Reviewed by Lawrence Wayne Markert
LAWRENCE WAYNE MARKERT is an English professor at Hollins University.
“Sex, Mom, & God,” the new memoir from Frank Schaeffer, author of “Crazy for God,” reads similarly to George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.”
Orwell’s book describes his growing disillusionment as he fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Schaeffer was raised as a “soldier” for the religious right, fighting various culture wars in the United States through the 1980s.
He, like Orwell, became disillusioned with the extremism he encountered. Schaeffer fled the evangelical scene in the early 1990s. He, too, learned that extremism exists on both sides of the battle lines. He now has created a thought-provoking analysis of the social and religious struggles that continue to define American consciousness.
Schaeffer’s book, as the title and subtitle suggest, provides an informed ramble through a mix of personal experiences, social history and cultural critiques.
The personal experiences center on the formative relationship with his mother, Edith Schaeffer, who proved to him through her behavior rather than ideology that life is defined by paradox rather than certainty.
The opening sentences may startle some, but they are the beginning of Schaeffer’s remarkably honest account of the importance of his mother’s life to his own: “My biblically inspired sex education took a quantum leap in 1960. When I was 8 years old, my mother handed me her diaphragm.”
Like Orwell’s, Schaeffer’s book proves to be less a memoir and more of a polemic. The personal experiences serve as a catalyst for analyzing broader social issues. Anyone who has seen Schaeffer interviewed on television or read some of his more recent writings knows that he is resolute, even evangelical, about his new perspectives and his exodus from his fundamentalist past: “I regret every moment I spent selling myths to the deluded, or should I say that I regret selling myths to myself and then passing them on to people as deluded as I was.”
His goal is not to discredit Christianity — he and his wife are members of the Greek Orthodox Church now — but rather to gain balance, perspective.
Schaeffer covers a lot of important territory in his book, beginning with his early Bible instruction and what he calls “The God-of-the Bible,” a handle he uses “to differentiate between whatever actual deity might be out there and the biblical version and caricature of that Person, Force, or Persons,” to America’s Puritan tradition and the concept of American exceptionalism, and to the “unholy” alliance between the Christian right and the Republican Party.
There is a long and insightful chapter on the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and at various points he deals insightfully with the fear of the “other,” those who are not like us, as central to objections to the Obama presidency.
Although his tone at times seems polemical — he loves exclamation and the exclamation point — Schaeffer’s purpose is to encourage us all to establish common ground. He provides an insider’s view on the ways America has become fragmented, polarized by various forms of extremism. He states, in fact, that “what we fear most from Islamist terrorist could also be unleashed on us by our very own Christian and/or Libertarian activists.”
He now realizes, as his mother taught him, that the acceptance of paradox rather than the insistence on certainty is the starting and ending point of human existence. Again like Orwell, he has embraced the meaning he finds in the everyday aspects of life.