take advantage of the fact that he loses self-control. Well, for him that is a sort of hell. Would you make fun of him if he were a cripple, Schaeffer?”
His words hit home. No one at the school had ever so much as mentioned my polio or my thin atrophied left leg. This had been a great relief to me, and the shame of my hypocrisy welled up.
Skipping a little, here’s the summary of his experience with Mr. Parke:
The wisdom and mercy of our headmaster was what I followed, not a theory. He did not try to convert me to a better way. He was the better way. His teaching me didn’t depend on my believing what he believed. It depended on his setting an example for me to follow—an example that cost him a night’s sleep. Mr. Parke spoke no grand words. He traveled with two scared little boys a few steps down a path to greater kindness, to empathy, to learning to walk in another’s shoes. That is the purpose driven life.
There are more stories like it, stories about the god-like qualities he’s encountered in ordinary mortals. Although it is apparent that he has faith, he readily admits that a good part of it is long-standing habit. He says outright that parts of the Bible trouble him—some of what is written about God makes Him seem unforgiving and vengeful.
Schaeffer’s message seems to be that faith comes naturally and doesn’t need to endorsed by an organized, self-appointed religion. In describing his love for his baby granddaughter Lucy, he writes:
I find myself praying, “Lord, may none but loving arms ever hold her.” That prayer has nothing to do with theology. I’d pray it whether I believed in God nor not, for the same reason that on a lovely spring morning when I’m looking at the view of the river that flows past our home I sometimes exclaim, “That’s beautiful!” out loud, even when I’m alone.
Schaeffer’s voice is one among the cacophony of voices present in religious literature today. He’s saying it’s okay if you’ve never found a church to be comfortable with, and at the same time legitimizing a time-out for the exhausted religious. I enjoyed his perspective and his gentle nudge toward Christianity. It is also evident that Frank Schaeffer has led a remarkably interesting life, so the book is an enjoyable memoir as well.
Sue Ellis is a retired postmaster who lives and writes in Spokane, Washington. Her short stories have appeared at Flash Me Magazine, Wild Violet, Six Sentences, and Camroc Press Review, all online publications.