In chapter 15 of Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer spends a couple pages on the topic of faith. In one of the better chapters in the first half of the book, he writes about how most of our big decisions in life are made on faith, not for what we know will happen but for what we hope will happen, what we need to happen. He also addresses a topic that has received a good bit of attention, his fathers occasional abuse of his mother. He has been criticized for bringing that to light, but I think the criticism is unjustified. He talks about it, not out of malicious intent to disrespect his parents or try to paint them as evil – far from it – but because it is a part of his story. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, her book on writing (paraphrasing), “the first thing you have to do when you write your family history is forget about your great-aunt pointing her bony finger at you and saying “never tell anyone about this”.” We are our stories, and while discretion should be used, I don’t think Schaeffer crosses a line here. (For those interested in reading more of his thoughts about this area of his parents’ lives, check out this interview.
Back to the subject of faith, Frank writes “Believers tend to grasp wildly at anything that gives them hope, including clinging to religious leaders who throw things at their wives, then preach on love or run out of food on a pilgrimage to some promised land.” He continues:
Falling in faith and falling in love can be understood the same way. People fall in love with no evidence of how a relationship will work out and no real knowledge of who their partner is, let alone who they will be ten, twenty, or thirty years later. There are no good reasons. And people get “saved,” and pick a religious leader to follow, in about the same way.
We never have any real information about anything important. It takes a lifetime for the ramifications to be worked out…
The irony is that we all – secular or religious people alike – make our biggest life-shaping decisions on faith. Life is too short to learn what you need to know to live well. So we make a leap of faith when it comes to what we should believe in, who we will marry, and our careers. Who we happen to meet, one conversation when you were eighteen, the college course you happened to sign up for, the teacher you liked, the elevator you missed and the girl you met in the next one, decide whole lives. You would have to live a lifetime to be qualified to make any big decisions. And since we can’t do that, we trust to luck, religion, or the kindness of strangers. Only the trivialities – say, buying cars, washing machines, or airline seats – are chosen on the basis of good information. I’ve always known I like aisle seats, but what does one really want in a wife? And spiritual leaders are selected like spouses, not like airline seats. There is never a good reason, just a feeling, just that fear of death that must be overcome somehow by something – by religion, or orgasms, or art, or having children, or politics – by anything that interrupts the contemplation of oblivion.
The paradox is that sometimes the less it makes sense, the better it works. And the less one knows about the “holy” people we follow, the better. One of the mysteries of human need is that religious leaders must become more than the sum of their fallible, sometimes awful, parts, because other people need them to be more. This does not make the religious leader a hypocrite; it just shows that the rest of us are desperate.
So when Billy [Graham] preached, no one wanted to know why he’d gotten his daughter into an arranged marriage with the son of a very wealthy donor. And when my father stepped up to preach at a multitude of Christian colleges, few knew, or would have wanted to know, that my sisters and I sometimes huddled in our beds listening to the dull roar of his voice as he screamed at my mother and occasionally abused her.
Part 3 will be coming soon.