On Listening to Thin Lizzy
June 11, 2011
(and reading Frank Schaeffer)
As I read Frank Schaeffer's latest book, I kept hearing the sound of Thin Lizzy's `The Boys Are Back In Town' playing in my head. Why, I wondered, was I being haunted at this moment by the track that must have been the theme tune of every teenage male wannabe in Britain in the early 80s? I will return to that question later.
I confess that I generally enjoy reading Frank Schaeffer. I rarely agree with all or even much of what he says but he generally writes good, provocative prose. I particularly enjoyed Crazy for God. I understand that it was mischievous in its blurring of fact and fiction at points. Indeed, I seem to remember that one of the great and the good warned me on this very webpage not to read it; but I did not see it as the malicious iconoclasm of the spoiled child, as seemed to be the received wisdom; I saw it rather as a son wrestling with the disconnections between the public and private lives of his father. That is an issue all children must address at some point, and the more public the parent, the more pressing such is; perhaps it is tasteless to do it as publicly as Frank Schaeffer; but tastelessness is an aesthetic flaw, not necessarily the moral one which many evangelical critics attempted to make it. I suspect that what most upset many of the readers of Crazy was that it showed that his father was indeed just like the rest of us, operating in an inconsistent way in these two worlds, the public and the private. And, of course, he rather blew the lid off the fact that orthodox evangelical theology has been as lucrative a career path for some celebrities as televised Elmer Gantrydom has been for others. Moral corruption is no monopoly of the theologically deviant. The contrasts in the latter chapters of the book between his father with his goatee and Lederhosen and the powerbrokers of the Religious Right in their Armani suits and corner offices was as eloquent as anything.
Having enjoyed Crazy, I was interested to see that Schaeffer was writing another volume of family memoirs. When the book was published late last month, it bore the title Sex, Mom, And God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics - and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway (Cambridge, MA: DaCapo). This proved to be a crazy title for a disappointing book.
There are numerous disappointing aspects to the book.His claim, for example, that Luther was effectively living with Katharine von Bora before they married is nonsense. He cites no source but I assume he has either made it up or based it on an anecdote originally drawn from one of the many Catholic accounts of the Reformation that argued `it was all about monks and nuns wanting to have sex' - as if canon law had ever stopped that from happening in the Middle Ages. At other places, his arguments trail off into rambling sentimentalism (eg. pp. 86 ff.). The book, as a whole, lacks the vibrancy and the punch of Crazy and really makes little contribution beyond showing that, from assisting his father's campaigns to repudiating his father's legacy, Frank Schaeffer has remained committed to one major notion: he and his father are very important people.
In dealing with the book, I will restrict myself to four major criticisms. First, the structure is rather rambling. Instead of using a broadly chronological thread holding the whole thing together, this time Schaeffer opts for a series of reflections on different aspects of his life in no particular order. The result is a disconnected series of chapters, some of which are little more than rants, others odd and somewhat adolescent musings on sex. Occasionally, the typical Schaeffer wit and brilliance peeps above the parapet, but on the whole there is a bitter stridency about the book which serves to undermine the satirical touches and, indeed, to undermine the legitimate polemics. Schaeffer may pride himself on having escaped from fundamentalism but it would appear that he has only escaped its doctrinal content; the form is still there: he still thinks those with whom he disagrees must be either wicked, weak-minded or in willful denial.
This brings me to my second criticism: Schaeffer is clearly high on talking about `the Other.' As with so many self-consciously trendy writers, Schaeffer overuses the term and always pretentiously capitalizes it. Ironically, he seems to assume a definition of `the Other' which is entirely conventional: women, gays, non-whites. The problem, as he sees it, is that the religious (white male) establishment is entirely incapable of understanding `the Other' on any terms other than its own. So far, so utterly conventional and predictable.
I am tempted here to launch a critique of the arbitrary and simplistic nature of such categories but space does not permit such. Instead, I will simply offer any reader of the book a thought experiment: imagine that `the Other' refers to conservative Christians; does Frank Schaeffer demonstrate any ability within the book to understand this `Other' on any terms other than his own? Not at all. Thus, as Frank had to deny his doubts in order to maintain his career as a religious leader, so he assumes others do the same (p. 67); as Frank's doubts lead him to become more hard right and more shrill, so others are presumably motivated by precisely the same thing (cf. pp. 69-71); and, as we know, 'all conservative religionists hiding behind their holy books..... [seem] to ignore the inner witness of Beauty, Humor, Paradox, Complexity, Love, and most of all in terms of what makes us humans, memories of actual experiences.' (p. 63). It is hard to imagine being able to talk in such sweeping and patronizing general terms about women, gays, or ethnic minorities. All minorities are `Others,' apparently, but some are more `Other' than others.
My third criticism is that Schaeffer lacks any real nuance when he talks about religion and politics. I lost count of the number of times he uses the phrase `Far Right' in the course of the book, terminology I usually assume should be used for Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, but which he uses for anyone who takes a firm line on abortion or traditional roles for men and women. On the first point, I guess that would make me an adherent of the `Far Right,' which would indeed make a refreshing change from being typically characterized as being on the `Far Left.'
The problem is that Schaeffer (rightly, in my opinion) argues against the Manichean forms of politics that so grip the American religious imagination but replaces them with an equally blunt taxonomy, and that built around his own personal pilgrimage. I agree with him that abortion has become a wedge issue and that the impact of this on wider political discourse is most unfortunate. Yet the answer to this is not to relativise the issue or obfuscate it (as Schaeffer seems to do in the later chapters). There are moments when I see a glimmer of hope here, where Schaeffer acknowledges how tough it is for a pro-life social and economic liberal in the American political culture of the moment; and I share many of his concerns about the more radical fringes of the homeschooling, anti-government, and male headship movements; but Schaeffer himself, with his sweeping generalizations, often rambling arguments, and seeming inability to understand that some on the `Far Right' might be motivated by a sincerity he in retrospect seems to think he lacked, seems as much part of the problem as the solution.
Finally, the sex. It is everywhere. From his mother's menstrual cycles to his own sexual adventures, sex permeates the whole thing and is used as a stick with which to beat the God of the religion which he was taught by his parents. I am not sure what to make of what is, on the surface, a theme which is to me both distasteful and juvenile. Part of me wants to believe that he is engaging in some clever Joycean game, where he writes childishly about sex to bring out the child's eye view from which he observed it all and to highlight what he sees as an immature attitude to sex promoted by the Bible. Yet I came away with the distinct impression that this was not the case: that what I was reading was a book by someone who has never emerged from the teenage needs to shock and to talk about sex all the time.
Now, I am not shocked by teenage male talk about menstruation and female sexuality; I have heard it all and probably even contributed to such adolescent conversations when I was a teenager myself. It is not shocking to me so much as tedious and tasteless. It is also confusing as to why a grown man would want to write about such things in such a manner, especially one of such evident talent and ability. Is it some kind of therapy or public self-exorcism he is attempting? That he would also wish to parade such issues in public as they relate to his parents strikes me as very odd indeed; but maybe as an uptight, buttoned-up middle class Englishman, I am incapable of understanding the American `Other' on matters of the public and the private. Like a character from Remains of the Day watching Real Housewives of Orange County, I find myself fascinated but hopelessly confused by this culture of therapeutic exhibitionism.
The adolescent need to talk about sex is the reason why I kept hearing Thin Lizzy as I read the book. It took me back to when I was fourteen and, like all fourteen year old boys, obsessed with girls and sex. I am afraid that a man who feels the need to write a book which makes the point that young men are obsessed by sex is not doing anything particularly insightful or profound. And, thankfully, I grew up.