I don't know that I have ever read any author more obviously addicted to catharsis than Frank Schaeffer. And given that number of pixels I devoted to attacking catharsis as the driving force behind cinema in a previous blog life, one might think this would lead me to a distaste for Schaeffer. But, as it turns out, I can't get enough of his work.
Amazon tells me that my copy of 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 is on its way, and I am excited to read it.
For a person who has any past history with what some folks might call religious crackpotery or religious addiction or religious abuse and so forth, Franky's novels (the Calvin Becker Trilogy) and his subsequent memoirs attacking his famous Evangelical parents are going to strike a chord, though depending on where one "is at" with that former/current religion the chord struck may vary considerably.
I sometimes ask myself- "why on earth, dear self, do you like to read Franky Schaeffer?" The guy is a colossal whiner. He has more axes to grind than a machinist working for a logging company. His level of resentment toward his family and his family's old allies is astounding to behold, especially as he has maintained it with such intensity for well over a decade now. Schaeffer is colossally juvenile in his self-promotion, even when crudely framed in a cartoonish self-deprecation, like when he starts talking about how he more than anyone else is responsible for the creation of the religious right by way of his pressuring his father to do work his father did not initially want to do, all with this feigned tale between his legs sort of tone. There is not a page of Schaeffer's non-fiction which does not contain a cringe causing line of bragging. The guy is obsessed with sex, and in a weird way (this new memoir apparently contains a story from his youth about the time he had sex with an ice sculpture). The guy's "mother issues" are far and away more explicit and outrageous than anyone else's I have ever read, and who the hell wants to read a 59 year old man go on about his mother issues for many hundreds of pages over several books?
On the other hand, there is something to be said for Schaeffer's ability to find ever new mediums of self-destruction and burning bridges - I can't help but admire and respect that. He is a damn good writer, especially his trilogy of novels - at least I think he has real talent writing comedy, especially dark comedy. His writing doesn't provide much in the way of gravitas and is not an example of finely tuned craft or anything like that, but I should hope nobody is reading Schaeffer for that. Both his fiction and non-fiction have a respectable narrative cadence and decent enough structure and have the perfect mix of the hysterical and the disturbing - the man can do dark comedy, and is especially suited to do religious dark comedy.
Each of his novels starts out with relatively "light" themes and becomes darker as the novel goes on. This is especially true of Portofino, which has two halves, the first a light comedy, the second a dark one. In the next two books the shift from light to dark is progressively quicker but less seamless. But the manner in which Schaeffer captures the narrative transition from light to darkness, from the merely quirky and amusing to the destructive and sadistic is a theme that many of us have lived through as we have made our way in a niche religious subculture like the one Schaeffer is parsing.
I think just about every spiritual "leader-pastor-teacher-adviser" I have ever known as well as just about every psychologist I have ever known would state that Schaeffer's obsession with pounding his parents, especially his mother, for grudges that are half a century old is, take your pick: unhealthy, sinful, neurotic, cruel, self-defeating, counter-productive, etc. There certainly is an element to reading Schaeffer that is not unlike watching a car accident take place (an Orthodox priest once said the same thing about reading my blog - ha!, fair enough). So the story goes "giving people what they deserve" in the sense of revenge usually brings about even more havoc for the giver, but at the same time, sometimes your given asshole really begged for it, and if 1/4th of what Schaeffer says of his parents in his non-fiction is true, especially that concerning his mother, well, the woman had it coming. I suppose one could get worked up about whether or not it is a good thing to support a man enacting revenge via writing by buying and reading that writing, but hell, how prudish is that? The Count of Monte Cristo was once listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum because it was said to have glorified revenge. Personally, I think that The Count is a great book, and I really can't muster any moral qualms with regard to the Count's actions as Dumas records them. Of course, the Count's fictional acts of revenge are quite a different thing from words written in a spirit of revenge seeking. The result is fairly obvious - The Count of Monte Cristo came to an end but Schaeffer's desire to hit his target seems insatiable and even seems to be growing. I wonder if the fact that his father died before Schaeffer started his anti-Schaeffer legacy project bothers Schaeffer.
But, at the end of the day, where else is one going to read about all the knob-headed, slap-stick, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me, and sordid history of the religious right? Where else does one learn that Billy Graham forced his oldest daughter into what was essentially an arranged marriage, as Franky explains in 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? Where else does one get the story of all the big name founders of the moral majority sitting around a table expressing their horror that high school students might be exposed to the nudity displayed in Italian Renaissance art as Franky's father Francis Schaeffer watches and listens in disgust, wondering who the hell he just got in bed with?
So I look forward to 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, not for any positive arguments Schaeffer will make in the book - even when I agree with his current political arguments (not so often; rich liberals are worthless), I find his argumentation as a new convert to pop liberalism as stupid as I found his old arguments for religious rightism. Rather, I'll appreciate it for the great stories and the marvel that is his sustained vehemence and disgust. Some reviews state that this memoir is more gentle than the last one, but a friend noted to me that this "take" on the new book is mostly from a secular perspective - the Evangelicals reading this book still see Franky as going after his mother and the whole L'Abri paradigm, though perhaps in a more subtle way this time so as to sustain the broadest possible readership in the mocking at hand. In any event, I'll appreciate the revenge fest because, at the end of the day, the religious subcultural tradition (and the type of fervently niche religious subculture one might say it represents) is eminently worthy of ridicule and rejection. Edith Schaeffer was a peddler of lies, pathologies, and one of the most exorbitant of hypocrites as she traveled around the world (for long periods of time) teaching young Christian women that they should be submissive stay-at-home moms, even as she left her ill son in the care of others and had outrageous and frequent quarrels with her husband. Franky's attacks may not be the best thing for Franky, but Edith made her bed, and I'll enjoy reading her son lay her in it just as I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo's marvelous achievements in the art of fanciful revenge.