The Blessed Hypocrisy “Method Acting” of Salvation PART 1 (of 4 Parts)

In the world of wishful delusion, prayer “changes” us. In reality we’re stuck on this blue flyspeck in space on the edge of a cyclical multi-universe no one understands. In the context of the fraction of the cosmos we can observe sometimes it seems like we are less significant than the parasites inhabiting our intestinal tracts. That notwithstanding I love my wife, children and grandchildren so intensely that I feel compelled to lay my love for them–and the fear of loss that is the dark side of love–at the feet of someone more powerful than me. So I try to protect them by praying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

This ancient “Jesus Prayer” springs from the heart of Eastern Orthodox spiritual mysticism. Yet my compulsion to pray — irrespective of the “form” my prayer takes these days — has survived my flight from the netherworld of evangelical striving and survived my abandoning what I now think were many false certainties.

These days my prayer addiction exists in an inherited shadow land that’s rooted in glimmers of sweet pre-conscious memories of my loving mother praying with me. My fiercely Protestant missionary mother — circa the 1950s-60s when as a young child I was being comforted by her bedtime prayers — wouldn’t have approved my repetitions of the “Jesus Prayer.” To her mumbling this prayer again and again would have sounded “too Catholic” to be right. Her disapproval of written formal “non-spontaneous” prayers notwithstanding, memories of my spiritual awakening at her knee hover in a kindly twilight realm between sleep and waking. I sense love in the place memory takes me, a “place” where the comfort and certainties of childhood are now forever out of reach.

Whatever its source, my “Jesus Prayer” reflex has nothing to do with my religious beliefs any more than my believing in the need to breathe keeps me breathing. For me prayer is a lower brain medulla-controlled state of being, not a theological proposition. And praying has nothing to do with the fact that I choose to label myself as a Christian.

We may label ourselves “Agnostics,” “Atheists,” “Jews,” “Buddhists,” “Christians,” “Muslims,” “Hindus.” We may even sincerely think such words define us. But these belief labels are designed to hide what we actually are: vicious primates.

In the late 1980s when I was living in South Africa and Namibia for a year while directing two forgettable, low budget Hollywood action movies, I became well acquainted with a group of baboons that lived on the rocky cliffs next to one Namibian location. My wife Genie, my children and I were constantly amazed by just how vicious these creatures were to each other, how the dominant males bullied the lesser males and beat and raped their females. Primates are mean, violent and petty. It was strictly “R-Rated” stuff.

“But Daddy, what is that baboon doing?”

“It’s nothing, just some sort of grooming! Pay no attention!”

An article, “Experts Not Surprised by Chimp’s Vicious Attack,” aptly describes primate “moral” conditions:


“[When] Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and author… heard of the vicious chimpanzee attack in Stamford last week that left a 55-year-old woman disfigured and possibly in need of a face transplant, [he said] ‘It’s typical of the attack on a stranger… They go for the face, hands and genitals. They do all sorts of nasty things. They sometimes kill neighboring males… One day he was going to explode… a male chimp of that age was going to do something drastic anyway.”

DNA evidence confirms there is only a 1.2 percent genetic difference between us and chimpanzees. And our human primate history is full of people just like us of whom it can be said, “They do all sorts of nasty things.” Primates are into dominance and hierarchies. Aggression is the norm to increase status. And dominance is necessary. It helps to reduce the amount of actual violence, because someone’s “in charge.”

Our chosen or inherited labels neither change nor protect us and they certainly offer no protection of the people we love from our primate viciousness. So when I reflexively find myself praying for the protection of my family by repeating the “Jesus Prayer” I find I’m really begging Jesus to protect them from me.

My prayer compulsion is unconscious but my love for my family is not. At this stage of life I know that whatever the mystery of prayer is or isn’t that if I want my loved ones protected from my dark side I’ll have to answer my prayers myself.

Playacting at virtue is all I can do to “answer” my prayers because human truth is biology not wishful thinking. Biology is biology, not words about biology. And our biology has made us mean. Faith doesn’t fix meanness. The same goes for the word “God.” It fixes nothing nor does theology.

Theology resides in the world of language and language is mere metaphor even when describing the mundane reality of day-to-day existence, let alone when it comes to using words to spin out ideas about invisible “truths” that are supposed to change one’s life. We long for some sort of “revealed” transcendent truth to “explain everything” though deep down some of us suspect that we’re courting delusion.

Even if we aren’t entirely deluded and there really is some meaning “out there” as we seek this “outside-of-us” meaning our only conduit for such “revelation” is ourselves and other primates. And that’s a big problem because primates are real bastards.

Looking back, I realize my crew and I weren’t much different than the baboons that romped, stole, raped and killed nearby. Our white South African grip stole his own equipment for insurance purposes and then blamed his black workers and got them arrested. (Charges were dropped when we learned what he’d done.) One drunken special effects coordinator – ironically our “weapons safety officer” – brought a loaded shotgun to the set and carelessly let off a blast that nearly killed my young son. It missed him by millimeters while blowing a hole in our car door. One of our motorcycle chase stunts was designed wrong and we put a stuntman in the hospital for 6 months with a crushed pelvis. And then the South African production manager lied about how it happened to avoid problems with our “completion bond” insurers.

Unlike the lower primates, who seem to revel in their viciousness, we deny the truth about who we are and/or look for a quick fix. Enter the theologians, Bible teachers, imams, rabbis, pastors and evangelists with their “explanations” and “remedies.” But their words ring hollow because all of their arguments are entirely circular. They quote their Old and New Testaments, the Torah, the Koran etc., as “proof” of the life-changing “truth” of their texts, never answering the only real question: What makes them think anything in their particular “sacred” text is true?

They use words full of bluster like “God says” or “Jesus says” or “the Prophet says.” But when they say, “The Bible says,” what they really mean is, “I say the Bible says.” If they were honest, they’d lace their sermons with statements like this: “When I say ‘God says’ what I really mean is whoever wrote this passage in the Bible (or Koran or Torah) said this and there is no way to know if this represents what any creator real or imagined may or may not want. Nor can I say for sure what the human author of this text even meant let alone who actually wrote this or why we take this writing any more seriously than what’s on the back of a breakfast cereal box.”

Worse, the God merchants tell us that their “holy books” are inspired. They “prove” this by referring to their particular holy book and what it “says” about itself.

This is a neat trick that, as an author I wish I could borrow: “Hey, my books are all perfect because my books say they are perfect! See? It’s so clear! Look it says so right here in Chapter 6, verse 3, ‘This book is perfect!’ And by the way they are all at the top of the bestseller lists too, no matter what you think those lists say! And if you read the bestseller lists and don’t see my books listed there, it’s only because you lack the faith to discern the hidden truths only revealed to people who read my books! You see you need special spiritual eyes to read what’s really on the bestseller list no matter what it says! And the way to get spiritual eyes to discern truth is to read my books with the perfect understanding open only to those who read my books!”

In a backhanded way, the fact religious snake oil salesmen can dupe us with their entirely circular “arguments” is a hopeful sign. It seems we care enough about wanting to change who we are for the sake of those we love that we long for shortcuts to eradicate our true primal nature. And one of the biggest lies we gratefully accept from religious leaders is that we can change what we are through “correct” beliefs that will lead us to experience divine interventions. We gratefully buy into such “life-changing” theologically “correct” belief-based events, such a born-again experience or a trip to get the Pope to bless us or by making a pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to avoid the hard truth best expressed in the words of the inimitable Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The essence of the religion lie is that correct belief (religious or otherwise) can save us from ourselves and, in the case of religion, from the wrath of some “god.” There’s a problem with this idea: life is too short to know anything for certain. And there is another problem: this religious one stop “solution” is like some of the wackier cancer “cures” offered to desperately ill men and women when conventional treatments fail.

When otherwise sensible people are scared stiff of the way their own bodies have betrayed them they will pay to be fooled. And they don’t ask hard questions like the one I posed a well meaning friend who kept calling when my father was dying of lymphoma with her “great ideas” about Mexican herbal folk cures. She wanted Dad to leave the Mayo Clinic and head for some herbalist in Mexico City. She ranted against western medicine and extolled peasant cures using “nature” and “what is in our rain forests.” I finally snapped, “If these alternative folk cures are so great why don’t the actuarial epidemiology public health tables demonstrate that peasants in Central America live longer than middle class North Americans?”

Then there is the wrath-of-God concept. It turns out that this selling point for religion demands of us that we believe that our creator is meaner and dumber than us and is hooked on a cycle of scapegoat sacrifice, sacred violence and retribution– forever. And even if you buy the need to pacify this angry “god” through right belief this “faith” still begs the question of sincerity. How do we achieve enough sincerity to be saved even if we want to believe correctly?

All this notwithstanding we still look for a quick, magical fix because our primal capacity for cruelty is hard to own up to. For instance I’m not proud that in the late 1980s I broke the entertainment industry anti-apartheid boycott and worked in South Africa and South African-controlled Namibia directing movies, because I needed the money. I had just fled my financially secure high paying life in big time American evangelical religion, where I was a minor celebrity and nepotistic sidekick to my famous evangelical leader father. When I walked away, my family was broke. (I’ve explained and/or rationalized this exit in my books Crazy For God and Sex, Mom and God .) Excuses notwithstanding, in my own way I was as exploitative of the apartheid system for my own ends as was that criminal grip.

But I’m not just talking about the “big evils” like doing a small part to enable apartheid. I’m talking about who we are in daily life.

Our primate nature is on display when we slap a child, bully others in school, or spew anger at our lover, partner or spouse. What I regret most deeply when looking back in sorrow isn’t my “big mistakes” (say working in South Africa or spreading the fear-filled mythology of the Religious Right) but the many times I’ve been unkind to my children and cruel to my wife when kindness and good sense would have cost me nothing. So: How to change our primate brains’ biology so the change becomes real?

(To be continued. Look for Part 2 of The Blessed Hypocrisy “Method Acting” of Salvation coming to this space soon.)


Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.

To book Frank to speak at your college, church or group please contact Frank HERE

About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • Lausten North

    Starting off with a 4-parter may not have been a good idea. I was interested in the stuff about monkeys and the comparison to the humans on the movie set, but you kept interrupting yourself to take a cheap shot at some crappy theology like Bible inerrancy. I’ll keep skimming your blogs, but I hope you’re going somewhere with this.

  • Dale Lature (@dlature)

    Amen to just about all of this. Look forward to 2 thru 4!
    (Hoping to try and make the Hellbound screening Wednesday. If so, see ya then!)

  • Ninure da Hippie

    I could not figure out how to “sign up” for your blog. :(

    • deborah arca

      Hello, Ninure, To subscribe to Frank’s blog, enter your email address in the box in the right column that says “To Subscribe by Email to Why I Talk to Jesus – in Spite of Everything” … you should be guided through a short sign up process and start receiving updates as Frank posts. Thanks for coming to Patheos!

  • Francis Ackerman

    Hey Frank — What of studies that show — scientifically — that sick people whose loved ones (or anyone for that matter) prayed for them, did better over the short term than those who had no-one praying for them? As for books that say they are perfect, what do you make of the I Ching? When Carl Gustaf Jung asked it (the I Ching is an ancient Chinese oracle in the form of a book, or compilation of oracular responses to just about any question you care to pose) to describe itself, it responded by saying it was like a disused well that was covered over with sticks and leaves, and that no-one paid any attention to it any more; but those who dipped would find sweet spring water in its depths. I have had a similar experience (more than once) with the I Ching myself.
    I look forward to keeping in touch with your current thinking, and to some free-wheeling, open-minded discussion. In the meantime, love to you and your family, always — your fellow Chablaisien — Francis

    • Lausten North

      Show me the study. I have found a few of them, and they have been refuted. “Scientific” requires that the tests be repeated and verified. That has not been done.

    • Frank Schaeffer

      Hi Francis, thanks so much for the always interesting feedback. This Patheos blog is new for me and I’m hoping gives me a chance to listen to others on these ideas as they relate to faith. Thanks for helping this happen. F

  • Suzanne Dubinin

    I am also an habitual prayer. I am a woman that no longer needs the vanity of theology, but prayer still comes as naturally as thought at times. One thing that happened to me via prayer many years before I began to give up fooling myself with ‘correct belief’, was that as I prayed for my own children and my own family, empathy drove me to pray on and on for all children and all families. How could I pray for my child to be safe and not all children to be safe? How could I think that my children were somehow more important than any child? This simple catalyst helped propel me to be honest with myself about theology and all that it strangles. Open discussion and honesty, the only hope for meaningful change. To the future of our children! To a better world!!

  • Francis Ackerman

    As I reread your thoughts for the day, Frank, I have a couple of more thoughts of my own to add. You say that human truth is biology; and comment that we are very close to being genetically identical to baboons. But what is biology? What is life? Are we determined by our biology, our genes? I rather think that, as I was once reminded by a bumper sticker — “due to circumstances beyond my control, I am master of my fate and captain of my soul.” Nor am I dismayed by our similarity to apes. If there is “a very little difference between us and baboons,” well, vive la difference! I think it’s a very big little difference! The bottom line is, Frank, that there is philosophical ground between Calvinist predestination and Darwinist determinism. God is in his heaven, and all may not be right with the world, but the truth is that although some people may be remarkably like baboons, you are not, nor are you a danger to your family, however you may have erred and strayed, as we all do who are blessed with freedom! Why must the universe be conceptualized as a closed system, and Darwin’s evolution as something mechanical, like an automatic clock that just keeps on running forever and ever, never varying from its predetermined course? I tend to think that there is another possibility — the possibility that God is not only personal, infinite, the Creator, and the moving force of evolution, but ALSO immanent in His Creation; that we, possessing the gift of partial consciousness, are supremely privileged to be “present at the creation” — for what is evolution, but God at play? it’s not mechanical; it rushes on like a waterfall. Hegel described historical change, the dynamism of history, as a dialectical process, which can’t be mechanical, because it is not limited to the realm of matter — and in the world of ideas and consciousness, change is not mechanical, but — well, dialectical, like the free play of a waterfall. Exercising that free play in the context of evolution is the immanent Creator God, whose workings we can never hope to understand fully; but to a limited extent, we can appreciate, revel in, glory in His power, His delicacy. “To see eternity in a blade of grass, and Heaven in a wild flower”, as William Blake put it. Or, from another perspective, we must be careful not to mistake scientific knowledge for the whole truth. Blake, again: “The atoms of Democritus, and Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red Sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright!” Top of the morning to you, Frank!

  • maggiezee

    When I think about how much we don’t want to look at our violent/evil side, I think about all the people who choose to die of an addiction rather than follow the 12 steps of AA to get sober. One of the key elements to getting and staying sober is to look at the past realistically. For some, that is so painful, they won’t do it. They choose to continue down the path of their progressive disease.
    If you think ho-hum, you have never seen someone in the throes of their addiction. It is a life lived in the process of death, a true living hell. Death by most other physical diseases, as horrible as they are, have nothing on people who die from addiction. It likely might be the additional emotional component, the utter anquish that results only in another drink/hit to keep the death spiral going.
    With that in mind, some people choose that rather than facing that dark side to get and stay sober. I realize people don’t follow the 12 steps for other reasons. I have little doubt that self reflection is major detractor.

  • Bob Danforth

    There is much about Chimps and Baboons that give insight into human behavior, there is also a lot about our closer relatives, the Bonobos that also can give great insight into the possibilities of human behavior. The fact is that while they are all cousins, we are not Baboons, and we are not Bonobos.

    Even within our own biology there is not a single pressure. George Lakoff has laid out two primary and divergent pressures that can be advanced or restrained by both what has happened to us and by the choices we make. I rather suspect that even Baboons or Bonobos would have very different societies than they do given different forces, and examples. The Cherokee metaphor of two wolves in a battle over the soul of each person and society comes to mind. One is viscous, competitive, and narcissistic, and the other is empathetic, nurturing, and cooperative, but also strong in defense of those values. Ultimately though the one that wins is the one you feed, and it is both individually and as a society that we have to make that choice.

    Religion has always played both sides of the Lakoff divide, and indeed it lays at the heart of the “cultural divide” that has persisted from he times of earliest record. As you have pointed out the universe as revealed by freed slaves in 300bce as a kind of bell jar in God’s lab is rather different from the universe as revealed by the Hubble Telescope and the hints that it too is but a dust speck in a much larger reality, however that change in awareness has not changed our humanity and the need to treat each other as better than our nature would make possible at the worst.

    I am equally dismayed by extremists who would claim the Bible as an encyclopedia of fact with nothing deeper to be discovered as I am with “Atheists” who agree in every particular except that they believe the Bible and encyclopedia of fiction. That the Bible and other religious texts are both not encyclopedias and do have deeper understanding seems to be a very difficult concept, just as the idea that many religions are Atheist, is a hard sell in America anyway.

    I very much look forward to reading the ideas of all those who have made those steps, because some form of that will be the metaphor that will help win out against the more vicious forces of our nature. We are not predetermined, and there are several paths available both as persons and as society. We need strong voices for the best paths.

    • Frank Schaeffer

      Hi Bob, I’m really grateful you read this piece. Thank you. I love what you say here: “That the Bible and other religious texts are both not encyclopedias and do have deeper understanding seems to be a very difficult concept…” great. And it is that very difficult concept that I’m trying to explore in this new Patheos blog. Please keep reading it and let me know when you think I’m missing the point or getting close to something worth thinking about. Best, Frank

  • John DeFelice

    Frank: Great to see you here. Enjoyed the blog.

    • Frank Schaeffer

      John so lovely to “meet” old friends like you on this new page. Thanks! F

  • Pith Helmet

    Thanks for this essay and the focus on forgiveness. I was lucky enough to stumble on it after you had published all 4 parts so could read it in one sitting. I’m going to have to keep reading your blog!

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