Recommended Summer Reading: “Sex, Mom, and God”

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Posted on June 20th, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Book Review, Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
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Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway

By Frank Schaeffer

Hardcover. 281 pp. Da Capo Press.

Before I knew Frank Schaeffer as an author, I knew him as a fellow parishioner and friend.  In our small Greek Orthodox parish, Frank plays second fiddle to his wife Genie, whose unique decorating talents, impeccable cooking, and event planning skills make her part of the backbone of our congregation. It was Genie who first told me that Frank was working on a memoir about his mother. Over lunch several months ago, he confirmed that this new book was—in his words—“the best thing I’ve ever written.” In this book, which was part memoir, part theology, and part political commentary, he was exploring the connections between the Bible, fundamentalist religion, and conservative politics through the lens of his relationship with his mother.

An ambitious undertaking. But Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway did not disappoint. Alternating between laugh-out-loud episodes and poignant reflections, Schaeffer recounts with candor the influence his mother had on both his beliefs and the beliefs of a generation of Evangelicals.

[Readers, consider this your warning: if books came with ratings like movies, Sex, Mom, and God (and perhaps the Bible itself) would be rated NC-17.]

The books opens on Schaeffer’s hypersexualized youth. As a young child, Frank went to sleep hearing biblical bedtime stories. More often than not, his mother recounted—in lurid detail—the sexual (mis)adventures of Old Testament characters. Before he turned ten, his mother had explained the intricacies of contraception and natural family planning—with her own diaphragm serving as an object lesson. By the time he hit puberty, his budding sexual curiosity led him to examine a (used) tampon under a microscope and have sex with an ice sculpture.

“The-God-Of-The-Bible,” as Schaeffer mockingly refers to the Deity he learned about through his childhood bedtime stories, has a decidedly negative view of sexuality. Foreskins are to be cut off (Leviticus 12:3), ejaculation and menstruation require ritual purification (Leviticus 15: 16, 19), and women are viewed as the property of men (Exodus 20:17). The-God-Of-The-Bible, as depicted literally in the pages of the Old and New Testaments, is not a particularly pleasant Deity. Frank jokes that the actual God—if there is one—ought to fire his biographers for the lousy job they did representing him.

And yet much of America subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible, including many religious and political leaders. Throughout his book, Schaeffer explores the surprising connections between Conservatism, Christianity, and the polarization of American politics. He constructs a compelling case for how the “barbaric” sexuality portrayed in the scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam has directly contributed to the current culture of fear and hate in American politics, particularly around issues related to sexuality. And he should know, given that both he and his father published Evangelical books that sold by the millions and served as spiritual advisers to presidents, senators, and countless other public figures.

Edith Schaeffer, who together with her husband Francis founded the L’Abri community in Huémoz, Switzerland that shaped a generation of Evangelicals, is at the heart of book. Schaeffer paints a complexly beautiful portrait of his mother, who vehemently denounced pre-marital sex and abortions, and yet welcomed young unwed pregnant women into her home. “When it came to honoring the Bible more than a God Who might have actually created the universe, Mom—like all conservative religionists hiding behind their holy books—seemed to ignore the inner witness of Beauty, Humor, Paradox, Complexity, Love, and most of all in terms of what makes us humans, memories of actual experiences,” writes Schaeffer. “Yet the irony was that in her manner of life—rather than her official theology—Mom lived as if God were much bigger than the nasty little eccentric portrayed in the Bible” (63).

How are believers living in a postmodern world to make sense of premodern Scriptures? Are the caustic culture wars the inevitable outcome of belief systems, or is there a way that people with different beliefs can co-exist? Frank poses these difficult questions to his audience, primarily comprised of those who are dissatisfied with the American religious (and political) status quo. But I believe Sex, Mom, and God is relevant to more than just disaffected Evangelicals. I highly recommend this book to members of the State of Formation community and to all those who are interested in cultivating a vibrant pluralistic society instead of retreating into cultural and religious silos.

In his previous work, Patience with God, Schaeffer explored the similarities between atheist and Christian fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, of whatever variety, are ultimately inflexible, smugly certain of their convictions, and insistent that others see the world like they do. Once again in Sex, Mom, and God, Schaeffer argues that everyone—secular or religious—must live in a way that is humble and loving toward others. How? By finding and living a compassionate, humble humanism that is true to “the heart of the best of the universal religious message,” and, where necessary, by repudiating “the parts of holy books and traditions—be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or other)—that bring us messages of hate, exclusion, racism, ignorance, misogyny, homophobia, tribalism, and fear” (263). Those who wish to live such a humanism “must shift from unquestioning faith in the Bible, Quran, Torah, or science to a life-affirming message of transcendence” (263).

Sex, Mom, and God is just such a “life-affirming message of transcendence.” Frank has written a poignant tribute to his mother and his beliefs, both of which have changed over the years, and he has modeled a posture of humility, uncertainty, and a willingness to change one’s beliefs. As a result, his readers—believers and non-believers alike—will be challenged to reconsider their views about politics, sex, and religion.

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5 Responses to “Recommended Summer Reading: “Sex, Mom, and God””

  1. Bryan Parys says:

    Wow: this is next on my list. It is energizing to hear of a book that takes so seriously the idea that true humanity is not eclipsed by religious tradition (or lack thereof)–and that manages not lose it’s sense of humor, the act of memory, and honesty. Sounds like Schaeffer is arguing for transcendence while simultaneously crafting prose that structures itself around that very transcendence. Excited to read more!

  2. Oliver says:

    You got it, Bryan – a vibrant humanism does not have to be squelched opposed by religion, though far too often in our culture and politics it is. Frank explores the roots of that very phenomenon in the book.

    Interestingly, I stumbled across another (positive) review of “Sex, Mom, and God” this morning written by a board member of the American Humanist Association http://bit.ly/kWeGG0

  3. Thank you so very much Oliver, I’m humbled by your generosity.
    Frank

  4. As a huge fan and reader of Frank Schaeffer’s books I can only say that, as always, he keeps it real in every aspect and makes Christianity so much more believable when you understand that the bible is in fact an imperfect literary piece. Thanks again Frank for being my spiritual guru and beacon of positivity unleashed in a realistic manner. Thanks For everything you do!!!

  5. James Croft says:

    Thanks Oliver – I hadn’t heard of this and will now get it for sure! Awesome!

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Oliver Goodrich, 31, is currently pursuing an MEd in Religious Education at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. Prior to his studies at BC, Oliver worked for a decade in music ministry and college student development in the Boston area.


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