I abandoned Protestant Christian fundamentalism many years ago for Greek Orthodoxy. I converted because the Orthodox tradition embraces paradox and mystery. For someone raised in a strict Calvinist home, relief from absolutist certainty was most welcome.
But Christian fundamentalism has not abandoned me. It's come back to haunt me in both liberal and conservative forms. I find myself a minor lightning rod in the culture wars: apparently, I haven't chosen sides well enough.
You see, I write novels and nonfiction for a living. My novels describe a boy growing up in Switzerland as the son of American Calvinist missionaries. In these books, I take what I hope is an empathetically amusing insider's look at what it's like to grow up in a home run by zealots who make it their life's work to separate themselves from the World.
My most recent nonfiction work, "Keeping Faith, A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine
Corps," I co-wrote with my son John. It's about the aftermath of his 1999 decision to join the U.S. Marine
So now I'm swimming in a vortex of indignant e-mail from members of both the "Christian right" and the
"Christian left." Some Christian evangelical/fundamentalists who disliked my earlier novels find my latest one particularly offensive. They've written to me that they hate everything about it, starting with its "pornographic" cover (a bra and postcard of the Matterhorn are featured). In the book, the fourteen-year-old protagonist is torn between his volcanic burgeoning sexuality and a fundamentalist family so strict that he has never seen a movie, watched television, or danced (read an excerpt).
Apparently, some fundamentalists recognize themselves in the parents portrayed in the book and don't like looking in the mirror. They also don't like sex. The gist of their angry letters is: Take a number, God will kill you soon.
On the other side of the fence, my liberal readers assume I must be "some sort of right-wing war monger" because the book I wrote with my son expressed admiration for the Marine Corps. They accuse me of being the sort of imperialist who would stone Jesus to death if given the chance.
These two groups of Christians presumably don't like one another, but from where I'm sitting, they are more alike than different. To these members of the religious right and left, there seem to be only two choices: for
or against their dogmas. And, like certain fundamentalist Muslims much in the news of late, they too seem to have no concept of the separation of art, culture, and religion. Dogmatic purity must be adhered to in all endeavors and the slightest deviation is a serious offense. Moreover, no one with a sense of humor about religion (let alone sex!) need apply.
I know something about fundamentalism. I'm the son of a fundamentalist evangelist. My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a guru/prophet to his evangelical followers. Almost 20 years after his death, thousands of his
books still sell each year. My father was very influential in the beginnings of the so-called Religious Right. Through his voluminous writings, he provided intellectual underpinnings for the views of tens of thousands of fundamentalists on such issues as a literal interpretation of scripture.
The Christian fundamentalists who stumble across my novels because of the family name detest them because they're about religious people and are set in Europe, where my parents had their mission. Some evangelical
readers take them as biographies and are offended that the parents in the stories are portrayed warts and all, thus besmirching the memory of Francis Schaeffer. Other fundamentalists just don't like anything
that pokes fun at the narrow legalistic Christianity in which they have invested themselves and with which they are inflicting their children.
Meanwhile, one liberal reader e-mailed me about my Marines book: "You seem not to understand the simple purpose and message that was Christ's life... I, for once, am gladdened that MY [Catholic] church has demonstrated the backbone to speak against this criminal invasion [of Iraq]... Yes, Jesus was/is a radical and you seem to be the kind of person in the crowd throwing stones at him for challenging the status quo." Never
mind that my son and I wrote our decidedly personal, non-political account before the Iraq war was even
on the horizon -- in fact, before 9-11.
And, in a letter that appeared in the Los Angeles Times (April 17, 2003), another reader suggests that my problem is that not only that am I pro-Marines but that I'm white. "Schaeffer obviously suffers from guilt based on perceived privilege of class and race. (He is white, of course.) It is the use of young people like his son for imperialist projects in the invasion of Iraq that is the shame here, not a rejection of military
service..." You get the idea.
Then a reader who liked the Marine book but hated my latest novel wrote: "WHY did you write these novels? Are you trying to insult the evangelicals? If so, you are succeeding... I admonish you, remove these books from
the marketplace." Then this from a fan who used the fact that my son is currently deployed in the Middle East to amplify his critique: "In your 'Zermatt' you get cheap laughs at fundamentalists who actually believe in
avoiding fornication even as your own 'heart,' your son, is in harm's way. Frank, God isn't mocked. A friend of mine just died of a massive stroke Friday night. Repent before it's too late. It isn't going to matter what
Publisher's Weekly said about you back in 2003 when you stand before God's throne...."
So I'm caught in the shrinking space between two calcified political doctrines of the left and right. My correspondents seem so certain of everything -- especially that God is on their side.
I hope there is still room in our polarized country for Christians like me, who don't subscribe to any one-dogma-fits-all. It seems to me that life is too short, sweet, and mysterious for us to be able to exhaustively "explain" anything much, let alone explain everything with certainty.
For those of us who write, the choice these days seems to be between picking an ideological side (and learning to see things in black and white), or being wanderers unwelcome in either hostile camp. Come to think of it, that is not a bad place to be, at least for someone who believes in paradox and mystery.