I should begin my review of Frank Schaeffer’s latest book, Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism)(Da Capo Press, $25.00, hardcover), with a disclaimer: I have an indirect financial interest in Mr. Schaeffer’s success as a writer. Frank Schaeffer wrote a beautifully-crafted, thoughtful, and gracious foreword for my forthcoming, yet-to-be-named book on American Christianity’s response to undocumented (or “illegal”) immigration. His name will appear next to mine on the cover of my book because my publisher, Westminster John Knox Press, hopes Frank Schaeffer’s fame will rub off on me in a way that is profitable for everyone involved.
I asked Frank Schaeffer to write the forward to my book because I admire his work. The wit displayed in Frank’s writing has made me laugh out loud in inconvenient places (I first read his novel Portofino in the close quarters of a transatlantic flight) and I have wept at the beauty of Frank’s non-fiction prose, in the silence that descends upon my house when everyone but me is asleep. Reading Patience With God confirmed what I suspected to be the truth: I asked the right guy to pen the foreword to my book. More than ever I want to be on Frank Schaeffer’s team. From the pulpit and in the blog-o-sphere, as an author, as a husband, as a father, and as a friend, I want to live and practice the kind of faith offered up by Frank in his latest book, a summary of which is to be found in the book’s last chapter:
At its best, faith in God is about thanksgiving, shared suffering, loss, pain, generosity, and love. The best religious people and best secular people learn to ignore their chosen (or inherited) religions’ nastier teachings in order to preserve the spirit of their faith, be that faith in secular humanism, science, or in God. It’s the tediously consistent fundamentalists—religious or atheist—who become monsters. They are so sure they have the truth that they dare claim that only the members of “my” religion will be saved. (p.225)
In the first part of Patience With God Schaeffer takes on both the fundamentalists who call themselves “New Atheists”—writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—and the fundamentalism that marks the Christianity of his earlier life. Both the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists are, in Frank Schaeffer’s eyes, cut from the same cloth. Both types of fundamentalism are marked by absolutism, intolerance, and a desire to convert “non-believers.”
Roughly half of the book’s first part is familiar. Schaeffer condemns the closed-minded intolerance of the Evangelical Christianity in which he was raised. This is something Frank does well, both as a storyteller and as a writer of non-fiction. For years Frank Schaeffer has used his personal narrative as the son of prominent American Evangelical leaders, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, to critique American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. It’s always a good read when Frank is writing about the faith of his father and mother, still, it is nice to discover that his abilities as a critic extend beyond his family’s Evangelicalism.
With wit and insight Schaeffer exposes Richard Dawkins as tee-shirt-and-trinket-selling evangelist, Sam Harris as a dangerous extremist who—with no sense of irony—would kill some religious people because their beliefs are dangerous, and Christopher Hitchens as a sex-obsessed intellectual lightweight, and he does so using ideas and images he has gleaned from the world of art and music and from his experiences as a husband, father, and grandfather. It’s wonderful, because when Frank Schaffer addresses the narrow-mindedness of atheists and of religious fundamentalists, he uses a broad-minded approach. His arguments appeal to the artist, the mystic, the lover, and the poet residing in each of us.
It works, and it gets better, because in the second half of the book, Schaeffer proposes a faith that is experiential: to know God is to experience God in the same way that a young boy discovers beauty in the craftsmanship of a Swiss bricklayer, or in the way a grandfather experiences love in the company of his infant granddaughter. This is religion that is more comfortable saying what it does not know than what it does know; this is a faith of humble, loving compassion that sustains the father who sends his son off to war, and that inspires even the hardest heart to give thanks for the beauty of a new day. It is faith for people who don’t always know all the answers and who are tired of pretending they do. In short, this is my kind of religion, and I’m happy it’s so well represented by as skilled and as admirable a writer as Frank Schaeffer.