Letter to Lucy
A manifesto of creative redemption in the age of Trump, fascism and lies
Hellbound? The Movie and the Nation
A manifesto of creative redemption in the age of Trump, fascism and lies
Hellbound? The Movie and the Nation
In 2011 Kevin Miller, asked me “Do you believe in hell?” Miller, a Canadian movie producer, was interviewing me for his documentary Hellbound?, gathering a variety of perspectives on the subject of hell. His interviewees ranged from fundamentalist ministers to atheist philosophers, from liberal theologians to angry protesters—the kind that have sometimes assembled at military funerals to rant at passersby while holding signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags!” and “9/11 God’s Judgment On Faggot-Loving America!” While on camera Kevin told that particular group’s leader that he doubted hell’s existence. She replied that she was overjoyed at the prospect of God burning Kevin in hell forever. She wasn’t kidding.
At first when Kevin asked, I refused to be interviewed. I’d recently published my memoir Crazy for God chronicling my journey out of the evangelical world. I figured that I needed more encounters with evangelicals and their obsessions like I needed a hole in the head. I’d assumed Kevin was an evangelical. In fact he was on his own journey out. Kevin persisted. He called my bluff: he showed up one day and put me on the spot. I’m glad he did because my association with Kevin’s project forced me to keep thinking about American fundamentalism. The result was that several years later when Donald Trump was elected and the 81 percent of white evangelical voters who supported him were credited with his win, I was better prepared to process this stunningly improbable news. My former brand of religion was driving the news cycle once again. My memoir had been an attempt to put the religion of my childhood behind me, but the country was still living in a nightmare my family helped create more than forty years before Trump ran for office.
A year or so after he interviewed me, Kevin invited me and other participants to help him launch Hellbound? We held screenings followed by discussions in theaters coast-to-coast. In the Q&A sessions that followed the screenings, the question “Is evangelical Christianity complete nonsense?” came up again and again, albeit phrased in various ways. Sometimes angry evangelicals put the question as a snarky challenge. It was a sort of dare for me to come clean and declare myself an atheist and thus (in their minds) a betrayer of my own and my late father’s beliefs. At other times, former evangelicals asked, looking for encouragement from me as a fellow escapee. They were clearly navigating Post-Evangelical PTSD.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Workshop of Herri met de Bles
circa 1550 – 1560
Many people who came to our screenings were working through painful withdrawal symptoms. I met a father who tearfully spoke about how he’d mistreated his gay son when he was still an evangelical pastor and, after his son came out as a teen, had disowned him.
I met several women who said they’d indoctrinated their children all too well through home schooling to become diehard fundamentalists. Now years later these mothers had fled the evangelical ghetto, only to have their own grown sons and daughters dig in their heels and stick with the program. One mother said of her daughter, “Now she refuses all contact with me and is even denying me visits with my grandchildren in case I ‘lead them astray.’”
The movie challenged viewers to consider more than simply the existence of hell. It articulated a threat to the entire evangelical worldview. It made waves with Christians who are committed to the idea that large swaths of humanity are destined to burn forever. I soon found myself defending the movie in print against attacks from religious leaders who were criticizing it for being heretical. Primarily, they attempted to discredit Kevin himself or others who participated in the movie, without addressing the issues that Hellbound? raised. For instance Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today magazine, went so far as to lie outright by claiming in his review “Movie Purgatory—‘Hellbound?,’ seemingly bound to fail from the beginning, never takes a stand on the issue” (September 19, 2012) that Kevin had not consulted qualified theologians. In fact, many expert scholars were interviewed. The reviewer’s desire to belittle those who participated was understandable. Galli had just published a book (God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins) about the “fact” that hell exists and he adamantly defended the reality of eternal damnation. And, as with many evangelical writers, preachers, and TV personalities, he had a personal financial stake in hell’s “existence.” No hell, no reason for donors to send money to save people from it. No hell, no scared-shitless audience to preach to, sell a book to, inveigle into church, sell a magazine to… all as a highly lucrative formula for hell-avoidance. Bluntly: for an evangelical leader (or pope or imam for that matter) to abolish hell also abolishes their paycheck.
Film Still of the Author from His Appearance in
Kevin Miller’s “Hellbound.” 2011
During the tour, I found myself publicly disavowing the religion of my evangelical parents—and it was hard for me to admit that my beloved mom and dad and my whole theologically obsessed family had wasted so much of their lives. They spent whole lifetimes “leading people to Christ” in order to save them from—nothing at all. Worse: I’d come to see that I’d wasted a significant portion of my life too.
The election of Donald Trump would soon prove—in dramatic fashion—the continued influence and relevance of the bizarre faith I was raised on. The question about the existence of hell might not have been a burning issue for many secular people of late, but how the hell Trump got elected sure was.
“Why are those ‘family values’ voters favoring this venal, licentious king of glitter?” the cry went up. What the commentators failed to understand was that it was Trump’s penchant for mean-spiritedness that made him attractive to people in thrall to an angry, petty, jealous, reactionary God.
“The media simply didn’t get it. They just didn’t do religious stuff. I am all too familiar with the breezy way secular commentators rarely want to bother with the actual details of religion. For instance, after my memoir was published in 2008, journalists such as Rachel Maddow and Terry Gross invited me on their shows. Their questions were always aimed at getting me to second their suspicion that the religious right (1) espouses nonsense and (2) ought to be feared. Fair enough, but they never asked about what “these people” actually believe. Secular people’s disdain and ignorance about religion owns much of the responsibility for Trump’s election. What the elite media missed is this: belief in a vengeful God and eternal punishment mimics the vainglory and anger of the petty, thin-skinned Trumps of this world. Politics and religion become one and the same be that in Tehran or Washington DC.
I regard Trump’s election in 2016 as the American equivalent of the sack of Constantinople by the marauding Crusaders in 1204. The reality is that religion was involved in the desolation of two very different cultures. Fail to understand religion, and history is a closed book. The way many people in academia and the media ignored religion made voters and leaders alike more vulnerable to Trump’s fraud. Too many people in powerful positions underestimated the effectiveness of the cynical exploitation of American fundamentalists’ anger and resentments.
The New York Times has a style section, a science section, and a book review section but (as of 2017) no religion section. A reader of the “paper of record” is rarely presented with theology as an essential field of knowledge. There are opera reviews but few reviews of books by conservative theologians. The impact of religion on the airtight bubble of elite American culture only intrudes when the horse has long since left the barn, for instance after yet another group of fanatical Orthodox Jews builds more Jews-only housing on the occupied (and stolen) West Bank in what was once Jordan and is now Israel. Another such “horse” was Trump. The big Trump-related story the religion-oblivious media missed was the sense of alienation many Americans felt.
If the editors of the New York Times had been doing their job for, say, the last fifty years, they would have reviewed Kevin’s movie along with the reaction to it from evangelicals. They would have pointed out that at the heart of evangelical theology is a cult of mean-spirited revenge. They would have written about where the idea of atonement for sin and hell leads in terms of political fallout. For that matter, some forty years before Kevin interviewed me, the Times would have paid close attention to my father and Dr. C. Everett Koop (he later became Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General) storming across America with me as we unleashed the anti-abortion movement in the 1970s and 1980s. When we spoke to thousands gathered in Madison Square Garden and (dozens of other venues), we flew under the media radar as unremarked by the elite media as if we’d been sponsoring a tractor pull rather than fomenting the beginning of the end of politics as most Americans had understood the word. Unremarked, we planted “pro-life” time bombs. After a few warning foreshocks, one of these exploded spectacularly in 2016. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s we were just another bunch of “those people” doing something religious and thus unimportant that no one who was anyone had ever heard of.
Leaders, including Hillary Clinton, should have recognized that a huge number of Americans were seething with the anger of the perpetually disregarded—an anger that predates Roe v. Wade but was brought to a boil by that court ruling. If, over the years, the elite media had taken the reporting of religion as seriously as they take food writing and celebrity news, the result of the 2016 election might have been different for two reasons. First, evangelicals would have felt they still counted rather than being snubbed or more often simply ignored. Second, non-evangelical voters and leaders alike would have carefully tried to answer concerns they were better informed about. They might even have been inclined to be less absolutist and compromise on a number of politicized issues like abortion.
The elite mantra “It’s the economy, stupid!” most often stood in for the axiom that secular concerns always prevail. Everything was about the nuts and bolts of growth, and if “social issues”—the inaccurate media catch-all for religion and all that heartland stuff—were mentioned, it was the concerns of the left—gender and sexuality equality—that got the repeated in depth coverage.
The media’s ignorance of religious Americans has deep roots. The nineteenth-century view of what enlightened people should believe has dominated politics, art, journalism, and intellectual life for well over 100 years. This has left many religious people feeling insulted and many non-religious people feeling undeservedly smug, as if their worldview has triumphed and religion will soon die out. Thus the media treated fraught social issues, from access to abortion to the teaching of evolution in schools, as settled matters. And one had to be living in a bubble to believe otherwise. But the objections of religious Americans refused to subside.
Racism, hate, homophobia, and white supremacy played a big part in the rise of the sociopathic congenital liar/ demagogue/ entertainer-in-chief Trump. But those were not the only culprits. When religion is ignored by those perceived to be in power over those convinced of their victimhood, there’s also hell to pay. And that hell can’t be dismissed as mere hate or racism, let alone mere rust belt income inequality. Many voters just couldn’t see themselves in the picture the Clinton campaign painted around the theme of its secular complacency.
I worked my ass off to get Hillary elected and to stop Trump. Eight months before his election, during the primaries, I began to post 3-to-5-minute videos on my Facebook page. One had 4.7 million views, another over 2 million. I posted more than thirty such diatribes about Trump and appeals on Hillary’s behalf that totaled over ten million views. I wrote countless blogs that garnered hundreds of thousands of “reads.” But I would have traded all this effort for the privilege of writing one speech for Hillary to give at evangelical bastions such as Liberty Baptist University or Wheaton College where she might have reached out—in evangelical-speak—to a national audience and let them know she cared about what they cared most about, even if they differed. I would have had her quote my dad’s book Pollution and the Death of Man (1970) to counter Trump’s lies about climate change being a hoax.
After all, my father was revered as a staunch evangelical conservative but as long ago as the early 1970s was begging his fellow Christians to become ardent environmentalists. His words could have usefully repudiated the Koch brothers and their funding of hack climate change deniers. That would have made evangelicals sit up. “Hillary reads evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer!” Hillary might have quoted passages like these that would have been a wakeup call to many secular liberals and evangelicals alike when it came to knocking down stereotypes about “those evangelicals” being backward predictable knee-jerk Republican Party-style conservatives:
And why not quote Billy Graham on abortion rights? Graham refused to join the anti-abortion movement, as I well know: Dad and I tried repeatedly to personally talk him into joining our cause in the late 1970s, to no avail. Many evangelicals besides Graham had been pro-choice, including the famous two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. W. A. Criswell (1909–2002). He was a pastor, author, and patriarch of the “Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC and a friend of my father’s. Questioned in 1973 about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Criswell replied the same way he did to Dad and me in person, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed” (“How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue: The Convergent Labors of Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop” by Matthew Miller, Reformation 21, March 2013).
This was a common attitude among evangelicals until the late 1970s, when the public debate on abortion made it a highly charged political issue. It was my father who talked Criswell into changing his mind. In fact, Dad twisted his arm. Criswell faced so much pressure from Dad and me and those we stirred up to hound him that he eventually came out as anti-abortion.
And Hillary could have contrasted Trump’s racism with the fact that some white evangelical leadership began to slowly change and even lead on race issues as early as 1952. She might have thundered: “That’s when the Reverend Billy Graham decided to stop holding segregated crusades! He faced shrill criticism for this decision, but with the guidance of King and other leaders such as
Reverend Howard Jones, Graham changed the face of religion in America as we know it! Are we going to let Trump undo Dr. Graham’s Christlike life’s work?”
I wonder how the outcome of the 2016 election might have differed if for the last forty years Hillary had been reading a Times religion section that gave proper weight to religion and its consequences. For instance, what if she had understood the true destruction of the social contract wrought by Roe v. Wade? What if she had been reading about a new and growing generation of educated young women joining the pro-life movement, who could not be written off as either anti-feminist or old white men, let alone as an ignorant underclass?
If Hillary Clinton had pried even a few percentage points off that white evangelical voter bloc, she would have won. President Obama did that very thing. As journalist Ruth Graham noted in an article in Slate, drawing the contrast with President Obama’s savvy outreach:
If Kevin interviewed me for his movie now, I’d tell him that the question I’d like to answer these days isn’t “Does hell exist?” or “Is evangelical Christianity nonsense?” or “Is Christianity true?” Nor is it “Do all religions point to the same God—if any?” These days my question is rather loaded: “Do all religions point to an innate human longing for meaning and thus—just maybe—is this longing rooted in something essential that exists outside of our mere imaginations?”
I’m not alone in asking this loaded question. There are lots of other people who think that religion and the need for spiritual rituals may represent something real about the underlying nature of the cosmos. The philosopher, theologian, and prophet of humanistic inclusiveness Gene Roddenberry laced his Star Trek stories with speculations about other life forms. His alien characters usually share our human need for religious faith and our search for spiritual meaning. Evolution, Roddenberry seems to have thought, has a purposeful spiritual direction. In his view, the evolution of the universe may or may not arc toward justice, but it certainly does arc toward spiritual complexity. It produces creations that contemplate their own consciousness—and use that consciousness to question the very existence of consciousness and free will itself.
Star Trek was less science fiction than a series of theologically laced morality plays dedicated to promoting soul-enriching meaning and relationships between diverse humans. It linked consciousness to empathy. It broke new ground. Among other things, Roddenberry put the first interracial kiss on American TV (in an episode not broadcast in most Southern states). Roddenberry’s message? There’s no “other”; there’s just us.
Roddenberry wasn’t alone in asking the big questions through sci-fi. Philip K. Dick addressed the nature of reality, identity, and transcendental experiences while unpacking the implications of artificial intelligence. One of Dick’s masterpieces, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), was the basis for the movie Blade Runner (1982). Blade Runner has since inspired the greatest sci-fi works of philosophy and theology of our era. They are not commentaries but artistic extensions of Dick’s themes, not just such adaptations as Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly but explorations such as The Matrix, The Adjustment Bureau, Inception, and Ex Machina. These works aren’t in universities or seminaries but on TV in series like Westworld.
Blade Runner also set the standard visually for innumerable futuristic films via its stunning art direction. For instance, Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 series, not the 1970s original) and more recently Westworld (2016) evolved from Blade Runner artistically, philosophically, and theologically.
Blade Runner depicts a dystopian Los Angeles. Genetically engineered “replicants” are indistinguishable from humans. They’re manufactured by the powerful Tyrell Corporation, headed by a Trump-like sociopath scientist whose money and power place him not only above the law but (in his mind) beyond any moral and ethical considerations. The use of his replicants on earth is banned, and they’re exclusively utilized “off world” in space colonies for everything from dangerous labor to prostitution. Replicants who defy the ban and come home to earth are hunted down and killed (“retired”). An assassination squad of killer police units called blade runners do the dirty work.
Recently escaped replicants are hiding in a polluted, dismal future L.A. A tired and burned-out blade runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), is forced to take on one last assignment to kill them. He faces the dilemma of all reluctant soldiers, and his moral and emotional reaction to carrying out orders he abhors becomes the movie’s theme. Can Deckard kill someone officially considered less than human while he’s distressed by the dawning possibility that his targets are in fact very much like him? (Such thoughts seem to have escaped Trump and his minions as they inveighed against Mexicans, gays, minorities, women, black civil rights leaders, Muslims, journalists, actors, comedians, writers and anyone else “not like us” white male billionaire oligarchs.)
Deckard’s turn away from Trumpian cruelty and disconnection occurs in his rejecting the values of the “business.” This rejection comes to a point when he finds himself falling in love with Rachael (played by Sean Young). She’s a prototype of a more advanced replicant that Deckard meets in the lavish penthouse home and office of her creator, Tyrell. Deckard can no longer see these beings created for the mere purpose of serving humans as nothing but means to an end.
At that point the movie evolves into the most decisive critique of Calvinist theology imaginable. In Calvinism (the theological cult of an angry God in which I was raised), humans are created by a God who (like Tyrell/Trump) has determined to give them only the illusion of free will. And this God never intends to save them all or even most of them. Most are mere pawns to fuel his fires of hell for eternity (the Calvinists love to quote St. Paul, who calls them “vessels of wrath”).
Blade Runner and the other sci-fi works that followed it have considered the most profound questions of meaning, spirituality, and personhood. Founding Father of the Italian Renaissance Cosimo de’ Medici and Reformer Martin Luther would have alike found Blade Runner compelling for the timeless questions it poses: Do all spiritual longings originate in the same way? Do they all answer a basic human-primate desire for meaning, for seeing more with an inner eye than meets the outer eye? Are we part of something bigger than we are? If there is a creator, do we have free will? If there is no creator, are we prisoners of the illusion of agency? Blade Runner asks: Can consciousness be reduced to biology and behavior?
Science fiction has made theology interesting once again to millions of viewers who either don’t know or don’t care about John Calvin or Martin Luther or Cosimo de’ Medici. They don’t even think of their obsession with these questions as theology. No matter. The legion fans of Blade Runner and its derivatives or the millions who participate in Star Trek conventions may not have read the Bible or the works of Kant or the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, but should the Reformation’s leaders (or a brilliant Roman or Greek poet) have watched the best of the sci-fi offerings over the last fifty years, from Star Trek forward to (say) Black Mirror—a stand-alone series of futuristic dramas that explore techno-paranoia and our collective unease about the modern world hijacked by Silicon Valley—they’d assume that philosophers and theologians created them. American viewers of sci-fi might never darken the door of a seminary and casually call themselves nones when asked if they’re religious, but they also happen to be theologically educated, philosophically attuned, even obsessed people, given their steady diet of brilliant and thoughtful sci-fi.
The questions raised by today’s sci-fi are liberating for religiously obsessed artists like me. I’m becoming more and more overtly theological both in my writing and painting than I’d dare to be without the inspiration of the best creators of sci-fi. Why religion-obsessed art in 2017? Because in a time when Trump hijacked the white evangelical vote mimicking the bitter radicalization of some Muslims, religion is not just relevant—it is deadly. It must be examined and, if necessary, knowledgeably attacked and subverted, resisted, obstructed, destroyed and replaced. Thus my paintings of late—and this book—are my personal effort to do my bit in what amounts to a war of ideas.
The alternative is various versions of Sharia Law be that Islamic or evangelical Christian. As Catherine Rampell writes in the Washington Post:
In a time when Westworld dares to ask the big questions about personhood, and all Gene Roddenberry’s work at reconciliation, tolerance, and race relations seems to have been undone at a stroke by Trump’s fear-mongering, I have no problem giving quirky, subversive theological titles to some of my paintings such as this one: “On the Day the World Ended God Inexplicably Only Raptured All the Pinocchio Dolls to Heaven along with Many Pink Cyclamens but Left Behind All the Christians.”
These days—as is reflected in a series of paintings I’m working on in order to put together a major show—I’m riffing on the ironic absurdity of fundamentalist religion per se and its political fallout. Another painting of mine in this theology-obsessed Trump-loathing phase is called “When the Manna Ran out God Inexplicably Began Dropping Cyclamens, Old Teddy Bears and Champagne on the People of Israel and Unintentionally Killed Moses with a Good Bottle of California Chandon.” Then there’s “On Inauguration Day 2017 God Tried to Punish Donald Trump by Showering Him with French Carbon Steel Knives, Pinocchio Dolls, Assorted Rubber Ducks and Pink Cyclamens but Inexplicably in a Fit of Gross Divine Incompetence Missed Trump by Miles and Crippled an American Evangelical Tourist Visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel as She Posed for a Picture.”
On Inauguration Day 2017 God Tried to Punish Donald Trump by Showering Him with French Carbon Steel Knives, Pinocchio Dolls, Assorted Rubber Ducks and Pink Cyclamens but Inexplicably in a Fit of Gross Divine Incompetence Missed Trump by Miles and Crippled an American Evangelical Tourist Visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel as She Posed for a Picture. © 2017 Frank Schaeffer
I’m also trying to unashamedly paint what seems beautiful to me in the most detailed and craft-centric use of oil paint I’ve ever attempted, taking longer over these works than I’ve ever spent on anything else. The titles may be my quirky answer to fundamentalist Christo-fascist absurdities, but the paintings are in deadly and (I hope) beautiful earnest. They may be absurdist and symbolist works drawing on my childhood experiences as referenced by my including my own old teddy bears (!), but they are in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was a priest who dared to paint horrifying truths about the nature of spiritual struggle and damnation. My grandchildren are mesmerized by my Bosch art books. We encounter his hybrid creatures, his nightmarish scenarios, his religious and moral framework, and his pictorial versions of contemporary proverbs and idioms. Bosch would have understood why I began painting wooden Pinocchio dolls falling from the sky after Trump’s election. Social, political, and religious symbolism was his thing.
Bosch’s most famous triptych is “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1495–1505). In the left-hand panel God presents Eve to Adam in a landscape populated by exotic animals and fanciful organic-seeming structures. The central panel is teeming with sexually energized nude figures engaged in self-absorbed joy, as well as fantastic animals. The right-hand panel presents a hellscape of tortured figures lit by fiery explosions. Bosch’s work has always struck me as ironic: serious but still poking fun at established superstitions via his outlandish and clever exaggerations of the horrors of hell and the spiritual warfare his Church claimed was an actual reality.
Trump/Bannon (like some latter-day Savonarola-type inquisitors) have taken us back to the pre-Renaissance mind-set still present in Bosch’s terrors based on theological obsession. Bosch sums up this dark vision, which has been described in another context by the author William Manchester as A World Lit Only by Fire. In the post-Trump Dark Age of unapologetic greed married to angry ego, I feel that my religiously oriented art and writing, for better or worse, is sadly in tune with today’s widely held backward-looking worldview, dominated by religion and resurgent whites-only nationalism, lies (“alternative facts”), and a return to politicized prescientific superstition (there’s no manmade global warming and the Earth’s ten thousand years old!). I am also in tune with many other people who express longings for more than what rationalistic secular modernity offers. And I paint for people for whom the word beauty still holds meaning even now. For instance, I paint for Fiona, someone who has collected my paintings, and who expresses her longing for transcendent meaning so well in this letter to me that she sent to me on Facebook from Ireland where she lives. Fiona writes:
Hi Frank. Thanks for the video message on the cycle of life. I’m about to submit my PhD (aged 44) which has been so incredibly stressful largely as a result of the combination of my own self-doubt and my, at best, tepid supervisors. It’s on 1st wave feminist writers and I’m very proud to have contributed to helping create a female literary tradition despite the stress. Recently I attended a…
…mindfulness course which I couldn’t complete because ironically I was so super stressed I felt claustrophobic doing meditation (!!!) but an older woman there made a comment about the vanity of the self that focuses on achievement for the sake of receiving the validation of others. I thought that was so poignant and I thought of it listening to you talking. Having struggled for several years to have a family with lots of unpleasant ivf treatments we had our daughter 9 years ago. I often feel so so desperately sad we couldn’t give her a sibling though she has cousins nearby who adore her and she them. I do think of the knock on effects of being older grandparents than we’d hoped but luckily I seem to hail from healthy active stock;) When I was suffering through this PhD and having lots of ratty days I really queried the rationale of doing it. She is the most important and joyful thing in our lives so why am I doing this? Anyway one of the most important things I’ve learned over the last few years is that I will be making changes in my life post PhD that will elevate the important and push away the unimportant things. I do want to use my PhD but for good – I was thinking of developing talks for schools re the power of gendered language as well as the roots of feminism and why it’s still so desperately vital. I want my daughter to see me contribute to the home but also to something beyond. My husband loves his job at the Northern Ireland Assembly and he is so proud that she sees him involved in all sorts of our country’s momentous occasions post-conflict as well as the work he’s involved in with other post-conflict governments around the world. She’s our motivation to be better people. But she’s already half way to 18 and the first 9 flew by. “I do not want to waste a second. Thanks again Frank for making sense of the world. Still loving your painting of the lilacs we bought. 🙂
I believe in the intrinsic worth of beauty in life, politics and art that someone like Fiona is struggling for as she works to balance career and childcare, love and necessity, beauty and mundane work. In that sense my work is both anti-fundamentalist but also anti-rationalist and (hopefully) pro-human. Something beautifully made is my best answer to the Trumps of this world. I paint because I believe in beauty, even when it’s used to shed light on an ugly idea such as the literalistic vengeful fundamentalist politicized evangelical religion that in 2016 put a corrupt conman in power. I’m not alone. The punk rock band Green Day has consistently had a prophetic voice and has also crafted music with unsurpassed beauty and brilliance. The band’s reaction to Trump becoming president was in the best tradition of the art and beauty-making Bosch represented and that I struggle for.
Green Day’s “Troubled Times” video juxtaposes images of famed protests and moments of resistance and rebellion—women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement—with images of Trump spewing venom. Each image is a call for citizens to stand up against bigotry. I posted Green Day’s anti-Trump video everywhere I could think of, including on my Facebook page along with this notice:
A Trump-like figure wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap spews hate rhetoric to crowds from a podium in this video which the band fittingly posted online on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017.
Day did not make a mere “statement”; they made a great and well-crafted song and commissioned a perfection of a video made with shockingly beautiful graphic artistry. It was not “conceptual art” but high art with a moral and aesthetic point of view. “Today we celebrate love and compassion more than ever,” Billie Joe Armstrong said in a press release that accompanied the video.
Speaking of celebrating “love and compassion more than ever” the idea is one I fail at too often. Yesterday my granddaughter Lucy (now 8) and I argued about what she was wearing to school. I “won” that argument with Lucy because I’m bigger and in charge. I shouted at her so long that I made her cry. She went to school wearing what I wanted her to wear. My wife, Genie, and I live across the street from her and do day care for Lucy, her brother, Jack (6), and their little sister, Nora (almost 3). I’ll introduce them again and fully in the following chapters, but for now I simply note that they keep me convinced that beauty matters and that indeed to celebrate love and compassion more than ever is far more important than anything else. I also note that this book relates to what I’ve learned about myself both the good and bad while striving to open doors for these grandchildren. The doors I struggle to open for them are opened with just one idea in mind: beauty is intrinsically worthwhile.
On the way to school, I was still in ugly lecturing mode. Jack bravely piped up from the backseat, “Ba, you’re going on too long.” Then he started to sing the song the children sing daily when I take them to school. We’d skipped it due to my tirade. Genie taught them the song in remembrance of her father Stan Walsh, who used to sing it back in his North Dakota primary school days every morning in class. I was rebuked.
I shut up and dropped Jack and Lucy off at 8 AM. Lucy walked into school looking downcast. I’d yelled at her so stupidly and brutally. I was sick at heart but unable to bring myself to do more than drive home. By 10 AM, I’d returned to the school to apologize and bring her the clothes she’d wanted to wear in the first place. I told the school secretary, “Lucy forgot something at home.”
She called the class, and moments later Lucy came down the stairs smiling. She knows her repentant grandfather pretty well by now. “I knew you’d say you were sorry,” she said, looking so very happy. We hugged. My best friend merrily skipped back up the stairs three at a time to change and return to class.
I’ve learned a few things over the last 64 years. At least I know when I’m being a shit. This view of myself informs my view of hell and my ongoing response to Kevin’s question, not to mention to Trump’s ego-centric coup against decency. Let’s say for the sake of argument that there is a creator.
Why would the creator be meaner and even less self-aware than I am? I can’t live with myself when I am unpleasant to my grandchildren. But according to the Bible, God seems to have learned nothing about empathy. And some of his followers—say, the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump—seem to love the idea that God is a sort of patriarchal president of the universe who delights in winning every bullying argument up to the point of burning his many grandchildren—forever.
At the heart of the Christian doctrine I was raised on is the insane belief that God created us to save us from—himself! The evangelical version of God turns out to be humankind’s only implacable enemy. All he cares about is getting his way. This “creator” creates and then is disappointed. Yelling isn’t enough. He decides to kill all his grandchildren but one favorite (Noah). A few hundreds of pages later in “The Word of God” we read that even a mass drowning wasn’t enough. Hell is invented for everyone but a few chosen.
If you grow up on this sort of thinking, excluding the “other” becomes second nature. The “lost”-and-“saved” paradigm gets applied to those of other religions, genders, sexual orientations, political parties, races, and nationalities. Building a wall to keep “them” out is no big deal for people who worship a God who doesn’t just exclude but punishes difference—forever.
This brings us to the Jesus paradox that haunts me. It haunts me because of the way I was raised. We’re not talking about truth issues here, let alone rational decisions, but about my pet obsessions. Jesus is as hellfire vengeful as any other figure in the Bible, but he’s also the first modern humanist (a point I’ll develop in this book). This paradox is why I am still a Christian of sorts as well as an atheist of
sorts. I’m the kind of Christian that most other Christians would call a heretic and the kind of atheist that most literal-minded atheists despise as an illogical unscientific half-breed religion-obsessed mystic. Be that as it may in Jesus’ humanism, I find the only reasonable explanation for his universal influence.
Jesus’ humanistic ideas (I should say, those ideas attributed to him) make the world an infinitely better place. Consider Antonio Vivaldi’s three settings of the hymn Gloria in excelsis deo. Like Cosimo de’ Medici’s Foundling Hospital in Florence, which combined Renaissance high art (the della Robbia rondos on the facade) and the highest level of architecture with humanistic Christian charity for the unwanted, Vivaldi composed his Gloria for “mere” orphans. He ministered to orphaned girls in a starkly cruel patriarchal environment because even in that situation the humanistic teachings attributed to Jesus carried weight. Vivaldi as a Christian and Renaissance-type humanist created the finest music for young outcast women—and taught them to play it. This was in Venice (in 1715 or thereabouts) as he composed music for the choir and musicians of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls.
The Pietà was a convent and orphanage. Like some other Venetian ospedali, it was ironically first built as a hotel for Crusaders. When the Crusades ended—resulting in the 1204 destruction of Christian Constantinople among other things—the Pietà was somewhat ironically repurposed into a charitable institution for abandoned girls. Babies were shoved through the scaffetta (a slit wndow in the wall only large enough to accommodate infants). They were cared for until they either became nuns or were thrust back into the world. This was a time and place that gave most women few options. Some of the Pietà’s graduates became prostitutes, others starved, and many just disappeared. Vivaldi fought back with his music. He strove to turn the young women he helped teach into brilliant singers and musicians. He fought to gift them with careers at a time when women were second-class citizens at best. As outcast orphan “bastard” children, they were rejected on top of being “mere” women.
The Pietà produced many virtuosi and at least two noted women composers—Anna Bon and Vincenta da Ponte. As director of music, Vivaldi was required to produce a certain number of works per month for the all-female orchestra and choir. He wrote nearly all his sacred vocal works, including his famous Gloria, for the girls and women of the Ospedale. “Females took the tenor and bass parts in the pieces when required, a fact at first doubted by musicologists but then confirmed by the orphanage’s own documents. The concerts given by the girls were the primary source of the orphanage’s income, and under Vivaldi’s direction, the Ospedale’s orchestra became renowned throughout Europe,” writes Stephen M. Klugewicz, director of the Robert and Marie Hansen Foundation. ( “Antonio Vivaldi: The Red Priest Rediscovered,” The Imaginative Conservative April 24, 2012).
On one occasion, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—a composer in his own right—eagerly came to hear the girls perform in a Venetian church, only to be vexed upon discovering that the young women of the orchestra and choir performed behind a screen that shielded them from public view—and the leering eyes of men like Rousseau (someone who was like Trump a notorious “p—y-grabber) “What grieved me were those accursed grills,” Rousseau lamented, “which allowed only tones to go through and concealed the angels of loveliness.” The Frenchman had, as Klugewicz writes “finagled his way into the Ospedale to meet the ‘little girls’ but was disappointed to find that ‘scarcely one was without some considerable blemish. Only “two or three,” he concluded, “looked tolerable.”
Rousseau persevered nonetheless in an attempt to find something attractive in Vivaldi’s women, and at the conclusion of his visit the charms and talents of the girls had won him over in a thoroughly Trumpian manner:
Rousseau’s account of a visit conveys something about the level of excellence achieved. In his Confessions (1770), he describes the singers hidden behind metal grilles and, invisible or not, he waxes lyrical about them:
Vivaldi was hired in 1703 by the Pietà, to the position he was to hold for the next 36 years. He was at first employed as a lowly violin teacher, but as the years passed, he began to compose and conduct as well as teach. For each feast day, he composed an oratorio and one or more concertos. He also taught theory and the playing of instruments to the young women, all the while serving in their church as a priest.
The Gloria in excelsis deo, Vivaldi’s most famous choral piece, presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve cantata-like sections. The sunny Gloria, with its distinctive melodies and rhythms, is characteristic of
all of Vivaldi’s Christian Renaissance humanistic music. To my mind Vivaldi provides the soundtrack to the way the world should be.
Put it this way: his music goes better with the scenes in my life when I’m apologizing to Lucy or others than with the times I’m being an asshole. Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis deo might be my ultimate “answer” to Trump, to hell, to ideas of angry egomaniacal gods, to everything that is wrong when people who identify as following Jesus then vote for a tasteless, vindictive bully. Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis deo is, as it were, his answer to the question: What should be done with abandoned, orphaned, and abused young women and girls and all outcasts? Vivaldi’s answer: Write the most sublime music for them, of course, and teach them to play it beautifully!
Vivaldi is a case study in the intertwining of Jesus’ humanistic and spiritual influences: a priest who produced some of the greatest art, drawn from a humble life of service to the unwanted and abandoned, while also striving as a highly competitive composer who appealed to patrons for recognition. Some oddities in Vivaldi’s life nicely illustrate the eccentricity of even the most successfully faith-shaped lives, not to mention the pitfalls of artistic careers. Vivaldi was baptized twice because of the Church’s teaching about hellfire avoidance. Because he was born in a sickly state, the midwife baptized him herself, fearing that he would die before morning unbaptized and thus be hellbound. He survived and two months later was baptized by the parish priest again, just to make sure.
As a youth, Vivaldi worked at his musical studies at the same time as he pursued holy orders. Art, charity, compassion, inclusion, and faith were not at odds in his mind, and so Vivaldi remained both a priest and composer for the rest of his life. Nonetheless it seems that Vivaldi wrestled with his priorities. He stopped saying mass shortly after his ordination. It seems he was too busy with music and composing. One story has it that while saying mass one day, Vivaldi had an idea for a new piece of music and left the altar to write it down. When he was done with his notations, he returned to complete the mass. This odd episode was reported to Venice’s Inquisitors. They declared that “this priest is quite mad” and banned Vivaldi from saying mass from that day forth. (Inquisitors of State were selected each month. It was their role to watch out for acts against the church or state.)
No good deed goes unpunished. Vivaldi died in Vienna flat broke. He’d been living in a room in the house of a saddlemaker’s widow. Since he died destitute, he was entitled only to the so-called Kleingelaut (the pauper’s peal of bells) and six pallbearers and six choirboys to officiate. In a bizarre twist of fate, one of them was Joseph Haydn, who later became the famous composer. The details of the meager funeral service are contained in the archives of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, but the location of Vivaldi’s unmarked grave is unknown.
Vivaldi’s music was almost lost to us. Until quite recently, the name of Vivaldi had little to no meaning to the world of music, let alone to the public. In the autumn of 1926, someone in a Piedmont boarding school in Italy, run by Salesian Fathers, discovered a set of old volumes in their archives, volumes which the administrators, short of funds, wanted to sell to antique dealers. This person called upon the
National Library in Turin to value the material to give them some idea of the price prospective dealers should pay. Luckily the matter was turned over to Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at Turin University. He suggested sending the material to Turin so that he could inspect it carefully.
Dr. Gentili went to work. On opening the first crate, he found before him volume upon volume of forgotten Vivaldi autographs! He began to examine the musical compositions and soon realized that what he had in his hands was an unparalleled rediscovery of Italian art. He recalled in later years that he wept as he came to realize that he held an entire life’s work of an almost entirely forgotten musical giant in his hands. He also knew that steps had to be undertaken to prevent the manuscripts from falling into the clutches of professional dealers, which would result in the inevitable dispersal of individual manuscripts and the destruction of the body of work. He dared not tell anyone what he had until he’d found a way to save it. Proceeding with the utmost secrecy, Dr. Gentili finally found a public-spirited Turinese who would agree to purchase the collection and donate it to the Turin Library intact.
Dr. Gentili also made a disturbing discovery: the last pages of many volumes failed to show the conclusions of the compositions. It was evident that the material had been bound randomly and must be part of a larger collection which had been separated among the heirs of some former collector. Further investigation revealed that the collection had been assembled by the Genoese Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717–1794), Austrian ambassador in Venice and a patron of the composer Glück. After an extensive search, living members of the Durazzo family were located. At last, for the first time since Vivaldi’s death, someone had access to all his music.
The establishment of the Turin collections led to what’s known as the Vivaldi renaissance, first marked by the Vivaldi week celebrated in Siena in September 1939 on the eve of World War II. As Hitler’s troops, with his secret police and Gestapo, began to liquidate Jews and make war on the entire world in the name of race purity, white supremacy, and law and order, for the first time in centuries the music of Vivaldi also rang out with all its humanistic promise. As another strongman, Mussolini, squelched press freedom and began to apply race laws against the Jews, Vivaldi, as it were from the grave, offered the world an alternative vision of reconciliation, beauty, and love: the most sublime music ever created and first composed for the most powerless of the least of these—young abandoned women.
The war put the entire Vivaldi project on hold, but soon after the liberation of Italy from the Trump-like Mussolini, Antonio Fanna, a young Venetian businessman and fervent admirer of Vivaldi, founded the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi to publish and promote his music. Conditions following the war could hardly have been worse for the rediscover of lost art; Italy was thoroughly
impoverished, and the sole Vivaldi music publisher’s printing presses had been bombed and their warehouses razed. Meanwhile in bombed-out London, as part of the postwar Festival of Britain held in 1951, the Royal Festival Hall was reopened on the Thames’s south bank. It was there that London concertgoers (still on strictly controlled food rationing) were presented with a season devoted to the works of this newly “discovered” baroque master.
Antonio Vivaldi was reborn in the context of a recovery from the ashes of war, hubris, lies, corruption, fascism, prejudice, bigotry, white supremacy, holocaust, militarism, and the stench of death. He went from being utterly forgotten to his present-day status as the great Italian contemporary of Bach and Handel. The Four Seasons’ fame has sometimes resulted in the branding of Vivaldi as a composer of instrumental music only, specifically of string concerti. Moreover, a snide modern put-down of this priest-composer has dogged Vivaldi. For instance Igor Stravinsky among other modernist notables said that that Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concerti but the same concerto 500 times. This sort of defamation is typical of the hubris of the early modernists who regarded their breaks with the past as enlightened and overtly an attempt to brand both religion and any traditional notion of aesthetics as dated. A little snooty rejection by modernists whose own work now reeks of time and place notwithstanding, the music of a composer who rests in an unmarked grave became not just familiar but arguably more popular than any other composer’s music with the exception of Bach. Millions of people thrill to the joyful, crystalline purity of Vivaldi’s sound, honed in service to young abandoned “ugly” women. One such person was me. I spent my childhood hearing Vivaldi’s sweet exuberance thundering from the record player in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, which doubled as my father’s daytime office.
“The Vision of Hell (Inferno)” by Gustave Doré. Public Domain.
Section 1.1 – Do You Believe in Hell?
“The Inferno according to Dante”, Circle of Baccio Baldini. Public Domain. Link
“Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 108: Hell”, Limbourg Brothers. Public Domain. Link
“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, Workshop of Herri met de Bles. Public Domain. Link
“Film Still” created by EJG2. Incorporates image from “Hellbound” by Kevin Miller, courtesy of the Author, and “Microscopic Burned Film” and “Film Burn” textures, courtesy Valleys in the Vinyl. Link
Section 1.2 – The Last Crusade
Book Cover “Pollution and the Death of Man” by Francis Schaeffer, courtesy of the Author.
Excerpts from “Pollution and the Death of Man” by Francis Schaeffer. Illustrated by EJG2.
Excerpt from “Why Hillary Clinton Bombed with White Evangelical Voters,” by Ruth Graham. Slate. December 15, 2016. Illustrated by EJG2.
Section 1.3 – More Human Than Human
“Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner”, NBC Television. Public Domain. Link
“Blade Runner Spinner Flyby”, © Warner Bros. Image used in the spirit of Fair Use and Critical Commentary. Link
“Matrix Code” by Comfreak. Public Domain. Link
Section 1.4 – My God, It’s Full of Stars
Section 1.5 – On Inauguration Day
Excerpt of “Religious law may be coming to America. But it’s not sharia; it’s Christian.” by Catherine Rampell. Washington Post, February 2, 2017. Illustrated by EJG2.
“On the Day the World Ended God Inexplicably Only Raptured All the Pinocchio Dolls to Heaven along with Many Pink Cyclamens but Left Behind All the Christians.” by Frank Schaeffer, courtesy of the Author.
“On Inauguration Day 2017 God Tried to Punish Donald Trump by Showering Him with French Carbon Steel Knives, Pinocchio Dolls, Assorted Rubber Ducks and Pink Cyclamens but Inexplicably in a Fit of Gross Divine Incompetence Missed Trump by Miles and Crippled an American Evangelical Tourist Visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel as She Posed for a Picture.” by Frank Schaeffer, courtesy of the Author.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights, Left Panel” by Hieronymus Bosch. Public Domain. Link
“The Garden of Earthly Delights, Center Panel” by Hieronymus Bosch. Public Domain. Link
“The Garden of Earthly Delights, Right Panel” by Hieronymus Bosch. Public Domain. Link
Section 1.6 – Troubled Times
“Troubled Times” Promotional Lyric Video, © 2016 Green Day Link
“We March” created by EJG2. Incorporates the following elements:
“Chalkboard Black” by Foolish Fire.
“Votes for Women Tonight” by Oregon State University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Troubled Times” Lyrics ©2016 Green Day
Section 1.7 – Viva Vivaldi
“Good Morning to You” created by EJG2.
“Ospedale della Pietà” Public Domain.
“Rousseau Quote” created by EJG2.
“Venezianisches Galakonzert” Public Domain.
“Rousseau Page” Created by EJG2.
“Parlatorio delle Monache” Public Domain.
“Dr. Alberto Gentili” Used by generous permission of Mr. Massimo Gentili-Tedeschi.
“Viva Vivaldi!” created by EJG2. Incorporates the following elements:
“Old Paper” by Shadowhouse Creations.
“Tito Manlio” Public Domain.
“Antonio Vivaldi Signature” Public Domain.
“Vivaldi by Caldwell” Public Domain.
“Cover of a Program for a Concert of A. Vivaldi’s Music” by Leo Zaff is licensed under CC BY 3.0
“Motezuma” Public Domain
“Vivaldi Sculpture” Public Domain.
“Concerto for 2 Violins in A Minor, RV 522” by Advent Chamber Orchestra is licensed under CC BY 3.0.