Crazy for God

Crazy for God (Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York, 2007), by Frank Schaeffer, is a brand-new memoir written by the son of the famous evangelical writer and evangelist, Dr. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). I first heard of the famous Francis Schaeffer, who was already a sensation on the Wheaton College campus in the late 1960s, when I arrived in January of 1969 as a transfer student second-term sophomore. He represented the intellectual and spiritual hopes and dreams of our younger evangelical generation, desiring so much to free ourselves from the influence of rigid and separatistic fundamentalism and the anti-intellectual pietistic, conservative Christianity we had grown up with as teens. I have thus always been grateful for his life and reading this memoir by his son made me no less grateful in the least. We have a portrait painted here, warts and all, but the end result of this deeply personal account is one that makes the late Francis Schaeffer quite appealing to anyone with an ounce of grace still in them.

Frank Schaeffer, now a 55 year-old author with serious fiction and non-fiction to his credit, explains in this breezy and easy-to-read book how he grew up "as one of the elect, helped found the religious right, and lived to take it (or almost all of it) back." (This is the actual subtitle of the memoir.) Frank Schaeffer, as many readers well by now, converted to Orthodoxy about fifteen years ago and immediately became an advocate for his new faith and practice, often doing so in ways that felt almost as triumphalistic as the way he had promoted his dad in evangelical days. His early Orthodoxy, presented in books, articles and oral presentations, was not nearly as appealing as it now appears in this new memoir.

Schaeffer, as is also quite well known, grew up the youngest of four Schaeffer children in Switzerland’s L’Abri, an idealistic missionary community established by his parents. By the time Franky, as he was known then, had reached nineteen, his dad and mom had achieved world-wide fame as best-selling Christian authors. After making quite a mess of his early life, trying to figure out who he was and why he chose to live in the way that he did, Schaeffer went through several radical phases, even becoming a petty shop-lifter with no deep hope for the future at one point. By the time he was twenty-three, and married with a child that had admittedly been conceived out-of-wedlock, Franky had directed two multi-part religious documentaries that made both his father, and young Franky, very popular with American evangelical audiences. Cal Thomas once said Franky was "the best speaker in America." Speaking in large arenas all across America young Schaeffer did get to know such prominent leaders as Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and James Dobson. The further he moved into the center of this growing evangelical world the more alienated he felt personally. This is the part of the story that is told in the first half or more of this moving memoir. The story is grim, tragic and way too real to make comfortable people feel good about it. It will thus be very easy for evangelicals to attack Schaeffer’s life and to lay the blame for most of what he experienced on him alone. (He takes the blame for his own indiscretions and stupidity and does not engage in "blaming" others for his own sins and silliness!) But he is honest, brutally honest, in telling the reader how he remembers events and people. He calls Dobson, Robertson and Falwell "empire builders" and "anti-American religious revolutionaries." He says the religious right was motivated by a "morality" that was used "for nakedly political purposes." He refers to their approach as based upon "anti-American self-righteous venom" after 9/11 and recalls Robertson and Falwell describing God’s judging of America because we had become "faggot America." In it all Schaeffer sees such leaders "rooting for one form of apocalypse or another." In private, Frank says that his late father referred to Dodson, and others like him, as "idiots" and "plastic" men. They were, says Frank again citing his father’s private words, "Way too right-wing, really nuts!" And, he adds that Francis once said, "They’re using our issue [abortion] to build their empires."

Now I do not know if all this is true but neither do you. But as I read Schaeffer’s book this week, while I was sitting at the bedside of my dying mother, I found his recollections quite believable and not all that shocking, at least based upon my own reflections about the nature of human sin and the character flaws that are all too obvious in many of us who have been public evangelical figures. What Schaeffer hates is not our flaws so much as our lack of honesty about them. And he particularly despises the way power has been used and abused in the process. I have a great deal of sympathy with his point of view but haven’t felt like saying so as starkly. Schaeffer may have missed the mark on several counts but his analysis is both disarming and self-critical in a way that I believe we desperately need right now.

There is a lot more about this book that I want to say but I will save this for several more posts to come. It is safe to say that this book will disturb most evangelicals, shock some of the leaders who are named here, especially the keepers of the L’Abri flame and reputation, and anger those who do not like to have heroes exposed as human. It will also anger many who simply see Frank as self-righteous, arrogant and still very immature. (I read it thinking that is exactly what I would be likely to discover but I have to say this is not the feeling I have after reading these 416 pages in a few days!) I believe Frank Schaeffer’s painfully honest memoir, and it must be kept in mind that this is a memoir not a history, will offer real hope to those of us who seek for honest ways to explain the groupie movements that we have known and fled from over the course of our post-Vietnam evangelical lifetime. I intend to discuss this book with my friends. I will, to this end, urge them to read it and to express both what they like and don’t like about it. The dialog would do us all a great deal of good. The questions that haunt me here are simple: Why are we so afraid to face our own failures, and those of our heroes in the evangelical world? What is there about evangelicalism itself that is so blatantly fearful of real human truth? And why must we take ourselves and our causes so seriously and then act as if we alone have a direct line to God and his will for everyone and everybody? If one text condemns our movement it has to be Matthew 7:1-5. Read the new book, UnChristian, and you will see how much this attitude has turned off the next generation of Christ-followers. I frankly don’t blame them for shutting us off and for seeing our shame. Schaeffer’s memoir could help us a great deal but I have my doubts that many will be listening very carefully. 

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