The follower of Jesus’ example—be she an atheist scientist working on a neuropsychology project, a pastor counseling gang members, a husband bringing his wife her coffee or a mom picking up her child at preschool—will do anything it takes to live the reality of what it means to walk in another person’s shoes. To help us do that is the only point of going to any church or, for that matter, logging on to an atheist website.
-Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God by Frank Schaeffer
This is the first book by Frank Shaeffer I have read. I became familiar with him after watching the Hellbound? documentary by Kevin Miller. The things Frank said in his interviews for that documentary really stuck with me. I found him even more interesting after learning that his father was the famous American evangelical Francis Shaeffer.
A few weeks ago I heard Frank interviewed on the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast where he was discussing this book. I again found what he had to say intriguing and challenging, and as fate, random occurrence or divine intervention would have it, this book went on sale on Amazon.com that same day.
The title of the book sets the tone right away. “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God” is shocking in it’s contrast and contradiction. Depending on how tightly you hold to your own position on the existence or non-existence of God, it might even piss you off. What I found in the pages (and through the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast) is that shock through contradiction is Frank’s style. It’s his confrontational style is definitely in-line with my own evangelical upbringing, so maybe that’s some of his appeal for me.
Frank throws down his gauntlet early in chapter II saying:
“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 see-saw between these opposites; I embrace them. I don’t view this embrace as requiring a choice between mere emotion and fact, or between evolutionary biology and spirituality. Reality can’t be so neatly parsed. Neuroscientists who analyze our chemistry-based brains still fall in love. Preachers declaiming a literal view of the Bible and a so-called young earth still use petroleum products only found because geologists operate on the premise that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. I don’t view my embrace of opposites as a kind of agnosticism. I view it as the way things actually are. An agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in God. I’m not that person. I believe and don’t believe at the same time.”
He clarifies the trajectory of the book further by way of quoting University of California professor Howard Wettstein:
“The theism-atheism-agnosticism trio presumes that the real question is whether God exists. I’m suggesting that the real question is otherwise and that I don’t see my outlook in terms of that trio … The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life.”
Despite the sub title of the book being “How to Give Love, Create Beauty, and Find Peace” this book is not a “how to” book or even really a structured linear sort of book. I’d say it’s more like a collection of essays (with a touch of memoir). It very much reminded me (in style, not substance) of Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies. In each untitled chapter Frank may discuss, question, or rant about a particular issue or topic or he may describe a memory or moment during his life. The topics range from theology, politics, family life, art, music, food, church, etc.. Even though each chapter could certainly stand on it’s own, the theme of contradiction dances and weaves through each chapter giving them a sense of cohesion.
Sometimes I got whiplash from chapter to chapter following back and forth between Frank’s contradictory thoughts and opinions, but over time I began to be more and more comfortable in the “chaos” of it. I started to see that even though Frank calls himself agnostic and rejects many Christian orthodoxies, he’s a man seeking to follow Jesus with an honesty most of us aren’t comfortable with acknowledging. I was reminded of the demon possessed boy’s father in the Gospel of Mark who exclaimed “I believe; help me in my unbelief!”
I found that ideas in this book resonate with me in this time of my life. I’m rejecting or de-constructing many of my old fundamentalist beliefs. The cognitive dissonance can sometimes feel like a crushing burden, but as I looked at Frank’s way of dealing with it — which was not to deal with it at all — I can see a sort of comfort in his approach. I don’t have to have it all figured out. My ducks don’t have to be in a row. I don’t have to have all my beliefs systematized. They don’t have to make sense to anybody else. Hell, they don’t even have to make sense to me. My faith isn’t in myself, my capabilities, or even my reason. It’s in the vastness of God who, even though I believe he dwells in me, I hardly seem know at all.
I’ll be posting some of my favorite passages of the book the next few days. If they spark your interested, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy
my brain flutters
not picking up any one
too tired to lift
too tired to carry
my neck, back
twist & knot
like these tossed and turned
chaining me awake
the day can’t tell
maybe just a swath
to match the raining sky
I just finished the fabulous book On the Road with the Archangel by Frederick Beuchner. It’s an artistic retelling of the apocryphal (at least if you’re Protestant) Book of Tobit. It follows almost exactly the story from the Apocrypha, but where the ancient tale paints the characters and situations in sort of a gunmetal grey hue, Buechner brings them to life with vibrant colors. While not deviating from the original except to name a few unamed characters, Buechner fills in the spaces of each person and situation with imagined personalities, internal conflicts, concerns, hopes, dreams, and quirks.The story begins with Tobit who was a righteous and devout family man. He often risks his well of himself and his family in service to others (and in hope of earning favor with the Holy One.) After falling asleep one night under the ivy in his courtyard, Tobit awakes to the birds cheerfully pooping in high eyes. This causes him to go blind and after years of shame, frustration, and embarrassment Tobit prays for God to end his life.
Hundreds of miles away, at the same moment, a young woman named Sarah offers up a similar prayer for death. Years ago she was betrothed to a man she didn’t love, and in hopes of avoiding the marriage she made a pact with the demon Asmodeus to help her escape. Unfortunately she neglected to be specific about the means of escape and on the night of her wedding Asmodeus shows up and kills her new husband. Over the course of six more attempted marriages Asmodeus appears on the wedding night and kills each new husband in turn. Feeling ashamed for her role in their deaths and stung by the accusing glances of the community who have assumed she is a black widow, Sarah contemplates suicide. Her concern for how a suicide would break her father’s heart and shame her family dissuades her however and instead prays instead that the God would take her life.
Up in the heavenly realms, the archangel Raphael diligently carries the prayers from earth to the throne of the Holy One. As God listens to the prayers of Tobit and Sarah His heart is filled with mercy and He sends Raphael himself down on a special assignment to make things right for Sarah and Tobit.
What happens over the course of the rest of the story is a fascinating and funny imagining of the hand of the Holy One at work weaving fishing gut, marriage, and too many fortuitous meetings into the restoration and blessing of Sarah, Tobit, and their respective families.
The difference between the original and this retelling was the difference between the sound of a single horn player and the roar of the imaginary symphony in Tobit’s mind. The characters and situations are all so relatable and funny that the reader can’t help but be drawn into the story.
The e-book version I read was only 115 pages and could easily be read in one long sitting or over a few days. It’s a fun, engaging, and lighthearted story that I highly recommend.