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