Friday, November 06, 2009

Review: Crazy for God

Crazy for God is Frank Schaeffer's memoir about how he grew up in a Swiss mission, helped to found the anti-abortion fundamentalist movement, became a mover and shaker within the movement, and finally broke away from it when he realized how corrupt and irrational fundamentalism was.

Because the local Methodist school was one that had a good reputation for teaching English, my parents sent all three of their sons there. Ironically, our experience there made all three of us virulently non-Christians, and none of us could tolerate the middle-eastern origin religions as a result. I've long wondered whether people ever got sick of these hell-fire and damnation religions, and reading this book told me that it took an unusual person to actually submit themselves to rationality after years of indoctrination, but that it's actually possible.

Schaeffer grew up in a typical hot-house environment, since a missionary essentially lives off charity. What amuses me is how aware the kids are about who has how much money, right from the start, as the Edith Schaeffer, Frank's mother, continually talked about how much money someone had and could give if only he was more devoted to god. The amount of cognitive dissonance his parents had must have been considerable --- since they were fundamentalists (Edith Schaeffer was a dancer, but gave it up because God frowned upon dancing --- these really were the Taliban of America), they raised their children in strict accordance to the scriptures, but because they themselves had a love of art and the classics, would go on vacation to Italy and visit museums and teach their kids art history.

Contradictions were apparent and all over the place, whether it came to Frank's own experience with pre-marital sex (he got his wife pregnant and had to have a hurried wedding --- much to the horror of the community around the mission, but with the support of his parents!), or the kind of person who showed up at the mission, one of which was a woman who was hoping to marry someone Asian so she could go to Asia as a missionary. Yet Schaeffer referred to his parents as tolerant, well coming of everyone from hippies to drug addicts.

Things got more relevant to contemporary politics in the middle of the book, where Schaeffer describes how he persuaded his father to go into the abortion battle, and ended up producing two TV-series that became the heart of the evangelical movement. You can tell Schaeffer is not proud of those years, since the chapters on his presence in the anti-abortion and fundamentalist movements went really quickly. He does, however, pause to explain what most non-fundamentalists already knew --- the leaders of the fundamentalist movement consider their followers little people, who can't think for themselves and are to be exploited at every opportunity, and at the top levels, the fundamentalist movement is extremely corrupt. He made the comment at one point that while he had preached that American culture had become secular and humanist and therefore corrupt and was doomed to failure, he himself had never lived in America, and having to do so was a shock. The chapter where he moved to America as a person with Swiss upbringing and the many shocks American culture came with was a lot of fun.

Things got to the point where Schaeffer was basically doing his speeches by rote, and blanking his mind whenever he said something that he patently knew was not true. The result was that he ended up trying to get away from the movement, first as a film producer, and finally successfully as a novelist. He is now a member of the Greek Orthodox church, and no longer encourages intolerance.

All in all, the book is entertaining and worth reading for a view of what the evangelical movement looks like from the inside. It's a pity that the movement shows no sign of dying out.
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