113 SEX, MOM, AMD GOD, Frank Schaeffer, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
Mom divided everything into Very Important Things, say, Jesus, Virginity, Japanese Flower Arrangements, Lust, See-through Black Lingerie (to be enjoyed only after marriage), and everything else, say, those things that barely registered on my mother’s To-Do List, like home-schooling me. So I’ll be capitalizing some words oddly in this book, such as Sin, God, Love, and Girls, and also words like Him when referring to God. I’m not doing this as a theological statement but as a nervous tic, a leftover from my Edith Schaeffer-shaped childhood and also to signal what Loomed Large to my mother and what still Looms Large to me.
. . . the words of the Bible, or even a few notes of an old hymn, cast a shadow of bittersweet nostalgia that defies reason as thoroughly as a whiff of perfume reminds a man of his first lover and evokes a longing that cuts to the heart.
The Evangelical ghetto is a network of personality cults operating, as far as nepotistic leadership and succession goes . . .
I wasted ten years or so of my life chasing “success” in Evangelical and other right-wing circles. Other than collecting material for future novels (and memoirs), I regret every moment I spent selling myths to the deluded, or I should say that I regret selling myths to myself and then passing them on to people as deluded as I was. Then I escaped, or maybe not. I’m still writing about those experiences.
Mom was not alone in struggling to make sure people knew that just because she believed in Jesus and was a fundamentalist (in the sense that she held to a literal six-day creation, a universal flood, and so forth) didn’t make her crazy. Believing in invisible things breeds an inferiority complex among people competing with science for hearts and minds. Many religious fundamentalists feel under siege by the secular world and harbor a deeply paranoid sense of victimhood. I think of those who turn their sense of victimhood into material and political success and their claims of persecution into strategies of achieving power as Jesus Victims. I don’t mean they are victims of Jesus, accruing power through the rhetoric of sacrifice and persecution and grasping at conspiracy theories about how the nefarious “World” and all “Those Liberals” are out to do them in. It is this Jesus Victim note of self-pity that ties together “These People,” as some smug secularists might label all conservative religious believers.
In reaction to the fear and loathing of Sex, women, and intimacy that resulted from the biblical teachings against premarital Sex, let along against women’s vile uncleanness, a rebellion took place. This rebellion against fear and antisexual prejudice was ushered in by the “free love” prophets-for-profit like Hugh Heffner. But what started in the 1950s and 1960s as an attempt to balance sexual fear with sanity tumbled into yet another example of dysfunctional American extremism. This happened because the practitioners of three American belief systems (that are so intense they might as well be religions) unwittingly colluded: Progressives (absolutist believers in unregulated Free Speech), conservatives (absolutist believers in unregulated Free Enterprise), and conservative Christians (absolutist believers in the uncleanness of Sex between anyone not married in a heterosexual “traditional” marriage) created a sordid monster – Porn-Gone-Nuts.
There is another choice: To admit that the best of any religious tradition depends on the choices its adherents make on how to live despite what their holy books “say,” not because of them. “But where would that leave me?” my former self would have asked. “I’d be adrift in an ocean of uncertainty.” Yes, and perhaps that’s the only honest place to be. Another name for uncertainty is humility. No one ever blew up a mosque, church, or abortion clinic after yelling. “I could be wrong.”
The books written by “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris attack God by attacking religion. But that’s not an argument that even begins to address the question of God (or some other outside power’s meddling in the formation of the Universe, let along first causes in cosmology). The New Atheists’ arguments make sense only as attacks on religion. There’s plenty to attack. But who says religion as practiced today, let along as “revealed” in holy books, has anything to do with an actual Creator? As Vincent Bugliosi writes in his remarkable book Divinity of Doubt, “Harris (like Hitchens) seems to believe something that is so wrong it is startling that someone of his intellect wouldn’t see it immediately, that gutting religion (as Harris tries to do my his technique of decimating faith that fosters religion), does not, ipso facto, topple God.”
. . . by the time the writers of the New Testament were remembering forty, fifty, sixty years later what Jesus had said, they were also building a self-interested organization based on His life. They were settling disputes and splits among themselves. What better way to strengthen their arguments than to draft The Master, in 20/20 hindsight, into supporting them in various Early Church turf wars and their fights with each other. How better to win theological battles than to “quote” Jesus about the “correct” view of celibacy or how to “deal with” the Jews or how to scare the faithful into remaining faithful or how to encourage them to stay faithful in the face of Roman persecution?
Thom Stark begins his book The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide it) like this: “In the beginning was the Argument, and the Argument was with God, and the Argument was: God. God was the subject of the Argument, and the Argument was a good one. Who is God? What does God require of us?”
Stark explains, “The doctrine of biblical inerrancy dictates that the Bible, being inspired by God, is without error in everything that if affirms, historically, scientifically, and theologically.” Stark develops a strong argument against this Evangelical/fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy. Here’s Stark’s conclusion:
The scriptures are not infallible. Jesus was not infallible, or, if he was, we have no access to his infallibility. So where is our foundation? Upon what do we build our worldview, our ethics, our politics and our morality? The answer is that there is no foundation. There is no sure ground upon which to build our institutions. And that is a good thing. That is what I call grace.
An infallible Jesus, just like a set of infallible scriptures, is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development. To have a book or a messenger dropped down from heaven, the likes of which is beyond the reach of all human criticism, is a dangerous shortcut. It is no wonder humans have always attempted to create these kinds of foundations. And it is a revelation of God’s character, from my perspective, that cracks have been found in each and every one of those foundations.
Maybe (if Stark is right) God feels slandered by the Bronze-Age-to-Roman-era “biography” of Him that, it turns out (judging by the insanity that makes up so much of the Bible), wasn’t an authorized biography, let alone an inspired one. It seems to me that as far as the best parts of Christianity go, traditions of beauty in art, music, and literature and the humanism expressed in the abolition of slavery movement and so forth, what might be called the good results are proof that enlightened believers have been picking and choosing all along when it comes to what they take seriously in the Bible. For instance, many Christians were abolitionists in the fight against slavery. Since the Bible, at best, cancels itself out on this subject, the clearly proslavery bits in juxtaposition to the enlightened do-unto-others bits, the Bible wasn’t the only source of the push for freedom. That enlightenment came from within the hearts of men and women who then cast around for any supporting argument they could find, including some verses taken out of the general context of the proslavery sentiment expressed in the Bible.
To reject portions of the Bible is not necessarily to reject God or even the essence of Christianity. A great deal of the Bible is contradicted by the Love that predates it and, more importantly, survives in you and me. And that Love edits the Bible for us. Call that editing the Holy Spirit, or call it a more evolved sense of ethics and human rights, but most people know what to follow and what to reject when it comes to how they live. Sacrifice for others, not sacrifice of others, is the message of the “better angels” of spiritual faith.
The fact that religion has time and again been awful is no more here nr there when it comes to God than the fact that humans have damaged everything we’ve touched is an argument for the liquidation of every human being. Indeed, how could religion be anything but a mess? We invented it! That doesn’t mean that the longing for meaning that drove us to invent religion isn’t a reflection of something real: a Creator Who many of us sense is there but Who is also beyond description.
I think that the best argument for God’s existence is that humans long for meaning. A corollary is that the word “beauty,” however indefinable, means something real to most people. And then there’s that question about the origin of everything, to which, I think, the only sensible answer is a resoundingly agnostic “We’ll never know.” Meanwhile science truthfully explains our evolution from single-celled organisms. But it doesn’t tell me why I know Bach’s Partita 1 en Si Mineur Double: Presto is more important than a jingle for MacDonald’s Corporation. And even if brain chemistry unravels this secret, it will reveal the how, not the why. But you and I know that when the MacDonald’s Corporation is long forgotten, chances are Bach’s music will have survived. Our longing for God (by whatever name) will also be there as one constant in a future that otherwise may not be recognizable.
The Reconstructionist worldview is ultra-Calvinist but, like all Calvinism, has its origins in ancient Israel/Palestine, when vengeful and ignorant tribal lore was written down by frightened men (the nastier authors of the Bible) trying to defend their prerogatives to bully women, murder rival tribes, and steal land. (These justifications may have reflected later thinking: origin myths used as propaganda to justify political and military actions after the fact, such as the brutality the Hebrews said God made them inflict on others and/or their position as the “Chosen People.”)
Serendipitous, messy, and joy-filled bodily-fluid-lubricated natural life, babies, and grandbabies (in other words, Love) matter most to me. I hope, Ma Chreie, that you found your own version of what Genie and I (and you and me almost) stumbled into by dumb luck and horny abandon, a life full of children, grandchildren, and friendship.
My politics was changing. By then I saw the neoconservatives as a threat to America and beyond. War without end, often in “defense of Israel,” seemed to be all the neoconservatives were really about as they fixated on a worship of military brute force put in service of some fuzzy imperial idea of so-called American exceptionalism. . .
Major newspapers let down their readers rather badly. Maybe they just couldn’t bring themselves to take what they regarded as rube religion seriously. The New York Times didn’t even bother to review Reagan’s antiabortion book, failing to mark the moment when a U.S. president officially signaled that the Republican Party had become the antiabortion party and would from them on be defined by one social issue above all others.
Pride and company would have claimed to be patriotic, but their loyalty was to a “Christian America.” They seemed to have nothing but contempt for America as it actually was. They also ignored America’s complex roots, as described wonderfully by the historian and cultural critic Jacque Barzun, who writes:
Our [American] spirit is watered by three streams of thought, originally distinct, but here mingled: The eighteenth century enlightenment view of progress toward social reason, or what we Americans know as the Jeffersonian ideal; The Romanticist view of man’s diversity, inventiveness and love of risk by which society is forever kept in flux, forever changing; The native tradition of Deafness to Doctrine which permits our Federal system to subsist at the same time as it provides free room for carrying out the behests of our other two beliefs.
The Far Right intellectual enablers began by questioning abortion rights, gay rights, school prayer rulings, and so forth. What they ended up doing was to help foster a climate in which, in the eyes of a dangerous and growing (mostly white lower class undereducated gun-toting) minority, the very legitimacy of the U.S. government was called into question, sometimes in paranoid generalities, but often with ridiculous specificity: for instance, in the persistent lie that President Obama was not a citizen or was a Muslim or that the Federal Reserve and/or United Nations were somehow involved in a plot to “take away our freedoms” or that sensible gun control equaled “tyranny.”
In the minds of Evangelicals, they were recreating the Puritan’s self-exile from England by looking for a purer and better place, this time not a geographical “place” but a sanctuary within their minds (and in inward-looking schools and churches) undisturbed by facts. Like the Puritans, the post-Roe Evangelicals (and many other conservative Christians) withdrew from the mainstream not because they were forced to but because the society around them was, in their view, fatally sinful and, worse, addicted to facts rather than to faith. And yet having “dropped out” (to use a 1960s phrase), the Evangelicals nevertheless kept on demanding that regarding “moral” and “family” matters the society they’d renounced nonetheless had to conform to their beliefs.
The tension between the beauty of life-giving and the slavery of some unwanted pregnancies can’t be resolved by a one-size-fit-all law or moral teaching. But science, aesthetics, emotions, evidence, and the collective wisdom and compassion that exist in religious teachings about loving they neighbor must be given their due when we’re trying to figure out how to reconcile the irreconcilable as best we can.
“As best we can” is not perfect. And that is where both sides in the abortion debate fail when they seem willing to tear our culture apart (not to mention constantly derail the whole progressive agenda and set it back decades) in order to stick to their fundamentalist purity on “the issue.” One side sweeps the fetus under a “rug” of moral platitudes about female empowerment, and the other does the same to women with platitudes about the sacredness of life.
“Kiss her!” screamed My Penis, sensing an opportunity slipping away.
Individuals my mother admired most were what she called “artistic types.” Creativity was Mom’s favorite word, followed closely by Continuity. Those two words, or should I say the meaning my mother gave them, came into conflict when my mother fell in love.
Whenever Mom and Dad were or weren’t doing with the men and women they very obviously had crushes on from time to time, Dad clearly favored certain young women over others, they did their best to set their children on a monogamous path. They extolled the virtues of family life and, above all, of Continuity. Of commonsense biological/psychological fact: Humans are programmed to be jealous nest-makers who (usually) don’t like to live along or be cheated on.
I think that my parents were right about the benefits of monogamy because I think that their beliefs happened to tap into larger reality of evolutionary psychology. I don’t agree with Mom and Dad’s God-Will-Hate-You-If-You-Sleep-Around theology of monogamy, but speaking in practical terms (and with apologies to Winston Churchill), I do believe that monogamy is the worst form of all sexual relationships, except for everything else that has been tried. Brain, Penis, Vagina, and Heart my bicker among themselves, but I think that kindness and common sense should win the genitals-versus-brain debate whenever possible. Hurting your partner’s feelings is stupid.
We sat in silence together for a long time.
“You should have gone with him,” I said at last.
“No, Dear, I should not have gone with him,” said Mom. “To destroy a family, you have to have a real reason. Fran is a good husband as far as he’s able to be, and I love him. You know that I do, in spite of everything. Also, you were too young to go through that. I love you.”
“I know,” I said. “I love you, too.”
Noel was the embodiment of Creativity.
My mother’s family was the embodiment of Continuity.
Mom chose Continuity. There was one small happy ending, besides Mom defending her children by not leaving Dad: Years later Mo told Genie that after I’d confronted Dad, he never hit her again.
If you stick out the bad patches of life, fight to make them better, and hang on to what counts, one day you may wake up to discover that the best gift is a grandchild.
Mom’s best efforts to rehabilitate The-God-Of-The-Bible’s sexual dysfunction failed. The sexual sickness that cripples The-God-Of-The-Bible is catching. Worshipping a “God” who sniffs around women’s menstrual cycles, hands virgins to warriors to be raped as a reward, worries about who ejaculates where, wants unmarried women who lose their virginity (premarriage) stoned to death, recommends castration so that men can become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, is the sort of “Good” who winds up attracting the worst sorts of nuts to His “cause.” And those born into that cause imbibe deeply from a well of sexual dysfunction before they make any choices of their own. They, we, are marked for life.
When I got Genie pregnant, I was deemed normal within the Evangelical ghetto in which I was raised. I could sleep with my sweetheart fearing no more than a reprimand for doing something “too soon” and “before marriage.” I might have been called a sinner, but I never would have been castigated as a deviant and told to change my inner sexual self. My “sins” left me respectably accepted within the camp of the righteous and still categorized as fully human.
Moses was condemned by “moral” people as a “freak” for being born who he is and for possessing normal homosexual sexuality. And so he stood there next to me facing death threats for having done no more than experience the same God-given emotions I had experienced when I met Genie.
Anne Hutchinson was a seventeenth-century settler in Massachusetts and an “unauthorized” Bible teacher in a dissident church group who, in the words of the state of Massachusetts monument honoring her, was a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” Hutchinson was also a student of the Bible, which she interpreted by the light of what she termed her own “divine inspiration.”
In other words, Hutchinson came to believe that in order to remain both a Christian and a sane and decent being, she had to pick and choose what she believed in her tradition. Hutchinson was banished from the colony for her stand. And Hutchinson, like all people of goodwill informed by the love-your-neighbor ethic, carried within her evolving ethical self the ability to “listen” for the Lord’s “prophetical office” to “open scripture” (as she called it).
Hutchinson seems to have concluded that religious believers should worship God, not the books about God. Another way to state her case is that God does not reveal Himself, Herself, or Themselves through books but through the heart and the “prophetical office” of the heart.
Our hearts connect to a truth larger than ourselves: Love of others in the context of community.
That is the only value of formal religion. It provides the place and time for the liturgies through which we may unite with others heart-to-heart to seek out those mysterious truths that words can’t describe but that the doing of ritual helps us tap into.
And this idea isn’t some modern-era “Liberal” view or even original with the “heretic” Anne Hutchinson. A thread of open interpretation of the Scriptures and religious tradition goes back to the beginnings of the Christian era and coexists with the narrower, harsher view of God. That “threat” teaches that we do not find God through dogma but through stillness of the soul. In that quiet place we may be given the gift of encountering something bigger and more beautiful than ourselves.
First-century Church Father Tertullian summed up this more enlightened view, exhorting the faithful, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions, our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once know and unknown.”
A whole antifundamentalist, antitheology thread in church history came to be called apophatic theology, or the theology of not knowing. This merciful and open tradition takes a mystical approach (similar to Hutchison’s) related to individual experiences of the Divine, which are given by God as a gift, not acquired or demanded.
Apophatic theology teaches that the Divine is ineffable, something that can be recognized only when it is felt after it is given. All we can “do” is shut up, listen, and wait. This ancient tradition, this humane thread, flies in the face of today’s Evangelical myths about an “inerrant,” let alone literal, Bible.
To be true to what I hope is the heart of the best of the universal religious message, I want to say the redemption through selflessness, hope, and Love necessitates a new and fearless repudiation of the parts of holy books and traditions, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or other), that bring us messages of hate, exclusion, racism, ignorance, misogyny, homophobia, tribalism, and fear. To find any spiritual truth within any religion’s holy books, we must mentally edit them by the light God has placed in each of us. As Anne Hutchinson put it at her trial, “The Lord knows that I could not open scripture; he must by his prophetical office open it unto me.”
Those who wish to live as Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, or atheists by following the humble apophatic thread, as opposed to those who wish to force others to be like them by using Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or doctrinaire secularism as a weapon, must shift from unquestioning faith in the Bible, Quran, Torah, or science to a life-affirming message of transcendence.
. . . both the religious fundamentalist and the higher-education-worshiping consumer/choice models of existence and everything that goes with both “dogmas” fly in the face of the reality of what we fundamentally are: tribal, communal, and family-seeking animals craving Unconditional Love and Continuity and Creativity.