Saturday, September 03, 2016

The beautiful, amusing, profound banalities of Franky-the-Grouch Schaeffer

Franky Schaeffer has made a career of trying to get over himself and not succeeding. In Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace(2014), he has written just the kind of book to seal his place in the hearts of those whom Alasdair MacIntyre calls the "readership of the New York Times," or at least to that part of it which shares the biases of those who write "that parish newsletter of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment." Franky is clearly one of that readership's darling ex-fundamentalists.

On the one hand, he confirms their anti-religious biases by repeatedly savaging his fundamentalist parents as "deluded," mocking their belief in biblical miracles, and paying them backhanded complements like these:
[My parents] believed that to be kind is to be in tune with the way things are, or to be in tune with the way things would have been if there had been no fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. My evangelical parents were not stupid, so either they really didn't believe Eden existed, or some part of their otherwise intelligent brains snapped when they adopted the one-size-fits-all born-again version of American fundamentalist Christianity.
On the other hand, he confirms his liberal readership's moral superiority (and salves his own conscience) by showing a kinder, gentler side to his revulsion at their fundamentalism by looking for positive reasons to appreciate the practical effects of their 'indoctrination' of him in the biblical 'myths' of his childhood:
Ironically, although mom and dad may have been deluded by their fundamentalist certainties, I am mostly at peace in my home ... because I was indoctrinated in knee-jerk guilt. I realize now that my parents were often right for the wrong reasons. For instance, I feel guilt when I shout at Lucy and Jack. And when it comes to the "big sins" I would not have burned in hell for sleeping with the many women I've looked at longingly, but adultery would have ruined my marriage and the home where I play with my grandchildren.
Hence, although he mocks his parents' view of adultery as "derived from a tribal myth about God proclaiming the law from a mountaintop," he can still posture as exhibiting filial piety and gratitude for "sometimes liking the result of my parents' delusions" (emphasis mine).

What a stand-up fellow! His parents may have had ridiculously wrong reasons for the virtues they inculcated in him as a young lad, but they were right and praiseworthy insofar as their sentiments about those virtues conformed to those celebrated by his liberal readership. God help us. To see Franky as exhibiting the virtue of filial piety here would be like admiring the 'courage' of the terrorists who piloted their passenger jets into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The mainstream reviews, of course, are predictably rapturous, cloying, fashionably liberal, and religiously obtuse: their darling ex-fundamentalist has seen the light, and his book is "extraordinary," "profound," "tender," "sensitive," "beautiful," "brilliant," "thought-provoking," "redemptive," "honest," filled with "great insight and unselfconscious humor" and "amazing grace."

Yet there is little if anything approaching real filial piety in this self-absorbed exercise in narcissistic therapy, even if there is much to admire artistically in this as in many of Franky's works (I, for one, superlatively enjoyed his autobiographical novel, Portofino, and would recommend it to almost anyone). Whatever artistic beauty and humor may be found in the present work, however, there is more than enough resentment, mockery and cynicism to make up for it.

What we see here is the Franky reflected in the image of his portrait on the cover of his book: an artist holding paint brushes and possessing many skills, yes; but a sad and bitter little old man who thinks he's being intellectually profound and beautiful (and witty) when he's really only wallowing self-indulgently in his own cynicism and depression. A "Christian atheist" or an "atheist Christian" is not a profundity. It is an absurdity. And that is a fact, no matter how much Franky may posture as intending to "give love, create beauty, and find peace."

One can only pray and hope that Franky's progeny will live to survive his legacy with more spiritual integrity, forgiveness, and joy than he has exhibited in his treatment of his parents. I feel genuinely sorry for him.


Chris Garton-Zavesky said...

Not really on topic, but humor me....

I've just found a book called "In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians", but haven't started reading it yet. I thought of it, though when I read that Mr. Schaffer is running away from the certainties of his parents: authentic Christians in Japan probably suffer both the incomprehension and suspicion of their countrymen, and also the condescension of Western Christians.

My new pastor (as of 2 years ago) is a convert (as an adult). He's clearly an intelligent man. I wonder what's really eating Mr Schaffer.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Mr. Garton-Zavesky,

Good to hear from you, my friend! I have just pre-ordered a book entitled CHRIST'S SAMURAI by Jonathan Clements, which is about Jerome Amakusa Shiro, the Japanese Catholic convert who led the Shimabara Rebellion of oppressed souther Catholics against the Shogunate and nearly won. Another book on my wishlist is William J. Farge, S.J.'s A CHRISTIAN SAMURAI: THE TRIALS OF BABA BUNKO, who was a Japanese Catholic essayist and public speaker in the Tokugawa period who refused to keep silent but kept saying things like: a representation of the Eucharist would be more appropriate as a symbol for Japan than a coat of arms of the emperor or insignia of the shogun. He was eventually executed. Hero in my book.

The Japanese Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, also wrote about the tensions between Christianity and Japan in his celebrated novel, SILENCE.

As for what's eating at Franky Schaeffer, I'm not sure. One might plausibly argue that he was 'neglected' as a youngster because both his parents were caught up full time in their ministry at L'Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland. On the other hand, it has been argued that he was also spoiled and had a considerable 'entitlement' mentality. I personally thing that the most compelling answer is that when he got out into the secular world, he caught the 'measles' of am increasingly secularized outlook. He first reacted against fundamentalism by joining the Eastern Orthodox, and was equally damning of both fundamentalism and Catholics. Having painted himself into that corner, he increasingly embraced the cynical, agnostic posture of the trendy-lefty news media. God knows.

Anonymous said...

That cover shot. Painful and funny. What is he, the woodsprite / artist, barefoot, brushes in hand, and now flying free of fundie baggage? Than why is he weighted down by an expression grimmer than that of the grimmest Calvinist? And *whatever* happened on the Schaeffer campus in thew Alps, that was 30 years ago, man! How many books before he might possibly let it go?

But yes, "secular measles" sounds spot on.

Dymphna said...

Mr. Shaeffer is an example of why priests shouldn't marry. Among my Baptist relatives the joke is that the worst kid in the congregation almost always belongs to the preacher.