Frank Schaeffer won deserved acclaim for his enchanting semi-autobiographical novel Portofino, in which he described growing up in Switzerland in a strict, Christian fundamentalist household. Two sequels were slightly less successful.
In 2007, he followed up with the autobiographical Crazy for God, which describes how he eventually broke with his evangelist father and the Christian right. Now, in Patience with God, Schaeffer once again mines what must by now be a rapidly-depleting seam of childhood memories and adult experiences to deliver his personal brand of religion and philosophy.
The first section of this book consists of a polemic against the so-called “New Atheism,” particularly TV host Bill Maher’s movie Religulous and the works of authors Richard Dawkins, Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.
This is followed by a series of chapters attacking Christian fundamentalism in which the main targets are celebrity pastor Rick Warren and the authors of the “Left Behind” series.
Finally, Schaeffer indulges in some personal reflections about his own relationship with God, whose presence in his life he perceives through loving relationships with his infant granddaughter Lucy, his son and his wife. He adds some reminiscences of his boarding school days in England and of the village stonemason in the Swiss village where he grew up. These vignettes, mildly interesting in their own right, deliver neat moral lessons.
To Schaeffer, atheism and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin. Both, he argues, are based on intolerance and offer simplistic answers to complex questions.
While this may be true, coupling atheists and Christian fundamentalists is a strange decision. Unlike Christian fundamentalism, atheism is not a mass movement, and most of the authors Schaeffer attacks so zealously are hardly known in the United States. It’s not as if atheism has become the dominant force in a major political party or atheists are trying to impose a political agenda on the rest of us.
Did Schaeffer imagine he had to attack a straw man of “New Atheism,” as represented by a few obscure academics, to make his subsequent attacks on Christian fundamentalism more palatable to his readers?
What exactly is Schaeffer’s problem with atheists and agnostics, millions of whom lead perfectly ethical, rewarding and useful lives and love their families and their countries just as much as he does? “My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists,” he writes, “is that their ideas just don’t seem to be aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life.” Really? How does he know what poetry the rest of us may or may not experience?
Schaeffer has a curiously paternalistic attitude at times. He decries America as “a nation of not terribly bright children who essentially have a collective learning disability” and dismisses science as “always partly yesterday’s news” that will not stand the test of time. In contrast, “beauty and love expressed in art, poetry and religion are among the things that will last,” he declares.
What a simplistic and unwarranted dismissal of some of the greatest achievements of human intellect! Does Schaeffer discern no beauty in the equation E=m c2 or Newton’s laws of motion? Can he see no wonder in Hubble’s description of an expanding universe and the incredible images of the Hubble telescope? Does he see no beauty in the double helix and no wonder in the extraordinary intellectual voyage that uncovered its secrets? One could, if one chose to, see God in all these marvelous things.
The book is also seriously marred by a gratuitous and ugly attack on Israel, which has incurred Schaeffer’s wrath because it is supported by many of the Christian evangelicals he now so strongly despises.
Schaeffer offers the example of painter Marc Chagall, whose art he says offers a doorway to reconciliation among three “bloody and often inhumane faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Secularism.”
It’s a strange choice. Chagall’s art was suffused with Judaism. His famous “White Crucifixion,” painted on the eve of the Holocaust, is a cry of rage to the Christian world at its indifference to the fate of the Jews in Europe.
Schaeffer writes movingly and with feeling about his relationship with his infant grandchild and claims to discern the divine in her innocent gaze. But that is simply his extrapolation – a product of his particular life experiences and the way his beliefs have developed. One should not dismiss such feelings – but neither should one belittle other grandparents who cradle their grandchildren with equal love and devotion – and yet do not connect their own deep feelings with God.
There is an irony at the heart of this book. Schaeffer grew up in an intolerant sect that was constantly expelling members who failed to meet its demands for doctrinal purity. Today, he professes a love of tolerance and decries those less tolerant than him and those who hold views different from his. Is this really the definition of tolerance?