It's likely that you have never heard of Francis Schaeffer, the late evangelical Christian writer and minister. But, chances are also good that your life has been affected by his work. His son, Frank Schaeffer, has spent a good part of the last twenty years writing memoirs and novels about his father and his family, their unusual lives, and his own regrets about the direction he helped take evangelical Christianity in America through his involvement with what he calls "the Schaeffer-Saving-America-From-The-Liberals road show" (17).
In Sex, Mom, and God Schaeffer brings out more of this material, but focuses on his relationship with his mother. He works through her ideas about God and sex, as well as his complicated relationship with her and also with other women. Along with amusing and eyebrow-raising anecdotes about their life as missionaries in the Swiss Alps (notable among them: his mother explaining that semen is no longer unclean after Christ's redeeming death, a youthful attempt at sex with an ice sculpture), Schaeffer explains the nature of right-wing Evangelical groups and analyzes the reasons behind their often peculiar ideas and actions. The story turns on a few themes: his parents' affection for and neglect of their youngest child (Frank), his frustrated fascination with sex, his discomfort with the family's religion but love of their aesthetic sensibility, his move to the right as a young adult, and his gradual abandoning of his formative beliefs and practices. Along the way, the reader is treated to a compelling and affectionate portrayal of his complex and conflicted mother.
The two strands of the book, memoir and analysis, are each valuable in its own way but they don't always work well together. For a reader unfamiliar with the kind of Christianity Schaeffer describes, the book provides a helpful picture into the good and bad of living as a fundamentalist Evangelical and the author manages to avoid undue vitriol when describing the groups and people with whom he grew up. However, his analysis of what motivates these people and groups is too personal to have much value as an objective account and his discussion of evangelical Christianity does not cover the broader spectrum of views within evangelicalism. Further, his explanations read like rather amateur psychology and psychoanalysis. To be fair, Schaeffer never claims to have credentials to offer a more objective account. However, he offers these analyses as if they were as well informed as are his personal accounts of meetings where he helped shape evangelical involvement with right-wing politics. Schaeffer offers explanations of motivation such as, "Believing in invisible things breeds an inferiority complex among people competing with science for hearts and minds." (33), that are plausible but not clearly substantiated by research rather than opinion.
This weakness is closely associated with one of the strengths of the book: his intimate acquaintance and personal struggle with the ideas and behaviors of several influential fundamentalist evangelicals. Schaeffer offers a story that few others could tell because he was there in person for the development of an alliance between religion and politics in America that continues to shape both. In case we might think he's overstating the case for his family's importance, Schaeffer mentions his father's interactions with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. He recounts his relationship with C. Everett Koop in working up anti-abortion videos series and books before Koop was appointed Surgeon General in 1982. He also points out that the Schaeffers' influence continues to the present with Mike Huckabee listing Francis Schaeffer's Whatever Happened to the Human Race? when asked what book he'd take to a desert island. The stories are important in their way and include little-known groups like Reconstructionist evangelicals, homeschooling advocates, and a modern-day submissive wives movement.
The best features of the book are his vivid anecdotes about a most unusual life and his caring exploration of his relationship with his mother throughout their lives. It's in telling about his mother that his gifts as a writer shine most brilliantly and where his overall message comes through. As he puts it, "Edith Schaeffer herself was the greatest illustration of the Divine beauty of Paradox I've ever encountered. She was a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her own judgmental rules in favor of creativity… (91)." Frank Schaeffer clearly believes that his mother was better off for her inconsistencies and he thinks we all would do well to follow her example in this. His argument is that our ideals, whether conservative or liberal, religious or secular, will lead to tyranny if we cannot accept the limits of such worldviews and use empathy to see past our ideas to the importance of other people. Family and friends make a life go well, and we should never allow our ideals and ideologies to get in the way.
Sex, Mom, and God is written in clear, informal language; though tedious in some places, it is a compelling narrative overall. The intended audience is diverse. Clearly, Christians familiar with the elder Schaeffers may want to read about the family and see what they were really like. However, Frank puts in enough sex and swearing to signal that this isn't really a book meant for Christian bookstores. On the other hand, his liberal friends and readers of his Huffington Post essays will find his sermonizing is more often than not directed at them and their ideals. There is little that is overtly relevant to mental health issues, but for a mental health worker with a diverse set of clients the book does offer a window into the soul of one ex-Evangelical and, at its best moments, into the minds of fundamentalist Evangelicals more broadly. Schaeffer does offer a first-hand account of one evangelical's unusual childhood and the life of a recovering fundamentalist.
© 2012 Dennis Trinkle
Dennis Trinkle II is a Ph. D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He specializes in philosophy of mind, psychology, and psychiatry. At present, he is working on a dissertation about the nature of mental disorders.