What inspired you to write Sex, Mom, and God?
First, the 5000-plus emails and letters generated by my memoir Crazy for God made it clear that I still had questions to answer about my family’s role in the rise of the religious right. People liked the book but some people knew that I’d ducked some questions. It takes a while to work up the courage to be honest, and after I got Crazy for God off my chest I wanted to take another step (and my gloves off) before moving on.
Second, in three novels, Portofino, Saving Grandma, and Zermatt and in two nonfiction works, Crazy for God and Patience with God, I’d included my mother’s life and/or used her as a point of departure for inventing the fictional character of Elsa Becker. I felt I’d failed to do mom justice. Elsa Becker was too much like my mother on the one hand and too little like her on the other, and in my memoirs she’d played second fiddle to my father. She deserved better. I once got a letter from one of my mother’s followers telling me that, having just read my novel Portofino (a work of humor where the missionary mother’s character, “Elsa Becker,” is like my mother—in some ways), she was sure it would “kill your mother because of the hatred for Jesus that drips from your SATANIC pen!”
Coincidentally, that fan letter (received in the early 1990s before I was using e-mail) arrived in the same post delivery as a note from Mom asking me for another dozen signed hardcover copies of that novel so that my mother could send out more to her friends. Mom’s follower had signed her letter “Repent!” My mother signed her note “I’m so proud of you.” Attempting to unravel the mystery of how my mother managed to have attracted such “fans” (through her many books) and who she really was (and is)—a life-embracing free spirit—nagged me into writing this book. Like many evangelicals, mom was a better person than her theology warranted. Through her I wanted to explore why the “worse” a person is, in terms of consistency to their fundamentalist faith, the better a human being they become.
Third, the rightward tilt of the Republicans after Obama’s election has meant that the path taken by the religious right (the movement that most informs the present day Republican Party) was something I felt needed to be better understood. For instance when I’d be interviewed on NPR or by journalists on MSNBC, it often seemed to me that the questions being asked about religious people and beliefs showed that even at best there is a lack of understanding of what it is that has pushed America to the hard right. I felt that I could explain the issues from the point of view of someone who could say “been-there-done-that” and give an insider’s perspective.
Lastly (and this is harder to explain), I felt that the story of the religious right has been told badly because it’s been treated as either an academic subject (for instance when “explaining” the Reconstructionists in terms of American religious history) or a political subject (say the way MSNBC treats religion as it relates to the Tea Party or so-called culture war).
From my perspective, understanding the larger political story necessitates delving into the accumulated impact of thousands of individual stories. I use my life as a lens through which to view a larger narrative: the rightward lurch of American politics since the 1970s. What is happening in America is an expression of mass sexual dysfunction “inspired” by the allegiance of millions of individuals to the Bible. That is all the culture war really is. I wanted to write a book about this but told as a personal story too and told as a novelist tells stories—i.e., in a way that breaks down the door between fact and emotion.
What sparked your interest?
At 58, as a father of three and a grandfather of four, I’m still trying to figure out how it is that I think I know certain things (say, that I don’t know anything), but still have such a strong emotional tie, or rather am bound to, a way of seeing the world as if I was still back in my fundamentalist days. In Sex, Mom and God I go back to where I—and millions of others—began our journeys: in the grip of our bedtime Bible stories!
From a child’s perspective peering out at the larger world from deep in the cocoon of a “Bible believing home,” every word of the Bible is understood to be true in ways that nothing else is or ever will be even if, years later, that child grows up and changes his or her mind. That former child’s grown-up incarnation may be willing to admit nuance and paradox, but the emotional “weight” of the absolutely true Word lingers. The actual words in the Word are still the very fabric of a whole private universe inhabiting those raised inside the hermetically sealed tunnel of absolutist faith, “truer” than all the other words he or she will ever hear, say, read, or think put together—truer than any later reasoned evidence. And on top of that the words of the Bible, or even a few notes of an old hymn, cast a shadow of bittersweet nostalgia that defies reason as thoroughly as a whiff of perfume reminds a man of his first lover and evokes a longing that cuts to the heart.
I used to think I’d someday sort out the difference between what I believe “for myself” and how I was conditioned to think. These days I don’t believe that clarity is possible. For one thing belief is a snapshot of just that day since beliefs change and we also change our minds. So instead I use the fundamentalist chains binding my brain as a point of creative departure, as the context that generates (as it were) letters from prison sent to the outside world.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
To be true to what I hope is the heart of the best of the universal religious message, I want to say that redemption through selflessness, hope, and love necessitates a new and fearless repudiation of 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. To find any spiritual truth within any religion’s holy books, we must mentally edit them by the light God has placed in each of us.
As Anne Hutchinson put it at her trial, “The Lord knows that I could not open scripture; he must by his prophetical office open it unto me.” Those who wish to live as Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, or atheists by following the humble thread of what I’ll call divine uncertainty, as opposed to those who wish to force others to be like them by using Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or doctrinaire secularism as a weapon, must shift from unquestioning faith in their books, the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, (or science) to a life-affirming message of transcendence.
Anything you had to leave out?
I’ll reverse that question and answer it this way: I forced myself to include certain things in order to conform to the publishing reality these days that is less and less favorable to fiction or even to books!
In the best of all worlds, I’d find a way to tell all my stories as stories to people who love books as books. It was a compromise to meld the personal with the political. I’m very pleased with the result, but the parts of my book I enjoyed writing most were the stories not the explanations of those stories. It feels like a letdown to go from the freedom of storytelling (say, about why and where I had sex with an ice sculpture) to having to “prove” points by dragging facts onto the page (say, about my meetings with Rousas Rushdoony, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement and/or talking about working with Ronald Reagan on his “pro-life” book project).
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic
I think they are the same misconceptions that infect all political/religious/moral “topics” these days: the illusion of progress. Chris Hedges says (rightly, I think) that we mistake advances in science for moral progress. So the misconception is that there is such a thing as modernity.
Dig a little and under every modern “issue” is a basic narrative that never changes. This is why Shakespeare is always on the cutting edge and always will be.
At risk of being too cute I’ll add that life and the “big issues” really do boil down to sex, mom, and God. “Modernity” has changed nothing. We human animals seek out meaning that transcends the sum of our physical parts. That never changes. And we make the same mistakes in every age. What has changed is that the stakes have gotten intolerably high because of our growing capacity to do global harm.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Anyone raised in a home where one or more parent or sibling was driven by a sense of passionate mission, be that of the left, right, religious, political or social. How does one separate one’s self from a driven tribe?
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
All of the above. There is plenty to be informed about: religion and how it changes lives and shapes childhoods is basic information that social and political commentators ignore at their peril. (Think of all the relevant news stories the New York Times has not covered—say the early rise of the religious right—just because somewhere back there the Times’ owners decided that religion wasn’t relevant any longer!) The fact that I worked on this book for two years flat out for 15-plus hours a day, and took it through 28 full drafts shows that (besides being nuts), I certainly have done my utmost such as it is to give pleasure to readers. And if anyone can look at the way religion has treated and treats women and not be pissed off they have something wrong with them.
So, yes, I intend on pissing off every misogynist homophobic religious conservative and/or empire-building neo-conservative imperialist supporter of our permanent war economy stuck in the ideological straightjacket that I used to so proudly wear. But I’d also like to plant a seed that changes a few minds. I hope that someday a few right wing evangelical’s anger gives way to the grudging thought “maybe Frank had a point.” Maybe my book will help lead a few people to a better place: the embrace of blessed paradox. Or as I say in the book: “No one ever blew up a mosque, church, or abortion clinic after yelling, ‘I could be wrong.’”
What alternate title would you give the book?
Sex, Mom and God was my first and only title, though at one point I was thinking about another subtitle: “A Religiously Obsessed Sexual Memoir.”
How do you feel about the cover?
Jonathan Sainsbury who designed it is brilliant. I love it.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It inspired me when I was a teen, made my mind race then and still does now. It’s one of the best novels of the twentieth (or any) century and achieves a devastating and darkly funny social commentary informed by a spiritual intuitiveness that has not been matched.
What’s your next book?
Perhaps something for or about children since the only part of each day that I enjoy with no second thoughts is when I play with my grandchildren. Nothing beats a tea party with a two-year-old who loves you unconditionally.