by Jerry Waxler
As a teenager, Frank Schaeffer was filled with lust for the young women who travelled from all parts of the world to visit the Christian center run by his parents. At the beginning of his memoir “Crazy for God,” I was beginning to wonder why there was so much sexual tension in a book that was supposed to be about religion and politics. Then, a few pages later I realized why this background was important. When he was just 18 years-old, his new girl friend became pregnant. They married and had the baby.
Like many people before him, Schaeffer discovered the shocking fact that sex has consequences, a lesson which faced him every time he changed his daughter’s diaper. As an intense young man, surrounded by preachers, he couldn’t simply leave his personal discovery alone. He had to turn it into a sermon, not against his own sexual exploits but against abortion. In a few years he was working tirelessly, a human dynamo trying to rouse Christians everywhere to stand up for the rights of the unborn.
According to Schaeffer, the evil of abortion should be as self-evident to a Christian as the law of gravity was to a physicist. And so, he thought he was doing the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, down this path rode the hounds of hell.
While the most fanatical believers of his point of view were bombing abortion clinics, a much more widespread result was burrowing into the fabric of society. The pressure of these absolute positions skewed the politics of the United States, turning churches into battlegrounds for the control of government, turning every election into a referendum on abortion.
Of course, abortion opponents make an obvious point. Murder is bad, and murdering babies is enough to wake anyone in the middle of the night, screaming for justice. But when exactly do multiplying cells become a baby? The answer differs depending on who you ask. To know the moment when abortion becomes murder, you must choose the right religious doctrine over the wrong one, a battle that has created war and terror since the beginning of history.
As Frank Schaeffer grew older, he realized how politicians were manipulating his religious ideas for their own ends. He started to notice that his rigid position frightened people. His position softened, and his respect for people with diverse beliefs grew. Most interesting for me, he came to see that the abortion debate sidles up alongside sexuality. With his help, I see that sex injects a complication into what was supposed to be a simple question of stopping murder.
Sex is the act that turns an egg into a baby, and religions have long felt the need to take control. For example, in the Bible there was a woman who took sex too lightly and the punishment was public stoning. His observation raises a fascinating issue. How many of them are fighting to contain sex? And on the other side of the debate, how many who favor abortion rights are trying to take away the consequences of sex? Finally he turned his back on the evangelical movement altogether.
If you tried to understand Frank Schaeffer at any particular era of his life, you would see only one aspect of the man. At one period, he looked like a randy teenager. Then, a confused teenaged father. After that, a zealous preacher. Later still, a hypocrite who continued to speak for large fees about things he no longer believed. Then, he looked like a starving artist, refusing those easy fees while he struggled to earn money as a novelist. Finally, you would see the Frank Schaeffer of today.
When the most recent Frank Schaeffer looks at the mob mentality around abortion, he sees a situation similar to the righteous people in the Bible who wanted to stone the prostitute. In his younger days, he was leading the charge, urging greater passion. The more mature man says, “Let’s think about it more clearly.” He certainly knew the line in the Bible “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone” but he didn’t actually hear it until he grew older.
Writing about the evolution of ideas in his memoir, Schaeffer offers a profound lesson for aspiring memoir writers. When we look back on our own history, we can see ourselves in each period, and discover the set of beliefs we held then. We couldn’t know what those ideas would look like a decade later. It’s only now, as we look back through the years, that we can understand how the ideas changed. It turns out the accumulated wisdom that we earned through the course of these years is not contained in any one snapshot of our life, but in our unfolding story.
Looking back across the span of your life, when did you believe in something strongly, even zealously, and then later come to understand that your rigid ideas had consequences? For example, did you drink, assuming it would cause no harm, only to find out later that it was ruining your liver or your family? Did you believe strongly that some group was “bad” only to later discover their depth? How did your religious or spiritual beliefs change?
Write an overview of the beliefs as they moved through time. Describe the key ah-ha moments, events, readings, and discussions that spurred you along. Write about the doubts and certainties. Show how the beliefs influenced your attitudes and choices. Explore the possibility that this evolution can support some or all of the power of your memoir.