How to Keep Your Mate Even If You Are A Semi-Evolved Recovering Evangelical Controlling Bastard
















She was born when I was 18 but I eventually grew up. When she was a young adult I asked Jessica to forgive me for the times I’d pulled her hair, for the slaps and unkind yelling she endured as a young child.

Forgive as you would be forgiven is not a prescriptive command but a factual description of what heals human relationships. If I’ve learned anything over my 60 year journey it’s that forgiveness as a way of life is open to anyone of any faith or no faith.

Brains change based on our behaviors not because of what we say we believe. Belief is only meaningful in that it can either lead us to reconsider who we are imitating or confirm us as being “right” and therefore in no need of healing. So the “act” (in both senses of the word) of forgiving others works for the forgiver as well as the forgiven. It connects us with the empathy we have within us that competes with our primate prime directive to be controlling bastards.

It was no coincidence that the farther I traveled away from my fundamentalist evangelical Calvinist background the more open I became to imitating forgiving behavior. In my mind my dominating and controlling actions had been “justified” by my “call” to “lead” a family as a  patriarchal practitioner of the biblical misogyny that all-too conveniently fit my selfish male primate desire to control those around me. 

Calvinism is the perfect religion

for males who are real bastards

and want an excuse to stay that way


Calvinism is the perfect religion for males who are real bastards and want an excuse to stay that way. I’d been told that “God’s plan” included a directive for men to dominate “their” women and children. Calvinism — and all other forms of patriarchal religion Islam included — is tailor made by male primates for other male primates who are mean. selfish and insecure  It gives them guilt-free a pat on the head to do what comes most naturally: be jerks. It is too human relations what Ayn Rand is to teenage boys and billionaires of the nastier kind: justification to never feel empathy, in other words to never grow up.

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  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 exploitative of the apartheid system for my own ends. But here 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. And I’m looking at how our theology actually can make us worse than if we’d never heard of God.

I’ve been unkind to my children

and cruel to my wife when

kindness and good sense

would have cost me nothing


 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?

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. 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 primate nature is on display when we slap a child, bully others in school, or spew anger at our lover, partner or spouse. And if that tendency to dominate others is excused by some insane literal reading of the stupider bits of that collection of Bronze Age/Roman/Greek/Jewish era myths we call the Bible then we use that religion as an excuse. Enter the idiots talking about how women should “submit” to men. Enter the godly kooks trying to prevent gay men and women from marrying because of some passage in the Bible. Enter me slapping my kids as a young father with “spare the rod” BS ringing in my ears.

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 I find I’m really begging God to protect them from me.

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? 

Enforcing “correct ideas”

 including theology is just 

another manifestation of 

biting and scratching


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.” So let’s be honest: Enforcing “correct ideas” including theology is just another manifestation of biting and scratching, primate behavior dressed up to look like something it’s not. So how can we change?

Monkey-see-monkey-do can be the road to either damnation or salvation. It all depends on whom we imitate. I’ve found that when I imitate Jesus’ life and teaching – forgive my enemies or at least forgive my wife after a fight – I can gradually change my brain, just as long as I keep repeating the action.

Instead of revenge, Jesus begged God to forgive his murderers. Now that is something new on this little planet.

So what? The biblical account of Jesus is all very nice, but how does “imitating Jesus” translate to me? I wasn’t there and I don’t even know if the gospel accounts happened. And “inspirational” Bible verses about Jesus are often dead to me, because they are just too familiar and polluted. I’ve heard them read (and “explained”) by people who told lies about things I could check out – say the money they stole from their ministry, the people they slept with and hurt, the pompous asses they became – and who used “faith” as just another method by which to bully and dominate others.

So how to “meet” a teacher I trust outside of trying to force myself to believe a far-fetched text about things that no one can agree on and that’s been pushed on me by people as imperfect as me? Sometimes we can find an intermediary. And she’s not always the Virgin Mary. I’m talking about my wife and daughter…

My wife Genie has been my “Jesus tutor.” Genie has copied Jesus over our 42-year marriage. And my daughter Jessica, who bore the brunt of my stupidity, youth and anger when I was a teen father sliding into my insecure selfish 20s, has copied Genie too. Jessica grew up and then forgave me for being a sometimes mean and always impatient young father. And I copied Genie and Jessica.

That’s the “how” of my changing some of the neural pathways in my brain for the better. I was set a good example and decided that theirs was the better way. That’s the “how” of my second chance to be a very different person than I once was–at least in the eyes of my youngest grandchildren.

I just wish I could 

roll back the clock


My granddaughter Lucy (presently a 4-year-old) and my grandson Jack (presently 2-years-old) came into my life after my decades-long steep learning curve. Thankfully, they didn’t have to endure it. Others paid that price. That means Lucy and Jack mostly know me as the guarantor of unconditional love. (They are my former-Marine son John’s kids and live next door, and I see them for many hours each day, so to say we’re “close” hardly covers it.) I just wish I could roll back the clock and be the person they know today especially to my firstborn, back when Jessica was very young.

So who is this Jesus we can copy through others who copy him? Here are some possibilities. If the fundamentalists are correct (and why shouldn’t they be, because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and every word of the Bible is “literally true” (whatever that means), when Jesus was nailed to a cross and asked God to unconditionally “forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was asking God to renounce vengeance–forever. He was asking for God to forgive everyone involved in his murder, and that included the Romans and Jews of his day who would never “become Christians” let alone pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Forgive them all unconditionally, Jesus asked. In other words, the idea of hell was abolished.

If the theologically liberal “side” is correct (and why shouldn’t they be because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and the Bible is mostly myth (whatever that means) combined with garbled oral history screwed up by St. Paul and further deformed by hell-loving vengeful St. Augustine, and all the other power-hungry retributive abusers of the Jesus Story from Augustine to Calvin, then Jesus-The-Mysterious-Myth holds out just as much hope of salvation as a literal Jesus does. Because either way, if you imitate Jesus (or copy your version of Genie and Jessica copying him) you can change your brain and be saved from the only person with the capacity to punish you forever: yourself.

That change comes not because of magic or even God but because Jesus (or whoever wrote about him) actually had one great idea: Forgive! So who is this Jesus? Is he God or man, divine or “merely” wise? And where do we “learn” about him, from the Bible, from clever teachers in seminaries, from inspired pastors and/or from the traditions of the ancient church?

The good news is it doesn’t matter. The Jesus idea is powerful and true in that it “works” so where we learn about it doesn’t matter. We don’t even know those we live with, so how very silly to claim we know who anyone else really is or was. Our knowledge of those even closest to us is woefully incomplete and yet we muddle along. I can’t definitively tell you who Genie and my children are either. I’m not them. But that doesn’t stop me communicating with them any more than my incomplete or even wrong knowledge about who Jesus is stops me from learning the great idea – forgive – that is at the heart of the Jesus Story.

I don’t just “meet” Jesus in the Bible. I meet Jesus at midnight through a tired, thrice-divorced, seen-it-all nurse who gave up her day and night to do the dishes with me for our church but who will still be on night duty a few hours later. I meet Jesus through people who are atheists, agnostics, Muslims or nothing at all, except imitators of Jesus– no matter who they credit for their non-primate like loving behavior. In other words, they are forgivers. They might not have ever heard of Jesus, let alone “believe in him,” but often they are much more like him than some folks running churches.

I have seen the power of forgiveness work to heal my former religious “certainties.” Those certainties gave my primate nastiness  a patriarchal theological boost of self-justification. So before I could change I first had to come to see myself as a persecutor. I had to forget the “biblical example” I’d been set by my evangelist preacher father as he sometimes abused my mother and instead copy the example of forgiveness and mercy my wife Genie and my daughter Jessica offered me.

she was the wounded person

who then rescued

her persecutor


Jessica grew up into a beautiful person with no trace of bitterness and she forgave me. By forgiving me, she healed us both. And if I may indulge a proud father moment, Jessica blossomed into a happy lovely mother of two and my best friend who I talk to almost more than to anyone else. She is a successful energy consultant to the European Union and runs a foundation linking alternative energy companies with the major power companies all over the world. I have no idea what Jessica believes theologically nor do I care. I only know who she is– a forgiver. She was my Good Samaritan but with a twist: she was the wounded person who then rescued her persecutor with these simple words: “I forgive you Dad.”

My two youngest grandchildren Lucy and Jack don’t know how I went from angry primate bullying teen father to 60-year-old benign grandfather. (Jessica’s children Amanda and Ben are teens now and Genie’s and my relationship with them is that of friends, family and equals not care givers to little children as it is with Jack and Lucy.) Lucy and Jack race around my home, paint, draw, scribble, listen to music -”Bach and crackers” as Jack calls it when asking for his favorite snack and music – bathe and poop, all the while experiencing and trusting in that change.

If I hadn’t actually changed but could talk a good theological game, what good would that do my grandchildren? What drew them into a world of my love wasn’t my ideas let alone dominant “leadership” but the fact that I genuinely don’t care how much paint they spill on my porch floor. I know that if anything ever happened to them that their grubby little paint footprints marking the spot where we worked on our art projects together would become iconic treasures and the most precious things in my house.

We can make our brains change by imitating the few who do. Sometimes we receive a reward for that change from a friend, child or grandchild as I did when Lucy, then three, set a table napkin on fire when she experimented with a candle. (I’d briefly left the room and our candlelit table to clear the dishes.) She had no fear in her startled eyes when she looked to see how I’d “react” after she called me back. As a blue sheet of flame curled up to the ceiling she was curious about it but not afraid of me. She has never been slapped by the hands that gently took the burning napkin away. And the voice that said, “That might not be a good idea Lucy,” spoke conversationally without a hint of yelling.

Lucy was fear-less in that moment, because (unknown to her) her grandfather has been playacting at being her “Jesus.” As I conveyed the flaming napkin to the kitchen sink – and explained about fire and what it does – I was passing on my gratitude for having been forgiven so many times. In other words I have been reached by the actual brain-changing power of the living gospel. Jesus — be he God or man or teacher or merely a fictional character — went far past mere niceness and answered our primal violence not with a terrified snarl but with “Forgive them.” And that very un-primate-like example has left the door to heaven wide open for you and me and those we love in the here and now, no matter what we call ourselves or what we believe.

(An earlier draft version of this article appeared here in 4 parts. Here’s the completed piece.)

To book Frank Schaeffer to speak at your college, church or group contact him at 

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 .


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.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    ….not all primates….our equally close cousins the bonobo chimps go for the free love hippie commune style of socializing….we cannot blame our bad behavior on anything outside ourselves, not gods nor men nor animals….

    • Agnikan

      By “ourselves”, do you mean “our DNA”?

  • http://patheos Threeten2yuma

    Please forgive me, Frank, for all the times I’ve slandered you. I am truly sorry for ever doing this. By God’s Grace, I’ll never do it again.

    • Frank Schaeffer

      Hi Threeten2uma, Thanks for the kind note. Best, F

      • http://patheos threeten2yuma

        Well, that’s not exactly, “I forgive you, Threeten,” but I don’t want to start another argument, and maybe it’s the best you can do, Frank. So, “Thank you!” You befuddle the hell out me, Pal . . . but that’s a good thing, I guess. Whatever gets some more Hell out of me is something I always appreciate! My best to you too . . . and if I don’t see you before then, here’s wishing you and yours, “Merry Christmas!” Love, 3:10

        • Candace

          This is not the same situation. The person you are actually asking for forgiveness is God because you sinned in His eyes. This is true of people you directly affect, like Mr. Schaeffer and his daughter, and of people you are not directly connected to. It is possible that Mr. Schaeffer is not required to ‘save’ you by forgiving you. He did acknowledge your positive personal declaration, even if it wasn’t what you expected. What will change your life is your drawing nigh to God through these decisions.

          • http://patheos threeten2yuma


            Thank you for your comments. My intent in addressing Frank was both sincere and a wee bit ironic. I think Frank caught the irony. I’m not sure that you did . . . but that’s OK, because you and I weren’t conversing . . . although we are now.

            Of course, the Person whose forgiveness I need is God’s, same as every last one of us too. And of course, Frank is “not required to ‘save’ [me] by forgiving [me],” because he can’t “save” anyone, not even himself. Although we are all enjoined by The Savior to “forgive, as you have been forgiven,” or words to that effect.

            However, I do appreciate your admonition that I keep “drawing nigh to God.” That’s always good advice! Please let me assure you that it’s what I endeavor to do each and every single day.

            May the Peace of Christ be with you, Sister!

      • Fred Vergara

        Frank, your late father wrote “The Evangelical Disaster” and you seem to have explained it here.

  • Lana

    Wow, that is such a good piece.

  • Frank Schaeffer

    Hi Lana, thanks so very muc. Best, Frank

  • William

    Frank, I just want to thank you for this piece. It touched me deeply. You see, I am in that same place you are. I am transitioning from a mean spirited fundamentalist jerk into a more loving and forgiving spiritual realist. My prayer is to be able to communicate what I am learning in such a way as to help others break free of the many untruths that keeping them bound in fear of offending God. If, as in the scriptures, “perfect love casts out fear”, why does the “church” use scare tactics to keep people “in line”? I am a former fundamentalist preacher and now I want to help others to live a truly victorious life free of all the guilt and shame that I and others have spread through our hard line messages. Peace to you my brother.

    • Frank Schaeffer

      William, thanks so much for reaching out to me with such kindness. Grace and peace to you brother. Please keep in touch with me. Let me know if i can ever be of help. I’m easy to contact via my website
      Best, Frank

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  • Jules

    First of all…. thank you for this article. Secondly, you have my utmost respect and empathy. I, too, am a recovering Fundamentalist Calvinist. While I never went to seminary (I am female and as you pointed out, the “club” itself is largely patriarchal), I studied theology very intensely for several years. That is, until I started to get disenchanted with the elitist nature of the circle in which I found myself.

    Now, granted, the very nature of Calvinist theology itself is a form of elitism, but even beyond any Biblical differences I might have begun fostering, the attitude is what struck me hardest. I clearly recall being in a Reformed Baptist Bible study group, wherein one of our seminary students began a derisive and condescending line of quips against Presbyterians. Presbyterians… who were supposed to be our first cousins, and there was the direct reverse of the famed “Presbyterian Pat” taking place.

    But what nailed home the apparent lack of grace in those who claimed with their next break that only /they/ truly understood God’s grace… was when I started writing fiction. I was nearly excommunicated. Because I didn’t write religious fiction and my characters used strong language and found themselves embroiled in (not graphic) adult situations. I was devastated. Most of my friends completely abandoned me and my mentor, who was good friends with my pastor, never once picked up the phone to vouch for my character and the solidity of my beliefs. It has been four years and I have only darkened the doorstep of a church once, because I have no idea where to go and don’t want another brush with the nervous breakdown which followed my discipline.

    I hadn’t once disavowed Reformed Theology. I hadn’t turned my back on any of the creeds or confessions to which I swore… but because I engaged in a form of entertainment which defied their cultural prejudices, I became a pariah. God be praised, it got me thinking a lot about the theology itself, and though I still find myself questioning Him, I haven’t lost my faith in God. But my word, people underestimate just how destructive, contradictory, and hypocritical their behaviors can be.

    So, for what it’s worth… thank you. One of the largest things I have wrestled with in recent years is how people who were not even Christian rallied to my side and showed me the kind of love and support I had expected from my Calvinist brethren. How my now wonderful, same-sex partner can be ostracized by those same people and yet has brought me closer to God than I was before I met her. How being in the position I’m in now has given me more opportunities to share the love of Christ to fellow lost souls than any Evangelical mission trip ever had. How we can be crazy, mixed up human beings and yet, God still speaks to us when we shut up long enough to see the small places He is actually present.

    This is a long road, but damn if we’re not all walking it together.

  • Mike Nash

    Wow – this is absolutely great stuff. i’ve had a difficult year at home, in part due to my changing my way of thinking about god and truth, and in part due to coming to terms with the fact that I’ve been an asshole frequently. This article reminds me that I’m not alone. I’ve felt some despair this year…a lot. Thanks for your honestly.

  • Cindi

    Thank you Frank. This article found me at exactly the right time. Filled with regret over my past mistakes and questioning what I believe, what I’m here for, what is the point of all this. This article spoke to my heart. I am thankful my darling granddaughter will never know the younger me and I thank you for this perspective of forgiveness.

  • Terry Pop

    I was thinking “It’s never to late to change.”, but “Change, the sooner the better.” might be more like it. I see shades of myself and others in this article. It’s not how I want to be remembered. I won’t be remembered as big spiritual leader in my sphere of influence, but I certainly don’t want to be remembered as an A-hole, which I know I can be.

  • Bob Greaves, the unconventional pastor

    Frank, your honesty and clarity is refreshing. I cannot say enough to applaud your articles and posts. Your voice is one we need to hear.

  • Anon

    This article feels something like a warm hand on my shoulder. Having grown up Catholic in a laid back upper middle class community, I was never really exposed to fundamentalism until I was much older and it’s always been a turn off. I met my wife three years ago (she grew up Evangelical) and have been struggling with the role she has been taught to expect me to fill.

  • brad

    Frank needs to check his pants. I think someone stole his b**lls.

    • Consumer Unit 5012

      Where’s the ‘thumbs down’ button on this thing?

      Brad, you’re an idiot if you think being mean to people weaker than you is some sort of sign of MANLINESS. If you think feeling remorseful for cruelty is a bad thing, you ARE a bad thing.

    • Sally Strange


      Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

  • Nadia Bolz-Weber

    This is one of the most Jesus-y things I’ve ever read. So true. So true. And what you have described is redemption – God’s ability to take our shit and make something beautiful out of it.

  • Rosemary

    Hi, Frank. As a former evangelical I hugely enjoyed your autobiographical books, found them hilarious and a healthful antidote to the cult I experienced. But I must disagree with you here.

    I may be taking your words too literally but it seems to me that you’re boiling down Christianity to one ideal, that of forgiveness. I think that with any one ideal, this can be dangerous.

    “Forgiveness” as a blanket value can easily be, and often is, used harmfully. It can become a revolving door, preventing victims of abuse from defending themselves and healing.

    In her book “Why I Left The Amish,” Saloma Miller Furlong describes how the forgiveness culture masked abuse. Incidents would be discussed in a closed meeting of the community and blanket forgiveness would be given. From then on, the victims were required never to speak of the incident again. Taking the phrase “forgive and forget” seriously, they’re forbidden from even remembering the incident, much less protecting themselves from a repeat. Of course, this enabled these incidents to be repeated “seventy times seven.”

    Kudos to you for apologizing to your daughter. I accept that your daughter’s forgiveness came out of her heart. That’s not always the case. Often, people experience enormous social pressure to forgive, pressure that can merely drive problems underground.

    You say, “Calvinism is the perfect religion for males who are real bastards and want an excuse to stay that way.” I’d also suggest that “a forgiveness-pressuring faith such as Christianity” is the perfect religion for such people. Unalloyed forgiveness, as a value, without other balancing values such as personal responsibility, protection of the weak, etc., can easily foster a society of monsters.