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Too Frank by Half: What Love Should Have Covered

Gregory E. Reynolds

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Most All) of It Back, by Frank Schaeffer. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007, 417 pages, $26.00.

When Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones were wailing "Gimme Shelter" (1969), I was finding it at L'Abri. War, they intoned, which was just a shot away, could be answered by love, which was just a kiss away. By 1971 I knew better. Frank Schaefer's latest book questions the authenticity of what I found. It was not far from the Harvard at which Frank's father, Francis Schaeffer, had so triumphantly lectured in 1968 that I, in the winter of 1971, had become a Christian. It was there in my "cabin room," (actually an old coal bin I had made into a room) near Porter Square that I began reading my Bible, and shortly after read Edith Schaeffer's L'Abri (1969), Francis Schaeffer's The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970), The God Who Is There (1968), Escape from Reason (1968), Pollution and the Death of Man (1970), and finally Death in the City (1969)[1] before traveling to L'Abri in August.

I agree with the main thrust of Os Guinness's assessment of Crazy for God (CFG).[2] Although I think he overstates his case, as one might expect of someone so intimately involved with the Schaeffers and L'Abri, I sympathize with Franky to some degree because his early life was lived in the shadows of his famous father. By all accounts Franky was often neglected as he grew up during the heyday of L'Abri's popularity. But this lack of guidance is no excuse for his behavior, or for lacing his memoir with such a strong resentment (213). He cynically notes, "The more famous, the more hip the convert, the more the Lord could 'use that person' " (211). While he is scoffing, Frank suffuses his story with name-dropping (296). The hubris he elsewhere scorns is never stronger than in the scorning (300).

The subtitle of his book, "How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Most All) of It Back," speaks volumes. Frank Schaeffer hitched his wagon to the wrong horse—as I think to some degree did his father in his later ministry under Franky's influence. He was crazy, not for God, but for the Christian Right, and perhaps for notoriety equal to his father's. It would be easy being raised at L'Abri to think of being committed to a cause, rather than the historic Christian faith and the God of the Bible, given the uniqueness of L'Abri and the Schaeffers' ministry. In his preface he says as much: "having once been a 'professional Christian,' my vision is muddied by the baggage I carry" (5). But this does not mitigate the sometimes poisonous picture he paints of his parents in particular and Reformed Protestant faith in general. Actually the poison is largely in Frank's own perceptions. His horizontal focus radically colors his portrayal of his parents' lives. Absent in Frank's account is a transcendent reason for the ministry of the Schaeffers.

CFG has a decidedly postmodern flavor in the tell-all style of Oprah. It betrays a studied lack of certainty and at times deep cynicism. Guinness notes,

The book's revelations are taken as gospel and the book is judged in terms of its style rather than its substance. Our postmodern age is a free schooling in cynicism, so nothing is ever what it appears to be and there are no heroes once you see what really makes people tick.[3]

Frank now admits his own foibles and faults, but he is as adamant as ever in his skepticism about almost everything his parents taught him about the God of the Bible. The book then is the story of Frank's experience, the portrait of his parents is filtered through his own cynical grid—not, in my opinion, either completely accurate or appropriate.

I agree with Guinness that some of Frank's indictments of his parents are way off the mark. Guinness calls Frank the "hollow young fraud that, to his credit, he came to loathe and then repudiate. Frank himself is where the con artistry came into the story."[4] While Schaeffer is to be commended for admitting some of his own sins, his lack of charity in dealing with the sins of others, especially his parents, who gave him so much, is to be deplored. I hope he will someday come to fully embrace the grace by which I believe his parents were saved.

It may be that such a tell-all memoir was a necessary catharsis for the burdened Francis V, now known as Frank, and apparently two of his sisters. As I have my own mixed memories of Frank, I am reminded of the proverb "Love covers a multitude of sins." I could only wish Frank had exercised such restraint in his memoir. Franky's revelations, however skewed at times by his own bitterness, will certainly disabuse adulators of Francis and Edith of any idealism, and perhaps help them to realize that they were, like the rest of us, sinners saved by grace. The problem is that Frank's portrait exaggerates some faults and leaves out some of the most important colors on the pallet—those involving supernatural realities. The result is something like the bizarre distortions of a Salvador Dali painting. But even when faults are real publicizing them can be very wrong. "Dad had a vicious temper. Mom was a high-powered nut" (38, cf. 104). Even in context such statements are harsh and hurtful. Sin and inconsistency with our faith is a reality for all of us, but not all of it is fit to print. Frank would have served his parents and even his own interests better had his 400 page book been reduced by the removal of such material.

Despite Frank's skewed perspective, we should not dismiss some of Frank's more alarming insights into family life. For example, Frank's realization as a boy that "we were ... snobs... . the overall feeling was that we were somehow displaced aristocrats" (51, cf. 76). Frank has had a love-hate relationship with this element of elitism. I was reminded as a parent of some of the ways we unwittingly, but needlessly, embarrass our children, like long prayers over food in cafes (Frank actually observes this in his autobiographical novel Portofino).[5] Guinness's observation that Edith was like a mother to many of us (she bought socks for me, even though I never asked) is true enough, but may have unwittingly contributed to some of the resentment of her children. This is one of the perils of ministry. Unrealistic expectations of our children educationally and socially represent more perils to be avoided (164-5).

It is a happy irony that throughout the book Frank also recognizes many fine qualities in his parents. I witnessed both of Frank's parents caring for a wide range of needy people, and Frank gives examples of this, lending realism to his account. "My parents compassion was sincere and consistent" (76). "Dad's sensitivity was disarming" (78).

Their idea of ministry was to extend a hand of kindness ... The result was that those gathering around our table represented a cross-section of humanity and intellectual ability, from mental patients to Oxford students and all points of need in between. ... I never heard a judgmental, unkind, or even condescending word spoken about our unwed mothers. (134)

One example in my own experience verified Schaeffer's sincerity. My journal entry for September 23, 1971 records a typical Francis Schaeffer open discussion in the chapel of Farel House. When asked about hell he answered, "Well, those who are lost will have experiential knowledge of eternal fire." Some began to chuckle and "Dr. Schaeffer looked slowly around the room and said, 'Don't anybody laugh. Nobody laugh.' "

I also found many chapters of Frank's memoir to be very enjoyable reading, very well written with several genuine appreciations of people that Frank truly loved, covering the gamut from Jane Stuart Smith (54-65) to the mentally impaired Gracie Holmes (125-132). Frank's sharp wit injects lots of humor into the narrative, making for some very funny material.

For all of his hubris at the age of nineteen I still remember several pieces of advice Franky gave that I have lived to appreciate. He told me that hippy dress was boring, "the same every day," and, "You don't know how to play the recorder." These comments were not offered in the humblest manner, and I resented them at the time. However, I must confess that I have not excelled in playing my recorder, and I have learned to enjoy dressing appropriately for every occasion. This includes always dressing my very best to preach—as Dr. Schaeffer did in tails before us shabbily attired hippies each Sunday. The other piece of advice he offered in a very friendly way over coffee, "Get married early, it's so much more fruitful than single life." I was married a little over a year later (I would have done it without his advice).

It is odd that Frank should react so to the pietism and fundamentalism that lingered in his family life, especially since he—partly by neglect and partly by parental conviction—had such freedom and opportunity. His focus on his mother's own artistic regrets seems exaggerated, perhaps grossly so. I guess he understands regrets. The reader can only imagine that the last picture of her in 2006 in the book, evincing a sad stare, was intentionally meant to reinforce this impression. Frank laments Jane Stuart Smith's rejection of the operatic world, due to the residual temptations in that world, and a desire to serve the Lord. (In my case Dr. Schaeffer encouraged my pursuit of a career in architecture.) As we grow older, who of us does not have similar regrets as we look at past opportunities? Old age tends to accentuate these, but it does not obliterate the commitment of pilgrims to deny themselves in their own imperfect ways in the service of the King. Pilgrims know they have not arrived at their final destination where perfect fulfillment will be realized.

Ultimately, at an even deeper level than Frank's resentment, it is his unbelief that characterizes the most serious parts of his narrative. He admits, somewhat cynically, "believing in 'unseen things' is tough" (100). It is with such doubts then that he observes that his father was "in a better mood" giving cultural talks than "before preaching on Sunday" (99). And his parents were always happier on vacation in Italy than when ministering at L'Abri (99). This could be said to some degree of all of us. Often the things that mean the most to us require great concentration and seriousness. Preaching is certainly that way for me. Relaxation is not the bottom line, but serves the more stressful duties of life. Once again, absent in Frank's account is any notion of a transcendent reason for his parents' behavior or their ministry.

The most foolish statement Frank makes among his cynical denials is, "The most ridiculous thing in the world is a PhD in theology, an oxymoron if one ever existed" (102). Frank divorces his admiration for his father from his father's faith. "Out of the limelight, Dad was quiet. He was sweet. Above all, he was humble and considerate. And what moved him wasn't theology, but beauty" (140).

I once went sledding in the moonlight with Frank and his father. I can attest that all but one element in Frank's description is true. The fact that his father did not speak of theology did not communicate to me a lack of interest. I knew that at bottom Schaeffer's appreciation of beauty was rooted in his theology. Theology, even for those Christians who don't know what the word means, is what moves them, because it describes the "final reality." Probably Frank's father knew that the conversations he had with others about God were not just what his son needed during recreational times. Suggesting that these examples are evidence of a double life gives a very false impression (203), but one that probably helps Frank fortify his own lack of certainty.

Frank at times displays an ignorance of history as well as a superficial understanding of his father's intellectual convictions (308-12). In describing his father's experience of the split between Westminster and Faith seminaries, he opines,

Dad spent the rest of his life trying to somehow reconcile the angry theology that typified movement-fundamentalism, with a Christian apologetic that was more attractive. He maintained a rather fierce enthusiasm for an absolutely literal interpretation of scripture that I believe he held onto more as emotional baggage (out of loyalty to Machen and others) than for any intellectual reason. On the other hand even in the early days of his ministry my father had cultural interests far beyond those of the usual fundamentalist leaders (116).

Frank is probably unaware of the cultural sophistication of Machen (or the fact that he wasn't "fired" from Princeton, 115), although I'm sure his father was not. But to say that his doctrine of Scripture was rooted in emotion rather than understanding is to contradict one of Schaeffer's most cherished first principles. Here again is evidence of the horizontal focus of Frank's perceptions of his parents' lives.

As a coming-of-age memoir CFG is a great success—because it is so well written—but at whose expense? That Schaeffer has not arrived at a happy place is regrettable. To do so requires eternal certitudes, because the certitudes of family and friends never provide final answers—they always, to some degree, disappoint. For all of his new-found self-understanding, he is still angry, only now he is no longer young.

CFG explains many things about the later development of Schaeffer's ministry and Frank's strong reaction (of which I was unaware). Frank's obvious complicity in the direction of his father's later ministry is illuminating as it reflects Frank's own spiritual blindness, a weakness in his father's apologetics, and as Guinness observes, "a textbook example of how Christian ministries and organizations can be ruined through undermining their own principles—in this case, through nepotism and family politics."[6] There are also some cautionary tales beyond the nepotism for each of us here.

From the publication of The God Who Is There in 1968 to the infamous Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973, Schaeffer focused on an analysis of western culture that attracted us hippies to his ministry. I remember a longhaired acid-head from California—after a few weeks of listening—remarking that "Schaeffer is just a fundamentalist." This certainly seemed far off the mark to me at the time. In fact, based on things I heard before leaving L'Abri in the winter of 1972 I voted—in Vermont of all places—in my first presidential election for George McGovern. By 1976, with the publication of How Should We Then Live?, his focus had shifted to American politics and the Religious Right, in what seemed to me, even at the time, an odd transition for someone who had offered so much breathing space from the suffocating confines of the fundamentalism he had repudiated. By the time Whatever Happened to the Human Race? was published in 1979 the transformation was complete (271-74). Schaeffer had hesitantly joined the ranks of the culture warriors.

Frank notes his father's quiet regrets along the way, and takes responsibility—possibly exaggerated in terms of his part in the movement (265)—for this perilous shift in his father's ministry. It is no small irony that the very plastic American consumer culture that Frank and his dad detested, seduced them through the entrepreneurial zeal of Billy Zeoli (253) in 1972. The American evangelical transformationist and commercial agendas commodified the hippies' guru. The bottom line is that if you want to transform culture, you must influence powerful people (284-88).

Frank has come to some insightful conclusions about the weaknesses of evangelicalism. "Evangelicalism is not so much a religion as a series of fast-moving personality cults" (358).

CFG was an enjoyable reminiscence for me, if sometimes painful for Frank's cynicism. Through many of its pages I relived my time at L'Abri. Best of all, this reminded me of the tremendous influence the Schaeffers and their writings had on me, my Christianity, and my ministry.

I cannot agree with Betty Carter's comment on CFG, "His book, for all its embarrassing human revelations, ultimately honors the Schaeffers, as only a son's story could."[7] The embarrassing revelations are not honorable. Therefore, I cannot recommend this book to everyone. It is not for the faint-of-heart, the immature, or the undiscerning. For those of us who have been to L'Abri, it may help us not to idealize our experience there or the lives of the Schaeffers. But worse than the reprehensible aspects of his portrait of his parents is Frank's sad conclusion that "there are no final answers" only "frenetic desperation" (399). He ends up like one of the tragic artistic figures in his father's books. I can only hope that by God's grace his gifts might be put to better use. At least Frank still holds out hope, "maybe there is a God who forgives, who knows. I hope so" (406).

I found shelter from the spiritual and philosophical storms of the late twentieth century at L'Abri. At the human level, the love of the little, the local, the personal represented Schaeffer at his best, and demonstrated values compatible with the pilgrim mentality of the New Covenant church. However, the certitudes that were fortified at L'Abri transcended people, including Schaeffer himself. For that I shall be eternally grateful.

Endnotes

[1] All of these may be found in Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, 5 vols., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982.

[2] Os Guinness, "Fathers and Sons: On Francis Schaeffer, Frank Schaeffer, and Crazy for God," Books and Culture 14, no. 2 (March/April 2008): 32-33. Guinness was a worker and lecturer at L'Abri from 1967 to 1973.

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Frank Schaeffer, Portofino (New York: Macmillan), 149.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Betty Smartt Carter, "Son of a Preacher Man," Books and Culture 14, no. 1 (January-February 2008): 15.

Gregory Reynolds is the editor of Ordained Servant, and serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant, January 2009.