Jane Smiley reviews Frank Schaeffer’s ‘Sex, Mom, and God’
By Jane Smiley,
That Frank Schaeffer started out as a pest and has matured into a provocateur is evident from the title of his latest memoir/argument, “Sex, Mom, and God.” What decent American puts these three words in the same phrase, especially with “sex” first? Well, Frank will do or say just about anything. And I call him “Frank” not because I know him, but because his novels and memoirs have a way of winning a reader’s friendship. Better to be his friend than his parent, though, because he was one of those kids (dyslexic, he says) who spent all day either asking questions or investigating sexual mysteries.
He had a lot of questions because his parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, preached the inerrancy of the Bible. And he had a lot of sexual mysteries to investigate because he was surrounded by young women who boarded with his parents at L’Abri, a famous Christian commune in Switzerland. Edith was attentive to Frank’s religious education, and there was no cruel or inconsistent Bible verse that young Frank let pass.
In “Sex, Mom, and God,” Frank makes the case that he and his parents were prime movers behind the political rise of the religious right in the United States, and he further makes the case that their home life was about as nutty as it could be. Those who have read his previous memoir, “Crazy for God,” or his trilogy of novels, “Portofino,” “Zermatt” and “Saving Grandma,” will be familiar with some of this material, but in this new book, Frank puts it together in a slightly different way. As is appropriate for someone born into the evangelical world, his inner life is a series of revelations; this time, he is bearing witness to what he has learned from his grandchildren.
If that remark sounds condescending, I don’t mean it to. Schaeffer is a good memoirist, smart and often laugh-out-loud funny. For those of us not raised in religious homes, he is like a visitor from another planet who marvels at things that we take for granted — like letting children form their own opinions. He also brings news of alien beings for whom the biblical passage about God ordering the slaughter of the Midianite male infants and enslaving the rest of the population is a child’s bedtime story (I should say that although I never met Frank, I did visit a friend at L’Abri in 1973 and overheard with astonishment a serious argument about the presence of Satan in our world — and it wasn’t about whether Satan was among us, it was about which of our associates he was).
Frank seems to have been born irreverent, but his memoirs have a serious purpose, and that is to expose the insanity and the corruption of what has become a powerful and frightening force in American politics. He considers himself an eyewitness to the insanity during his childhood, and an eyewitness to the corruption during his early adulthood. The root of both, according to this book, is the perverse and destructive view that the “God-of-the-Bible” takes of women and sexuality — that women are inherently corrupt and that their sexuality must be controlled by men. Frank’s point in “Sex, Mom, and God” is that female sexuality is at the heart of the abortion debate that energized the religious right, and he asserts, from his experience of both his very troubled father and himself, that profound anxiety about women and hypocrisy about the sex drive shape the evangelical bid for power in the United States. (He is particularly informative about R.J. Rushdoony and the Christian Dominionists, who are working to transform the United States into a theocracy.)
Frank contemplates women primarily through his mother, a beautiful daughter of missionaries and the organizer and enabler of L’Abri and of the career of Francis Schaeffer. Frank makes the case that Edith has lived the distortions of Biblical discourse for her entire life — she is now 96 — and has accommodated them by shading over the cruelest instructions or ignoring them entirely. She has, for example, used birth control in spite of biblical prohibitions against Onan spilling his seed, and she has been kind and compassionate toward lesbians, the unsaved and Frank’s own wife, whom he impregnated when they were unmarried teenagers — no stoning for Edith. As a result, Frank considers his mother to be a better spiritual model than the God-of-the-Bible, and he would like other evangelicals to understand this, too. As for himself, one bookmarkable passage toward the end of “Sex, Mom, and God” is the detailed letter he wishes he could have written to his wife when they first met, warning her to stay away from him for her own good.
Frank has been straightforward and entertaining in his campaign to right the political wrongs he regrets committing in the 1970s and ’80s. As the author of 10books since 2000, and plenty of articles and blogs, he has been more than industrious. As someone who has made redemption his work, he has, in fact, shown amazing grace.