Years ago, in high school I tried to read Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto because at the time it was the hot book in evangelical Christian circles. I say “tried” because after reading less than a third of it, I remember being turned off by what I felt at the time was his lack of intelligence and faulty use of logic. Not long after I tossed his book aside I had a brief conversation with a buddy of mine from my church youth group. While discussing Frank Schaeffer, my buddy told me, “he has a son, you know. He writes, but I think he’s trying to get by on his dad’s coattails.”
Fast forward to the present era and needless to say I was quite surprised when I heard Francis Schaeffer’s upstart son Frank had left the conservative Christian fold and struck out on his own. After writing a series of rather awful Hollywood screenplays, Frank would find greater success as a novelist and memoirist. Currently he writes for the Huffington Post on matters related to politics and religion. And speaking of religion, just like the late Biblical scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, Schaffer is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox faith. His current book, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) is Schaeffer’s attempt to find spiritual satisfaction in the middle ground between what he sees as twin dogmatic extremes of atheism and the Christian Right.
Schaeffer’s book is really two books. While espousing a more inclusive and open-ended form of the Christian faith, (and in his opinion more representative of the spirit of the early Christian church), in the first half of his book Schaeffer criticizes the “new” atheists of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for what he sees as their dogmatic, mean-spirited and close-minded arguments. Some of Schaeffer’s points are valid- Harris, although I admire him for his almost singular ability to make pithy and powerful arguments regarding the abuses of religion, can be abrasive. Dawkins at times does come across as know it all. And while I enjoyed Hitchen’s book God is Not Great, as a person, he’ s a bit of an ass. On the other hand, Schaeffer speaks rather well of atheist Daniel Dennett, while not agreeing with his arguments, Schaefer admires him for the respectful and civil tone of his writing.
After taking the new atheists to task, Schaeffer turns his sights of the Christian Right. Being a former member of their fold, (according to Schaeffer, his decision to leave cost him a 75 per cent drop in income due to his loss in salaries, speaker’s fees and future royalties), he’s quite familiar with the inner workings of their world. Rick Warren, Tim LaHayes and Franklin Graham, (son of Billy Graham) are all taken to task for their respective hypocrisies and shortcomings. According to Schaeffer, their versions of Christianity have more to do with American-style mass consumerism and bear little resemblance to the more spiritual and inclusive faith practiced by the early Christians.
The second part of the book which is mostly autobiographical, might be the weakest. While I enjoyed reading about his childhood experiences in rural Switzerland and an English boarding school, much of the material could have safely been edited out. In addition, some readers will criticize Schaeffer’s efforts to find God or spiritual purpose in the beauty of everyday earthly experiences such as babysitting his infant granddaughter, reuniting with his son after his tour of Afghanistan or spending the day with his wife at a wonderous art gallery in New York. Such readers might question if we can attribute the personal satisfaction we derive from such experiences to the existence of God or some other spiritual being or higher purpose.
For its slight shortcomings, I enjoyed much of Schaeffer’s book. While it’s not the best book on religion I’ve read recently, I liked his attempt to stake out a sort of middle ground between the two opposing intellectual and spiritual worlds.