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by Frank Schaeffer
Macmillan, 256 pages, $18

Frank Schaeffer’s latest book, a novel, provides many signs that the author has at last found his genre. Living in the shadow of his father, Francis Schaeffer, ardent Calvinist and self-proclaimed missionary to the fundamentalist intelligentsia, the young Schaeffer grew up in the L’Abri community in Switzerland, which his father founded. This retreat center was the gathering place for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians disenchanted with the alternatives of both liberal Protestantism and the type of traditional fundamentalist practice that denigrated the intellectual contexts of belief. Francis Schaeffer’s books and seminars provided the historical and philosophical perspectives lacking in his followers’ theologies. Examining Western culture from a Calvinist viewpoint, preaching his wake-up call uniquely attired in lederhosen, Schaeffer became something of an evangelical guru. In the meantime his wife Edith began to chisel her identity as helpmeet into a manifesto for Christian women. In books and lectures, she declared that her choices should be every woman’s. The Schaeffers’ son, known for many years as Franky, dabbled in film and art and even, rather unsuccessfully, tried on his father’s role as polemicist. With this novel the more mature Frank now takes on a more arduous task.

Unfortunately, because of dramatic similarities with the circumstances of Frank Schaeffer’s young life, it is inevitable that Portofino will be read primarily as a titillating revelation about the Schaeffer family. Of course, some of the work of every novelist is autobiographical, but the imagination of the artist—and Frank Schaeffer is no exception—is powerful enough to create stories that exist apart from personal experience; and Portofino deserves to be read as a novel.

The story, told through the eyes of Calvin Becker, the ten-year-old son and youngest child of fundamentalist reformed missionaries to Switzerland, takes place in Italy during several family vacations. The family is dysfunctional, the father subject to black moods of frustration and despair and to violent displays of temper that the mother blames on his working-class background. The mother prays conspicuous, florid prayers at any provocation, but especially before meals—prayers so long that the Italian hotel manager, watching the soup cool on the platters in front of the family, feels that he should offer them a different dish since they evidently do not care for what has been placed before them. Calvin gazes with envy at the Italians who merely cross themselves “with their eyes open” before they begin their meal.

Schaeffer handles with great deftness the poignancy of a young boy’s spiritual struggles in an environment that will not allow him to ask the questions that plague him. Furtively, he visits the local cathedral, lights a candle to Mary, and crosses himself even though he knows that in the eyes of his parents he is committing an unpardonable sin.

Even though Schaeffer clearly has an agenda to expose the hypocrisies and neuroses of evangelical family life, Portofino is more than just a vehicle for him to vent his considerable anger. To be sure, he does more than paint a benign portrait of the artist as a young evangelical; instead this is a study of a family caught in a web of sin and denial. The mother’s loneliness and alienation from the father lead her to an affair with a co-worker—named, of course, Jonathan Edwards. The father’s violence erupts against Calvin in a particularly brutal beating, and against his wife whom he clearly despises for her spiritual pride. But these characters are not completely unsympathetic. Father and son share a day’s hike in the country, and the child is able to see flickers and sparks of genuine understanding in his father’s responses to him. After Calvin confesses the embarrassment he feels at his mother’s long public prayers before meals, his father asks him if he can keep a secret. When Calvin says, “yes,” the father, to Calvin’s great surprise, responds, “I do, too.” Calvin also cares deeply for his mother, in spite of her many weaknesses, and yearns for a better life for her. These human moments of contradiction and ambivalence are what make this novel a credible piece of fiction.

The story is filled with moments of humor amidst the pathos. In one particularly striking scene Calvin sits at the table with his family, playing with the salt shaker and ideas of predestination and the foreknowledge of God.

My experiment was to see if I could do something halfway, then stop or change it so fast that I could get ahead of, or even beat the sovereignty of God. I started to pour out a little salt onto the table but just as more was about to come out, I suddenly stopped and started to shake the rice around in the cellar so God would lose count of the grains of salt. Then I started to put it down but instead yanked it up above my head. And I did it so fast that salt came out all over me. In a way that was good since God is sovereign: He knows your thoughts all the time, so how could I do something He hadn’t planned for since the beginning of time. I was glad when the salt came out all over my head because it was a surprise to me and so it might have been a surprise to God too. But then I figured He knew I was going to do this thing with the salt from before I was born. So He was probably still sovereign and Calvin was right and had God figured.

When his father asks him what he is doing, Calvin says, speaking his newly discovered truth, “God made me do it.” For such apparent blasphemy his father sends him to his room where he goes to await his punishment. He has the sinking realization that “the whole thing was part of His plan, even the things we did to get out of His plan, like the thing with the salt shaker I did, were really part of His plan so you had to do it, and I couldn’t have left the salt alone even if I had wanted to.”

What a surprise, then, is his father’s mercy when he appears in the boy’s room to announce that Calvin’s mother and he realize that it is the final night of vacation, and Calvin is probably upset, so they have decided not to spank him this time. Schaeffer writes, “When he left my room I was very glad and sat down and thought about how much I loved my pop. Then I wondered if God had known he would change his mind and not spank me and if this was part of the plan.”

There is gentleness here and good humor amidst the dawning awareness of the meaning of redemption, of the beauty and the terror of faith, and of the fragile and dangerous nature of human relationships. Schaeffer has drawn a portrait of a family in trouble and helpless to help themselves or to come before God in true humility because they are so focused on the mote in their brothers’ eyes that they have long ignored the log in their own.

The artistic problem for Schaeffer and others like him is that they have precious few literary mentors. Other than Frederick Buechner, Shirley Nelson, and Harold Fickett, where are the novelists from the evangelical/fundamentalist world who have been able to write honestly, credibly, and guilelessly? Of course, clerical hypocrisy is not a new theme in Western literature, nor is the theme of adolescent questioning and rebellion. But even though Schaeffer is exploring material that possesses a familiar generic identity, the scarcity of more specific literary analogues makes his task most difficult.

Despite the lack of a defining tradition in fiction and poetry, fundamentalists do at least understand and use story in a way that may be unique among American Christians. The conversion narrative or testimony—the story of one’s path up the well-trodden sawdust trail—has been an integral part of the religious experience since the Puritan conversion narratives. To be able to relate the story of one’s conversion to Christ, and to repeat it when called upon, is an important identifying mark of the fundamentalist; it acquires further authority when used as an evangelistic tool. So why, if this narrative structure is a natural part of the evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, aren’t there more professional storytellers among the ranks? The answer has something to do with the Calvinist distrust of icon and image, among a people committed to preaching the importance of personal relationship with Jesus—a relationship that is one-on-one with nothing in-between—no graven images, no crucifixes, no statues of saints, no liturgy, and sometimes even no crosses in the churches.

Occasionally, however, an evangelical author will, despite a prohibitive theological upbringing, attempt a collection of short stores or a novel, only to be faced with an irresolvable theological and artistic dilemma. The Roman Catholic and the Anglican grounding in sacrament allows the writer freedom to operate inside the material world, a freedom fundamentalists do not have. Flannery O’Connor once wrote to a professor, “You said something about my stories dipping into life—as if this were commendable but a trifle unusual; from which I get the notion that you may dip largely into your head. This would be in line with the Protestant temper—approaching the spiritual directly instead of through matter.”

It is obvious that in spite of Schaeffer’s upbringing, he is a sacramentalist. Thus one was not surprised to learn that he recently embraced Eastern Orthodoxy. If the world of matter can be used as an entry to God’s mysteries—making them accessible, if not completely understood—then the artist is free to write what he sees. Most of the time one senses this freedom in Portofino. If the artist is accustomed to regarding matter as a possible vehicle for God’s grace, then poetic expression becomes much more natural. On the other hand, if truth is understood as being entirely propositional, then as the author struggles with the integration of faith and art, the line between the didactic and the propagandistc may become tenuously thin.

Occasionally the reader becomes aware of a streak of rebelliousness that belongs to Frank Schaeffer, author, not necessarily the characters he has created. This seems to occur when Schaeffer momentarily forgets he is writing a story and begins, in a more self-conscious manner, to resort to polemics. It is as if every once in a while, he allows himself an indulgent moment of frustration with characters whose theology seems to be no more than a collection of Bible verses, and until he recovers himself artistically, he is tempted to begin an argument with them. At this point the reader becomes aware that the veil between artist and character has been momentarily stripped away and that Schaeffer is indeed writing autobiographically about some of his deepest frustrations.

Schaeffer must learn to trust himself to make it up as he goes along, which he does successfully most of the time. In fact, there are stunning passages, even entire chapters, in Portofino that prove without a doubt that Schaeffer is a true novelist. In particular, his descriptions of the Italian beaches, the people in the churches, restaurants, and streets, and the life Calvin observes in the porticoes give this novel a rare luminosity. But more than that, this novel is an act of courage, which is just another way of saying that its author is an artist.

Jill P. Baumgaertner is Professor of English at Wheaton College.

Photo by Valentin B. Kremer on Unsplash. Image cropped.