Saturday, May 31, 2014
A Review: WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: HOW TO GIVE LOVE, CREATE BEAUTY AND FIND PEACE by Frank Schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty, and Find Peace, is a celebration of paradox. Through his masterful storytelling and insightful expository writing, Frank demonstrates how he has learned (and continues learning) to give love, create beauty, and find peace by embracing the paradoxical nature of reality.
I sense a far greater peace in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God than I do in Frank's earlier books: Crazy for God; Patience with God; and Sex, Mom, and God. This present book seems to be the culmination of the intriguing exploration that I sense going on in the earlier books.
To receive the full impact of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, it is helpful to understand that Frank Schaeffer was not raised to embrace paradox. Frank was born into a Christian evangelical missionary family, where he was taught certainty about God and an either/or view of eternal salvation. Frank's earlier books describe his growing discomfort with this worldview and his movement toward a worldview where God is seen as mystery and salvation is seen as a process - a worldview that Frank now finds in the Greek Orthodox Church.
One important paradox described by Frank in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is an amazing paradox at the heart of his own parents' faith. While expressing belief in the direct inspiration of all parts of the Bible, Frank's parents actually practiced a far more loving faith than some parts of the Bible advocate. For example, Frank tells how his parents welcomed and loved gay and lesbian couples who came to their mission, despite the Bible's curse upon those who practice homosexuality. Frank says that "no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human." (The italics are Frank's.)
This paradoxical story about his parents is just one of many wonderful life stories with which Frank fills the pages of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Many are stories of love: stories of the lifelong love of Frank's wife Genie, the forgiving love of Frank's daughter Jessica, the trusting love of Frank's grandchildren Lucy and Jack, the barbed love of Frank's film director friend "Sam," the creatively expressed love of the late artist Holly Meade, the sacrificial love of Mother Maria of Paris. There are stories, too, of sorrow: stories of a friend's sudden death, of a friend's struggle with Parkinson's disease, of a relative's diminished life due to a brain tumor, and most poignantly of Frank's deep regret for his own failures to love. And there are stories of awesome beauty: the breath-taking beauty of the stars, the austere beauty of mathematics, the glorious beauty of the Angel's aria in Handel's Le Resurrezione sung by lyric soprano Camilla Tilling, the life-like beauty of John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the delicious beauty of a warm ripe tomato from Frank's home garden.
These and many more compelling stories provide the context for Frank's wonderfully clear exposition of what he believes (hopes) lies at the heart of the universe. Here is the nutshell version: "My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang, the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love." I love this succinct sentence, and I love even more the beautiful way that Frank unwinds his reasoning, particularly in Chapters XXI, XXII, and XXVI.
So, what does Frank Schaeffer mean when he says that he is "an atheist who believes in God"? Here is Frank's explanation: "These days I hold two ideas about God simultaneously: he, she or it exists and he, she or it doesn't exist. I don't seesaw between these opposites; I embrace them." (The italics are Frank's.) What I myself understand after twice reading Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is that Frank recognizes that there is evidence for God's existence and evidence against God's existence - and that he chooses to place his hope (not his certainty) on the side of God's existence, recognizing that God may not exist while living as though God does.
A precious gift that I receive from Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is a wonderful opening within myself to embrace BOTH/AND in more and more areas of my life. I can almost feel Frank putting his hands on my sometimes tense shoulders and saying, "Relax. It's not a question of right and wrong, of either/or. Let it be BOTH/AND."
Saturday, May 24, 2014
A Review: BEING THERE: REFLECTIONS FROM SCENES OF THE MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY by Marie Louise Guste Nix
This will surprise some who know me, but I have spent much of the month of May praying the rosary! This is a result of my first visit to a meeting of the Children of Mary at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls school that I attended for fourteen years (Pre-K through 12th Grade). The Children of Mary is a group of women who meet regularly to deepen their spiritual life and to do various good works. Before this meeting on the first Saturday of May, we prayed the rosary, had Mass, crowned Mary, and sang the Marian songs I remember from my childhood. This gave me the incentive to spend the rest of the month of May praying a daily rosary. To my surprise, I am really enjoying it! I am certainly finding that the mysteries of the rosary have a far greater depth than I was able to realize as a child.
Seredipitously, it also happens that during this month, a classmate of mine at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Marie Louise Guste Nix, has had her fourth book of poems published - Being There: Reflections from the Scenes of the Mysteries of the Rosary! As soon as my copy of Being There arrived, I read it straight through and found myself deeply moved.
With Being There, Marie Louise has taken me into the thoughts and feelings of the people of the first century who actually lived through the events that we remember when praying the rosary today. To do this, Marie Louise draws upon her in-depth study of the Gospels, her deep prayer life including years of meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, and her skill and art as a poet. Marie Louise has been there time and again in spirit, in prayer, in meditation, and in imagination - and her poems take me there, too.
Here are some of the poems that I find especially moving.
- "Simeon Remembers" - I feel Simeon's weariness of years as he faithfully performs the priestly ritual for child after child after child - each one loved and welcomed - until the day he holds the promised infant messiah in his arms.
- "Rock of Grace" - I hear a cousin of Jesus voice his love and admiration for Jesus and his deep concern and worry as he hears Jesus proclaim himself to be the promised one of God, knowing the jealous reaction that this will provoke.
- "Nightmare Impossible" - I enter into Jesus' very human pain as he carries his own cross - the physical pain of each excruciating step after step after step and the emotional pain of mourning for what seems the loss of his life's mission.
- "Our Mother Is Taken to Heaven" - I listen as Mary's nurse describes her joy in caring for Mary in the last years of her life and of being there when Mary is assumed into heaven.
I should mention that Marie Louise's poems are accompanied with beautiful artwork by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and other masters, and that Marie Louise also provides questions to aid one's own reflection on the mysteries of the rosary.
Already, Marie Louise's poems have beautifully influenced my own meditation on the mysteries of the rosary. I recommend Being There, not only to anyone who prays the rosary, but to anyone interested in a fresh perspective on the events of the Gospels. Eighteen of the twenty mysteries of the rosary are straight from the Gospels and/or the Acts of the Apostles, the two exceptions being the fourth and fifth glorious mysteries (the assumption of Mary into heaven and the crowning of Mary queen of heaven and earth).
Thank you, Marie Louise!
Saturday, April 26, 2014
My friend Donna Glee Williams has just had her first novel published - The Braided Path. I have eagerly read The Braided Path twice, and I find myself in awe of the world Donna Glee has created and of the skill with which she has created it.
The Braided Path is what we might call a gentle fantasy. The story takes place in a world slightly different from ours but without such fantasy elements as magic, witches, wizards, talking animals, and other phenomena that supersede the laws of nature.
The Braided Path is what we might call a gentle fantasy. The story takes place in a world slightly different from ours but without such fantasy elements as magic, witches, wizards, talking animals, and other phenomena that supersede the laws of nature.
The Braided Path is set mostly in a Steep Land, where all the villages lie along one vertical path. One calls one's own village Home Village, and one refers to other villages by their position above or below one's own, such as Second Village Up or Fourth Village Down. Young people have two important tasks to accomplish in moving into adulthood: discovery of their limits (how far up and how far down the path they feel comfortable traveling) and discovery of their passion, which will become their life's work and their contribution to the community. For example, one may discover a passion for rope making, for dyeing, for sewing, for carpentry, for stone masonry, for baking, for midwifery, for healing, for far walking, for climbing, or for any of many other pursuits.
The novel centers on Cam (a young male) and Fox (a young female), who love each other. Both also love far walking, but Cam feels called to walk ever upward on the path and Fox to walk ever downward. The novel explores how following their calling to walk upward or to walk downward both separates and joins Cam and Fox. In fact, the novel explores the themes of separating and joining, of living from one's life passion, of choices, of work, of love and loyalty, of community and individuality, of limits and the stretching of limits, of rending and healing.
I have reviewed The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams on Amazon. In the review, I bring out the special treasures I find in this extraordinary novel. My review appears below.
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As a friend of Donna Glee Williams, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of her first novel, The Braided Path. I was expecting to enjoy The Braided Path, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary power of the world that Williams has created and of the characters who live there. I have just finished reading the novel twice. My first reading left me both stimulated and satisfied, but I knew that The Braided Path was so rich that more treasures remained to be mined in a second reading. Let me share with you some of the joys that await in The Braided Path.
First is the sheer beauty of the novel’s setting—a beauty both physical and philosophical. Williams lives in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and spends much time outdoors. She deeply appreciates the flora, the fauna, and the elements of mountain life, and she has taken the time to learn something of their science and their lore. Williams’ keen observation, coupled with her experience of writing poetry, produces physical descriptions of her novel’s world that are soul-satisfyingly lovely.
The beauty of The Braided Path exists not only in its physical world but even more deeply in its philosophical world. The characters are living from a paradigm where both the community and the individual are highly valued. There is an understanding that the community flourishes when each individual finds his or her passion and offers the fruits of that passion to the community—whether the passion be for baking, for building, for weaving, for fishing, for far walking, for healing, or for any of a multitude of other pursuits. Individuals act for the good of the community, and the community honors the needs and desires of each individual. I stand in awe of the way this balance is maintained and sometimes righted as the events of the novel unfold. I am especially intrigued by the rightful place of anger in such a world.
Second is the perspective from which the story of The Braided Path is told. As events unfold, Williams allows us to experience these events through the eyes of one character and then another. We find ourselves seeing through the eyes of Cam Far Walker, then of Fox, then of Len Rope Maker, then of Lia Midwife, then of Nish Fisher, then of little Jade, and then even of Goose the cat. Williams does this so deftly and unobtrusively that it is sheer delight when the kaleidoscope turns just slightly and we find ourselves in the mind of another character for an instant. For me, this was a highly enjoyable aspect of reading The Braided Path.
Third is the wonderful idea Williams had of including the dreams of the characters. We get to know Cam, Fox, Len, Nish, and others, not only through their waking thoughts, words, and deeds—but also through their dreams. Because Williams makes us privy to these subconscious stirrings of the characters, I feel a special closeness to them, as though my encounter with the characters includes the soul level as well as the conscious level.
Fourth is the poetic detail given to descriptions of the crafts practiced in The Braided Path, particularly rope making. Generally speaking, I do not enjoy reading technical details in a novel. How surprised I was, then, to find myself intrigued with the information about plants, fiber, braiding, and tying. The information is just enough, and the materials and actions are so beautifully described that I was captivated.
Fifth, I enjoyed the touches of humor sparkling throughout the novel. The Braided Path is not a work of humor, but every once in a while a situation or a turn of phrase is so gently funny that I found myself laughing out loud. It is a joy to discover these humor gems throughout the novel.
I have not exhausted the treasures of The Braided Path, though length compels me to stop here. I highly recommend this novel! In fact, I have already started reading The Braided Path for the third time!
Sunday, December 29, 2013
This post will explore a fifth and final gem of truth from Frank Schaeffer's 2013 novel: And God Said, "Billy!" Please note the SPOILER ALERT before proceeding.
GEM #5: THE DEEPER MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE OVER-RIDES ITS UNLOVING PARTS.
On page 288 of And God Said, "Billy!" Father Tryphon asks, "Do we follow what the bible says or what it means?" and then explains:
The underlying logic of the teaching of Jesus is that no matter what else is "in" the Bible, freedom, dignity and emancipation is the final message of faith and prophetic destiny of the human primate's evolution. . . . I acknowledge the racist teachings in the Bible implicit in the biblical endorsement of slavery and yet I override these timebound "directives" in favor of the deeper eternal and ever-evolving, ever-expanding truth that - by implication - demands that Nelson Mandela be released from prison and that I - a black man - am a full human being and that many homosexuals seeking refuge here in our community be healed of their guilt-feelings not of their sexuality and be told that they are normal, equal and welcome members of God's family.
This makes so much sense to me! The Bible contains a deep message of love at the heart of the universe, at the heart of God. That message, however, is delivered by human instruments, the writers of the Bible, so that the message comes filtered through the highly patriarchal worldview of those writers. Because the writers of the Bible saw the world through the lens of the culture in which they lived, we find that the Bible portrays God as exclusively male, envisions a hierarchical society with women subordinated to men, endorses slavery, condemns same-sex intimacy, demonizes adherents of pagan religions, and glorifies war. Some of what God is made to say and do in the Bible contradicts the core message of love. I believe that we are to use our minds and our hearts to distinguish what in the Bible conforms to the deep universal message of love and what is culture-bound.
We have abolished slavery, recognizing that its supposed endorsement by God in the Bible does not conform to the Bible's deeper message of love. I long for the day when we come to see that the condemnation of same-sex unions and any restrictions placed upon women are also contradictory to the love at the heart of the Bible. I long for the day when we evaluate any particular directive that the Bible gives by the deeper meaning that the Bible as a whole proclaims.
This post continues my reflections on Frank Schaeffer's 2013 novel: And God Said, "Billy!" The misadventures of ultra-fundamentalist Christian film-maker Billy Graham (named after the famous evangelist) culminate in four chapters containing exquisite gems of truth. I explored two such gems in my previous post, and here I will explore two more, saving a fifth and final gem for a post of its own. I reviewed the novel two posts ago.
Note the SPOILER ALERT for this post: this post could spoil the ending of the novel for someone who hasn't yet read it.
GEM #3: ATHEISM HAS A PLACE ON THE CONTINUUM OF BELIEF.
Atheism has a place on the continuum of belief. Frank Schaeffer makes this point in And God Said, "Billy!" and I believe it is true. It can make perfect sense for a person not to believe in God. It certainly makes sense for Billy to turn away from the judgmental, wrathful, rules-bound God to whom he has devoted so much of his life. Belief in this God has been extremely harmful to Billy. Father Tryphon recognizes this, and even performs an unbaptism, freeing Billy from this tyrannical God. Billy's unbaptism is described on page 298:
I guess I first really woke up the moment that you (very unexpectedly!) poured a stream of dry silvery sand over my head that you'd just scooped from the cave floor. It was so dry and powdery that it flowed like water over my head and shoulders. You said, "I unbaptize you in the name of truth, love and beauty! You are free!" and Miss Honeychurch swooped over us and you laughed and said, "A dove for Jesus and a crow for you, Billy! Perfect!"
I can imagine an unbaptism being very freeing and healing for someone like Billy, whose life has been so cramped by belief in a confining God. An unbaptism forces you to make your own conscious decisions about how you really and deeply want your life to be. You no longer simply obey God's orders without thought. Since you no longer rely on God, you are free to look deep into your own soul to decide how you will live. I think that most people will find a well of goodness there, deep within themselves.
GEM #4: LITURGY PROVIDES CONTINUITY FOR A CHANGING FAITH.
I really like Father Tryphon's views on liturgy. Liturgy provides continuity for our faith, connecting us through time across the ages and through space across the globe. Father Tryphon, on page 289, speaks of "our wonderful liturgies and traditions which bind our communities together with blessedly familiar and comfortable predictability." I agree. I do believe, though, that changes need to be made in those places of the liturgy where we have come to a different understanding of our faith. For example, I believe that the language of liturgy should not suggest that God is exclusively male, nor should it curse people who practice certain behaviors (such as same-sex intimacy) or hold certain beliefs (such as paganism).
My next post will explore a fifth and final gem of truth in Frank Schaeffer's And God Said, "Billy!"
Saturday, December 21, 2013
In my previous post, I reviewed Frank Schaeffer's latest novel: And God Said, "Billy!" In this post, I will reflect further on And God Said, "Billy!" -- possibly in ways that could spoil the novel's ending for anyone who hasn't read the book. My aim is to explore two gems of truth offered by the novel. Subsequent posts will explore additional gems of truth.
GEM #1: ONE CAN BE TEMPTED TO THINK THAT ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW
Billy's twisted logic shows how easy it can be to convince oneself that one is above the law. Billy truly seems to believe that he is an exception to moral laws. When he runs out of money and thinks of an easy way to steal what he needs, he believes that this idea is a directive from God and that his managing not to get caught is proof of God's blessing on his action. He seems to think, "Because I am showing extraordinary obedience to God by undertaking this special film-making mission, I stand outside the laws of basic morality, which are for less dedicated humans." With this way of thinking, one can justify a lot of wrong behavior.
GEM #2: LOVE POINTS US TOWARD GOD
Doctrine does not point us toward God, or if it does, it does so only faintly. Facts that we learn about God just don't take root in our souls. Some doctrinal systems can even create a harmful image of God, as is the case with Billy. Billy's God requires him to endure a years-long separation from his wife and daughter, preventing him from being the husband and father he longs to be. Billy's God also requires him to direct a film with no artistic merit as a "stepping stone" to his real film mission, to tell lies in order to keep up appearances, to judge harshly any person whose behavior puts him or her into the classification of "sinner," to see an eternity in the fires of hell as a real possibility, to squash his ability to think so that he can embrace a narrow view of biblical inerrancy. What Billy believes about God diminishes him and causes him much pain and suffering.
Later, Billy begins to experience God more authentically through his experience as a giver and as a receiver of love. As a giver, Billy deeply loves his daughter, Rebecca. He is truly pained by the years-long separation from her, necessitated by his film-making mission. As the Russian Orthodox Father Tryphon (Billy's rescuer) points out, surely God (if God exists) has far greater love than do we. If we want to know what God is like, we need only look at the best within ourselves. If Billy can love Rebecca with such pure aching longing, how much more does God love us. Billy also experiences love as a receiver when he is rescued from an extremely dangerous situation by Father Tryphon and the other Russian Orthodox monks of the Monastery of Saint John of Kronstadt, who put thenselves in danger to help Billy. Billy has done nothing to deserve the love freely offered to him by Father Tryphon and the monks.
The love Billy feels for Rebecca and the love Billy receives from Father Tryphon and the Russian Orthodox monks point him toward God far more clearly and strongly than any facts about God could ever do. Our souls respond to love, not to facts. I should add, though, that our minds respond to facts. Facts that provide mental support for what our soul knows through experience can be very enriching.
In this post, I have explored two gems of truth from Frank Schaeffer's novel And God Said, "Billy!" In my next post, I will explore two additional gems.
I have just read Frank Schaeffer's latest book: a novel titled And God Said, "Billy!" This post will present a review of the novel.
First, a summary. The main character of And God Said, “Billy!” is an ultra-fundamentalist Christian who believes that God has instructed him to leave his wife, Ruth, and their three-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in New Hampshire and move alone to California to make a film about the end of the world, when Christians will be raptured into heaven. His name is Billy Graham—his parents named him after the famous evangelist. As the novel opens, Billy has been away from home for three years without seeing Ruth and Rebecca, who is now six. Although he misses his wife and daughter terribly, Billy believes that obedience to God requires him to concentrate fully on his film-making mission. However, no one in Hollywood has expressed any interest in his apocalyptic film script. Eventually, Billy is persuaded that he must first make a more crowd-pleasing film as a “stepping stone” into the Hollywood film world—and he finally finds someone who engages him to direct a “sexy thriller” in South Africa. This turns out to be a very shady business deal and multiple problems ensue. Billy finds himself trapped in an extremely dangerous situation, from which he is rescued in an amazing way that I won’t reveal in this post. The rescue is not only physical but also spiritual—for Billy’s narrow fundamentalist views have been sucking the very life out of his soul.
And God Said, “Billy!” is Frank Schaeffer’s answer to the question “Who is God?” through a novel-length story. While acknowledging that no definitive answer can be given to this question, Frank Schaeffer has nonetheless found a satisfying answer that embraces the mystery, love, and paradox at the heart of the universe.
Frank Schaeffer dealt extensively with the question “Who is God?” in his 2009 non-fiction book Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism). In Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer very effectively inter-weaves stories and explanations to show that it is through giving and receiving love, rather than through any system of doctrine, that we experience God. And God Said, “Billy!” makes this point in another way—through fiction. Here, we have a whole novel in which to engage with the main character, so that what the main character learns, we also learn at a deep level because of that long-term, novel-length engagement.
And God Said, “Billy!” is extraordinary in showing the machinations of the human mind in justifying wrong behavior. Sometimes we hear of Christian pastors who have sex with prostitutes or who embezzle church funds, and we wonder how someone who purports to follow Jesus and to lead others in the ways of Jesus could do such wrong things. And God Said, “Billy!” shows precisely how. Frank Schaeffer takes us inside Billy’s mind, where we listen to Billy’s thoughts as he justifies lying, stealing, attending a night club featuring nude women, and directing a film full of sex and violence with no artistic merit whatsoever. Frank Schaeffer takes us through the twists and turns of Billy’s “logic” as Billy convinces himself that these actions are actually God’s directives. Some of this is quite funny, and I found myself laughing aloud at some of Billy’s mental gymnastics.
And God Said, “Bllly!” is also extraordinary in showing how our view of God will result in suffering or in freedom. The novel illustrates the intense suffering inherent in seeing God as a judge who sends people to hell for wrong beliefs and wrong actions. We really “get” that suffering because we see it up close as we walk through the novel with Billy. And God Said, “Billy!” also opens the freeing possibility of seeing God as a mystery of love. We “get” this, too, as we walk with Billy through the aching love he gives to his daughter, Rebecca, and the gratuitous love he receives from his rescuers. Could it be that the love we experience—both as giver and as receiver—is a stronger and clearer indicator of who God is than the body of doctrine put forth by any religious institution?
To fully appreciate And God Said, “Billy!” I think we need to see it as a satire, perhaps even a lampoon, of ultra-fundamentalist Christianity. Frank Schaeffer stretches the exaggeration inherent in this type of writing almost to, but not beyond, the breaking point. As a result, I found certain sections of the novel a bit tedious, though the novel as a whole offered more than enough intrigue for me to continue through the rough patches. I’m very glad that I did, because the last four chapters of the novel contain exquisite gems of truth that ring all the truer for me because I stuck with Billy through all that he endured in order to learn them.
Frank Schaeffer is in a unique position to write And God Said, “Billy!” As a young adult, he himself earned his living as a Christian fundamentalist speaker and writer, but eventually he became deeply dissatisfied with this worldview and converted to Greek Orthodoxy, where the mystery of God (rather than facts about God) is emphasized. Frank Schaeffer has also directed several films, at least one of them in South Africa. And God Said, “Billy!” is enriched by Frank Schaeffer’s own inside experience as a film director, as a former committed Christian fundamentalist, and as one who has adopted a deeper but less defined view of God.