The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 -- "The-God-Of-The-Bible's Unauthorized Biography" -- of Frank Schaeffer's new book, Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics -- and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway (Da Capo Press, 2011). Raised in Switzerland in L'Abri, a utopian evangelical mission and community founded by his parents (Francis and Edith Schaeffer), Frank Schaeffer was reared to follow in his parent's footsteps. Sex, Mom and God is the story of why and how Schaeffer "escaped" (as he puts it) from the evangelical religious right, where, in the 1970s and 80s both he and his father had become leaders. Today Frank is a well known novelist (his novels include the internationally acclaimed best seller Portofino) and a critic of the religious right.
My mother Edith Schaeffer herself was the greatest illustration of the divine beauty of paradox I've encountered. She was a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her own judgmental rules in favor of creativity: She read us real books, swearwords and all; she bought me a Salvador Dali art book that included his hypersexuality and "blasphemy" (as other Evangelicals would have described Dali's work). Mom also lived by a lovely double standard when it came to "those lost Roman Catholics" (as she described them back in her more fundamentalist days) by taking us to see their art and rhapsodizing about it as if the art happened to be somewhere other than in a Roman Catholic church.
Mom was just so un-Edith-Schaeffer-like in person! And Mom's embrace of the contradiction within herself, not to mention her mitigating her faith to accommodate her humanity, was quite an accomplishment for One Lone Brave Woman. It was as if my mother were struggling to humanize the 5,000-year-old tradition that had consumed whole races in endless war and had inspired collective intellectual suicide by countless Jews and Christians who denied their brains so that they wouldn't put The-God-Of-The-Bible in a bad light by questioning the book that "described" Him.
All the actors in Mom (and her God's) drama were part of the heavenly battle between Satan and God, in which it was Mom's good fortune and tragic misfortune to play the leading role. And yet the supreme irony is that her manner of life--generous and caring, sacrificial, intelligent and well read--contrasted so sharply with what she said she believed.
Mom spent hours collecting moss, wildflowers, bark, branches, twigs, grasses, rocks, shells, and reeds. She then would lay them all out on the table behind the kitchen and arrange flowers in ceramic bowls, vases, and platters of the kind used to grow Bonsai trees in. Mom's arrangements were of a piece with all the Japanese and Chinese prints she collected, mostly reproductions from calendars, along with a few treasured originals her parents had brought with them when they left China.
Mom's Chinese artworks were by masters who had painted on silk and handmade paper. Their art was filled with literary allusion and calligraphy, but the primary image was typically a contemplative landscape. Having been born in China, Mom had a lifelong nostalgic attachment to all things Oriental that showed itself in her affinity for art and people even vaguely connected to China, Japan, or, for that matter, Korea. Never mind that these cultures hated one another and made constant war on one another. To Mom they were all wonderful. If Mom were in a cab with a Chinese driver, she'd launch into childhood reminiscences of China. If a Korean showed up at L'Abri, she'd give that visitor special attention.
My mother's objects of abstract beauty were superb. Mom's poetry wasn't only in her writing [Edith Schaeffer wrote many evangelical best sellers and had a worldwide following], which sometimes took the form of earnest biblical propaganda, but also in her choice of those watercolors and prints serenely depicting fogbound hills and solitary cranes standing in water and in her exquisite arrangements where a piece of driftwood, a handful of luxuriant moss, and a single flower or fern proclaimed a whole inner aesthetic and longing for transcendent meaning. Mom loved plants, their stems, the shapes of their leaves; she cherished the forms nature carved by wind, rain, or carpenter ants out of a piece of wood or stone. Mom offered her spirit to each arrangement; natural textures, graceful lines, and a sensual connection to her inner life spoke clearly about who my mother would have been if she'd been raised by anyone but pietistic missionaries who drastically narrowed her life choices by placing The-God-Of-The-Bible's heavy "call" on her shoulders.
Who was Mom as she might have been if part of her brain had not been crippled by her missionary parents' indoctrination of her, just as the bones in the feet of little girls in China were once deformed by foot-binding? My mother unbound was a minimalist making poems with what she found on the ground. When could I see my mother most clearly? When Mom came back from the woods or garden carrying handfuls of what looked like random odds and ends that other people would have discarded. An hour later Mom would have transformed these scraps into a centerpiece for the dining table that looked as if it had come from some other, more perfect universe.
My mother deserved better. A lifetime of reaching out to the "lost" and sacrificing on their behalf imbued her with a kindly spirit that even in addled old age shone through. Her example was not lost on me. I simply chose to follow the "other" Edith Schaeffer, the one whose heart was elsewhere than in the lifeless evangelical theories she paid lip-service to.
Mom introduced me to a powerful conduit of Love. So I tell God I love Him and am comforted, though I have no idea who God is. I know only that Love and beauty come from beyond the stardust we're all made of. Love outshines the fact of pain in the same way that Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, which Mom loved so passionately, outshine all the bad music in the
world, though on any given day Bach is outnumbered.
When I was eleven, Mom held my hand tightly as Yehudi Menuhin played the Bach Sonatas at a concert in Montreux where my mother had bought her family front-row seats. When the applause died away, Mom turned to me with tears on her cheeks and said, "That music is bigger than death, my Dear."
When I was writing this book and sat with my mother during our lovely weeklong (pre Christmas 2010) visit (when I also told her about what was in the book), we listened to those same pieces of music again. I reminded Mom - now 96 years old -- of what she'd said all those years ago.
"Mother?" I said.
"Do you still believe that music is bigger than death?"
"Yes, I do."
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His new book is SEX, MOM, AND GOD How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway. Excerpted with permission from the publisher and author -- all rights reserved by Frank Schaeffer (Da Capo Press, 2011).