December 27, 2007


Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. By Frank Schaeffer. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960. By Jim Reisler. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

      “Fanatic” is a loaded word nowadays, but it is one that Frank Schaeffer would probably have used proudly of himself in his younger days. The lengthy title of his book says it all. Schaeffer grew up in an evangelical community that his parents had founded in Switzerland; Barbara Bush and Timothy Leary were among its well-known visitors. By the time he was in his early 20s, Schaeffer was already an experienced evangelical preacher as well as creator of two multi-part religious documentaries that are still used in numerous churches and religious schools for what some would call indoctrination and others would call strengthening of the faith. Then – and this is where Schaeffer’s story really takes off – he became instrumental in wedding (so to speak) the anti-abortion movement with American evangelism, leading to creation of a powerful political force that is still crucial in many U.S. elections. Crazy for God details all of this – and then explains how Schaeffer became disaffected, left the religious-political movement he had helped create, and decided (largely through this book) to confess his sins and get right with…well, apparently mostly with himself. Schaeffer seems at pains to declare himself a regular guy: “I was an immature asshole” appears on the same page as “Sometimes it was hell, a hell of my own making.” He takes readers through his periods of (as the section titles have it) “Childhood,” “Education,” “Turmoil” and “Peace” (the last section is a short one). But Schaeffer seems mostly to have traded one set of blinders for another. He professes himself genuinely astonished at the people among whom he lived and worked for so long: “Where we had once had art festivals, the evangelicals we were ‘part of’ wanted to ban books. Where we inhaled Altman and Bergman, they wanted to protect their children from ‘filthy movies’ and stop their teens from seeing anything R-rated at all!” This is news? Crazy for God reads like an apology, like an appeal for forgiveness to the many people Schaeffer hurt and misled through a fervor that he now acknowledges was misplaced: “Honesty is what was missing from my evangelical writing and my evangelical and secular movies.” Well, fine; but Schaeffer helped start an avalanche, and an apology to those it buried seems a touch inadequate. The best thing Schaffer’s book can do is make sure that those with far more tolerance than he had do indeed forgive him – but do not forget what he did.

      Worship can go off the track even when it has nothing to do with religion. Witness The Best Game Ever, which is written for people who want to spend almost 300 pages reliving a baseball game that took place nearly half a century ago. If you are one of them, you will be as immune to criticism as Frank Schaeffer once was to rational thought – precisely that immune, since the idolization of sports figures and of a particular game in a particular sport is merely fanaticism in a church of the playing field. Jim Reisler has written a number of books about baseball, and his love of it comes through clearly throughout The Best Game Ever. That is all well and good; it is doubtful that anyone else will ever do a better job of recounting every single play of every single inning of the seventh World Series game between the Pirates and the Yankees in 1960. Reisler is an impressive researcher: he did numerous interviews for the book and searched newspaper and broadcast accounts of the game. His reconstruction of what happened that day is worthy of a subject such as a world-changing battle. But this was not a world-changing battle: it was a baseball game. The tremendous over-coverage of every aspect of its ins and outs is completely indefensible to anyone who is not fanatically addicted to this particular sport. To those for whom even fantasy leagues and endless debates about which historical player was better than which other one are not nearly enough, this book certainly qualifies as the Bible of October 13, 1960.

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