Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism). By Frank Schaeffer. Da Capo. $25.
Love. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Frank Schaeffer is making a second career out of living down his first one. Schaeffer and his father, Francis Schaeffer, played major roles in shaping the evangelical Christian movement into a significant right-wing political force. Now, more than 25 years after his father’s death, the younger Schaeffer is creating novels and nonfiction (notably Crazy for God) about growing up in a fundamentalist family – and using them to disavow the very narrow view of God and religion within which fundamentalism flourishes. But Schaeffer remains a preacher at heart, and in Patience with God he preaches a kind of “middle way” that is intended to appeal equally to people dismayed by religious fundamentalism and to those fed up with the intensity and excesses of the so-called New Atheism. Saying that “the people who speak in God’s name [are] basically our national village idiots,” Schaeffer mocks those he once helped lead – while reserving equal scorn for “the no-God version of right-wing hucksterism” in which atheists, afire with their own brand of evangelical-but-godless fervor, are as narrow and uncritical in their thinking as the God-soaked fundamentalists they despise. Schaeffer counters both these extremes with thoughts that are, unfortunately, more pithy than profound. “The truth is…that we either experience God or we don’t. And just as in a marriage, once we have experienced God, we either choose to work to maintain that relationship or let it fade. In that sense we can choose to believe, just as on days when I’d rather be sleeping with another woman, I choose to stay married.” This is a sort of 2009 version of then-President Carter’s admission to Playboy magazine that he had “lusted in my heart,” and it is no more meaningful – even though Schaeffer clearly thinks it is. Essentially, he is saying that the experience of God is a personal one, that it comes to some people but not others (and that’s OK), that it comes at different times to different people (and that’s OK), and that in some cases it does not come at all (and even that’s OK). The most important thing is for everyone to tolerate everyone else – another of those “why can’t we all just get along?” moments that are meaningful only if you have not encountered them many times before. Schaeffer is apparently sincere (just as he was apparently sincere when promoting narrow-minded evangelism – he just didn’t know any better, he now says). But his sincerity oozes; it does not inspire.
One problem with Patience with God is that it takes itself so remorselessly seriously. But even with a deeply serious subject – such as God or love, the latter being what many believe the former consists of – a touch of humor can leaven an otherwise serious message, making it easier to understand and accept. Interestingly, Love is the best little gift book to date by Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae) precisely because it is the most humorous – and not in a weirdly offbeat way (as in The Penguin of Death), but in the sort of straightforward manner that evokes chuckles. It is the silliness of the text in the book and the images that illustrate it that keeps it light; for instance, two lovers “arm in arm…stand on the SAUSAGE of LOVE looking out together at the KETCHUP of their DREAMS.” And speaking of dreams, there is one in which the narrator and his love appear as biscuits and he chases off “enemy biscuits.” And there is “The POTATO of LOVE,” of which it is written, “It is so full of LOVE that the ANGELS weep with envy at its coming and the HEAVENS sing a NEW and BEAUTEOUS song.” But when you look at it – hey, it’s only a potato. Thus, beauty and love – and perhaps God – are in the eye and heart of the beholder; and Love makes that point more effectively in 32 small-sized pages than Patience with God does in 230 intensely argued ones.