Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Against nomenclature of the good

"None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did ... What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more." -Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays

"'God,' the very attitude of the word--for the lives of words were also palpable to me--seemed pushy. Impatient. Quantifiable. A call to jettison the issue, the only issue as I understood it: the unknowable certainty of being alive, of being a body untethered from origin, untethered from end, but also so terribly here." -Lia Purpura, On Looking


In his unexpectedly gentle memoir Crazy For God, Frank(ie) Schaeffer remembers his well-known father in stories that conflict with the stalwart Francis Schaeffer of evangelical, religious-right lore. The complicated portrait that emerges is one filled with light and dark, where the elder Schaeffer displays a fierce temper, months-long battles with doubt, terrible moods, and also an enormous heart.

The sources and consequences of these personal attributes are legion, and it is not my purpose here to review or summarize Frank Schaeffer's book, though I do recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the world of the elect, or its reluctant strays and apostates. But several moments in Crazy for God crystallized for me a central issue that I think has left many people, including me, banging our heads against theological walls. I'll term it a territorial nomenclature of the good and worthwhile--the insistent naming and narrowing down of the sacred, the mysterious, the loving, by established communities of faith.

is habitual pinning down was occurring long before the Schaeffers, the rise of the religious right, or Abraham Kuyper's much-quoted conclusion that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"--a mantra that is now used to justify religious appropriation and interpretation of all sorts of good art, secular efforts toward the good of humankind, and the manifold events of daily life. But today's world, and Crazy for God, is certainly rife with examples. The wonderfully inventive movie Inception is reduced to a one-dimensional allegory by a Christian magazine. A Facebook friend writes, "Thanks for that rainbow, God--I needed that!" the same day that Japan endures a devastating tsunami. The countless instances of good stuff that unassuming, unbelieving, decent people quietly do day by day is chalked up to mere "common grace" only possible because the Christian god has not let those seemingly good people behave as badly as they so want to inside.

For some, these insistent conclusions about the ultimate meaning of everything become suffocating. This was true for Frank Schaeffer, growing up at L'Abri and then working on overtly Christian films, and it also appears to have been somewhat true of the great patriarch himself. While Francis Schaeffer's legacy is one of Bible-believing theological confidence and worldview-shaping academies,
Crazy for God suggests this man was most happy and free when he did not feel burdened by some great, assured "calling" but paid more uninhibited attention to the world:

"I never saw Dad so happy as when he was looking at and discussing art. His face literally changed. He looked younger. At night when we ate in restaurants, Dad never said grace over meals. It was as if Dad and I had a secret agreement that away from L'Abri, we would pretend we were secular people. Anyone overhearing our conversations would have assumed that Dad was an art historian. If God got mentioned, it was as a subject of art. Dad left his Bible at home."

A year before his father passed away, and post-apostasy, Frank Schaeffer returned to the painting he had abandoned in order to focus on the production of "How Should We Then Live?" in early adulthood and just sat by his father's side, painting some of their favorite haunts from memory:

"I pinned and propped up the art all around my father, turning his hospital room into an impromptu gallery. The warm friendly scent of the linseed oil overwhelmed that hospital smell. I held Dad, and we cried together. And Dad answered my thoughts when he said, right out of the blue, 'We had fun in Florence, didn't we, boy?'"

I find I cannot relate to very many of the confident, happy-go-lucky theological conclusions that my more evangelically inclined associates embed in their observations of daily life: "Ah, what a beautiful day. God is good! Praise Him!" "I am making a career change because God has called me to X. I'm nervous, but being in God's will is the best place to be." "Motherhood is such an important calling. I am so blessed." What I can relate to is Francis and Franky Schaeffer, guru and heretic, feeling overcome by death and love. Marveling at a beautiful St. Louis day, even though I really can't say how it all arrived here on earth. Crying over the suffering of a grandfather far away. Laughing as my two-year-old niece tickles her sister.

Why can we not let inexpressibly good things be? Why must we name them something outside of what they already are? Why must we try to correlate everything to a divine being that, for the vast majority of us, remains deeply shrouded in mystery and contradiction? Perhaps the most devastating theological "truth" that was impressed on me growing up was that outside of the orthodox gospel there was only despair. Our only hope was in Christ, and nothing else mattered if this idea was not what I meticulously ordered my life around. I wonder if Christian leaders would be quite so insistent about this if they knew just how bereft it leaves those who find they genuinely cannot understand the world in the same way.

Well, I don't want to end on that note, so ...

"Let Emily sing for you, because she cannot pray." -Dickinson