Thursday, May 6, 2010

Frank Schaeffer's book: Crazy for God, and my thoughts on his post-evangelical confession

This book is by Frank Schaeffer, who is the son of a man who is very well-known in the evangelical world, Francis Schaeffer.
L'Abri 1971 - Francis Schaeffer

He and his also-famous wife, Edith Schaeffer, started a community in Switzerland called L'abri, where students and visitors could come and either stay to work or just pass through. The community was intentional in their discussions about God and faith and culture. Francis and Edith were extremely cultured people and good speakers, and the sort of hippie model eventually grew to be quite famous in the 60's when it completely fit the questioning, hippie culture booming around the Western world.

L'Abri 1971

At a time when evangelicalism was struggling to gain an identity, Francis represented a sort of European, cultured, intelligent approach to faith that was rare in the conservative church in the US at the time. He wrote influential books like How Should We Then Life: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, True Spirituality, Escape from Reason, and The God Who Is There.

That's about what I've known about Francis and Edith. I have a couple of their books on my shelf that I've never gotten around to reading, and I've been intrigued by the mixed messages about L'abri and Francis that I've heard. Some people speak so highly of it all, and talk about what a cool community it was and how profound Francis was. Others say he was too conservative and too black-and-white in his thinking, typical of 20th century evangelical leaders.

I picked up Frank's book, eager to see L'abri and his parents through his eyes. It did not disappoint. In fact, if anything, it's TOO informative. It's a bit like a tell-all gossipy memoir for the evangelical world. To begin with, Frank talks through his parent's backgrounds and how he saw them as a child and as an adult. Right off, this is striking. He is very sentimental, he clearly loves both his parents and much of his childhood at L'abri. At the time time, he's disillusioned. He admires his father, but hates the conservative evangelical world that he helped create and ushered his family into. He loves the intense cultural and intellectual upbringing that his mother gave him, and yet he also sees her as extremely prideful. Even his sisters (who are still evangelicals and all remained in leadership at L'abri for years) wrote their memories of Edith and say that her perfectionism and pietism did damage in their lives that took years to undo.

Edith Schaeffer is a striking character who is unaware of her own foibles, if Frank's description is correct.
Mom was very aware that she was special. She would, from time to time, talk about what could have been, what she could have done if she had had less-strict parents, what she might have been if she hadn't married Dad.... Mom lived her life in tension between her unrealized ambition to be recognized for something important, refined, and cultured and her belief that God had called her to do Christian work that required her to sacrifice herself, no least her image of who she really felt she was when the cultural elites she admired, or at least envied, mocked fundamentalism. ... She would say of ... anti-fundamentalist satires: "But we're not like that! He would never have written those horrible things if he had ever met me!"
It's interesting that although Francis that was at times the face of evangelicalism, Frank isn't as upset with him as with his mother. I think that's because he believe his father was more honest. His father was a rough-neck working class guy who got "saved" and happened to marry a cultured and arrogant missionary kid because they shared the same enthusiastic faith. Frank recognizes his father's charisma as a thinker and a speaker, he recognizes that he gained so much popularity simply because he listened well and truly engaged people and culture instead of hating anyone that was different. Frank talks about his father's gentle heart, his dislike of the public eye, and his recognition of his own flaws. On the other hand, he speaks bluntly about his father's periodic depression and mood swings, which most often were inflicted on their mother, who he occasionally flared out at and hit... leaving bruises she would hide. Frank allows the reader to join him in wondering how his parents could be simultaneously wonderful people and yet so marred by flaws that really never improved. It isn't so much their flaws that bother him, but when people perceive his parents as being (or when they present themselves as being) on a higher plane spiritually when he so clearly sees the other side of the story.

The descriptions of growing up at L'abri are striking. In his younger years his sisters leave home and then return again with husbands and join the L'abri community as fellow leaders. The community was becoming more and more popular, so Frankie's childhood is filled with a constant whirlwind of guests and students, a dining hall filled with strangers and hours of discussion. All the while he is often lost in the shuffle, often to his great satisfaction. He indulges in the freedom and pranks of a free little boy who can wander the Swiss Alps and make new friends all the time.

L'Abri 1971 - Huemoz

L'Abri 1971

On the other hand, he's almost entirely unschooled for years, which is amazing to me. How can cultured and intelligent parents allow that?  They so highly value people that are highly educated, and then they forget to educate their own son? His sisters attempt to intervene at times, and eventually he's taken to a British boarding school, where most of his education occurs. He never goes to college. His fondest memories are of family summer vacations in Portofino, Italy, where they are unknown and away from the evangelical mold, and indulge in the beauty of Italy.

Pastel houses lining the shore of Portofino

He says,
When I left evangelicalism, it certainly was not because I was disillusioned with the faith of my early childhood. I have sweet (if somewhat nutty) memories of all those days of prayer, fasting, and "wrestling with the principalities and powers." We might have been deluded, but we weren't unhappy. And there are a lot worse things than parents who keep you away from TV, grasping materialism, and hype, and let you run free and use your imagination.
He's a typical pastor's kid as he enters his teen years. Outwardly he participates in the only world he knows - the world of his parent's faith community. However, he's also chasing visiting girls and heading off to participate in the local bar and rock scene, and in general being what the community sees as an irresponsible and uncontrolled rebel. He falls for a student visitor that is not a Christian, and his parents actually support his pursuit of her and get permission for her to stay at L'abri long-term, though she shows no interest in Christianity. She essentially lives with young Frankie, and when she returns home later she quickly takes back that decision and sneaks away from home and flies across the country to meet Frankie. She ends up pregnant, they marry young and irresponsible and weather the first rocky years of marriage through the loving support and guidance of the L'abri family and friends. It seems through the entire story that she is the pretty, steady, and admirable counterpart to Frank's chaos.

All of this is fascinating. What makes it all uncomfortable is the times that he goes into more detail than is needed. He gives extraneous sexual details throughout the entire book. I wonder if that is a reaction to the evangelical culture that is SO closed about sexual details? Or perhaps he's also influenced by his tell-all mother, who he says talked openly about sexuality, so that as a 7 or 8 year old he knew that she always traveled with his father because he insisted on having sexual intercourse every night. I still feel like Frank can give details that I'd just rather he keep to himself. It's one thing to say you were a horny young man, but I don't want to hear exactly what that means!

Frank also is downright gossipy about evangelical leaders. From Jerry Falwell to Dr. Dobson to Os Guiness to Pat Roberson to Billy Graham, no one really escapes from his searing critiques. I understand his accusing many of them of becoming wrapped up in the public eye, putting up a very fake piety for the world to see, or even being power-hungry. Sometimes, though, it would seem that he's just mad as all get out at all things evangelical, and so he smears every evangelical he can somehow bring up. Sometimes it's impossible to say he's wrong, though, since he really was an insider and I would agree that I have found most of our evangelical leaders in that day down-right embarrassing. Some accusations are strange, though. Did Billy Graham really pull his daughter out of her first year at Wheaton college and arrange a marriage between her and one of his major donors that she'd never met before?  Is that type of a detail appropriate for this book? Not really.

 The second half of the book details his movement into joining his father's work, becoming a painter and then a movie-maker, helping to form the religious right, pushing the pro-life cause to the fore-front, and eventually becoming completely bitter with the evangelical world and leaving it completely. He writes as a post-evangelical. He spends years away from faith completely, and eventually enters the Eastern-Orthodox church. I wondered why he wrote the book at all. What's the purpose, given that most readers are probably evangelical, a world he no longer wants any part in? It seems that Frank meant this book as a bit of a confession. He feels deep shame and guilt about his own part in building the evangelical world that he feels has torn up his life and is fake and misleading. He can't stand the idolized picture the world has of L'abri, his parents, and his own life. He wants to tell the truth. The whole thing is marred by his bitterness - it's not just the truth, it's the truth covered in the anger of a rebellious teenager kicking at his roots.
I think my problem with remaining an evangelical centered on what the evangelical community became. It was the merging of the entertainment business with faith, the flippant lightweight kitsch ugliness of American Christianity, the sheer stupidity, the paranoia of the American right-wing enterprise, the platitudes married to pop culture, all of it... that made me crazy. It was just too stupid for words.

I don't fully disagree with him. I may dislike his attitude at times, but I haven't seen half of what he saw in the evangelical world. When I began to study evangelical history I was thoroughly disgusted at the above tendencies and many of the same evangelical leaders that he also hates, enough that I've thrown in the towel to any allegiance to evangelicalism in particular. However, it's one thing to dislike evangelicalism and it's another to pour bitterness everywhere and be unable to gain any perspective. The rest of his siblings were burned by it all too, but they manage to be quite a bit more gentle and objective.

Frank's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy also seems to be less because he actually believes what the Eastern Orthodox believe and more because it presents a religious world that he can participate in without being overly known, committed, or even really believe in. It's a bit strange. I felt like sitting him down and saying, "Dude, when you joined the church and recited the Nicene Creed, you were agreeing with the Nicene Creed. It wasn't just a pretty thing to say, you are committing to a belief!"

Genie and I like the fact that in our community, half the congregation comes to church late, so we can wander in at any time and still feel like we participated. And I don't have to go to church more often than I can stand. When it starts to feel like religion again, I just drop out for a few months, then wander back.....

Perhaps I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church (rather than simply abandoning religious faith) because spirituality is a way to connect with people and might even be a part of a journey towards God. (If there is a God.)

Frank seems to be a piece of work. He clearly has his father's moods and strong personality, his mother's judgementalism, and the heart of a tumultuous artist. He's loving and angry. He gives too much detail, he's inappropriate, but he certainly gives some insight into a world I was curious about. It was a very interesting book. The atmosphere of L'abri continues to fascinate me, and the old L'abri photos I found on this flikr account are awesome.

Jerram Barrs and Anna at L'Abri Greatham England

L'Abri 1971

L'Abri 1971 - Hylan

L'Abri 1971 - Chapel

L'Abri 1971 - Francis Schaeffer with Gay & Hylan


Jaimie said...

OMG, I MUST read this book. The sexual frankness is what won me in, haha! Right up my alley. Also, obviously I can identify with the PK aspects.

Amy B. said...

Full-disclosure: I haven't read this book, and my comments are more in passing rather than in direct agreement with or criticism of your review. :)

Francis Schaeffer is HIGHLY regarded in the church circles I travel in because he had a large role to play in the formation of our denomination, the PCA. Covenant Seminary has a Francis Schaeffer Institute, and Schaeffer pastored a church here in St. Louis for a good number of years. I know many people who knew the Schaeffers personally, including a couple in their 70s who were the first L'Abri married couple! The wife was Edith's personal assistant. My pastor also met his wife and married her at Swiss L'Abri under Schaeffer. So yeah - around these parts, Schaeffer's kind of a big deal! ;)

Sometimes that has gotten tiresome to me, because I have read a couple of his books, and while they were quite good, they were also rather simple and redundant. I wonder if the Schaeffer-mania isn't a bit overstated. Maybe I just can't fully appreciate what a breath of fresh air he must be for some people.

What I can say is that the folks who I know that knew him personally were very hurt by Frank's book. Maybe some of them idolize Francis too much, I don't know. Most of these folks are perfectly accepting of people's weaknesses and foibles, and they acknowledge Schaeffer's struggle with depression. I think they more object to what you have called Frank's bitterness and gossip.

Again, I haven't read the book - though I have heard Frank a couple of times interviewed on NPR. I just thought I would pass on the reaction of a few people who knew the Schaeffers personally, for what it is worth. :)

Kacie said...

Interesting, Amy. Prior to this book Frank had already written a few scandalous fictional books that already sort of went against the family evangelical mold, and Frank already talks about how his families' fawning admirers feel personally offended, but his family and those that know him tend to sort of roll their eyes and be okay with it.

Young Mom said...

I just read this book too! I felt it wasn't too bad, I actually appreciated his openess. I've read memoirs that are all about everything bad, and ones who pretend that there was never anything wrong, and I think he was pretty balanced. I could also relate to his conservative background, and some of those people are crazy!My PK hubby recognized alot from his own childhood as well.

DebD said...

I have avoided this book because Frankie has a reputation for being rather harsh. I had heard about some portions of the book and was turned off by what seemed to be it's gossipy and/or salacious nature too. Some things don't need to be spelled out for the reader.

I've also been fascinated by L'Abri and was once on a L'Abri email group - way back before Yahoo even existed. I've often wondered what happened to those people on the list. My husband visited the Switzerland L'Abri for a Sunday service about 10-15 years ago when he was on a business trip.

Togenberg said...

It's a good read, and for some readers probably a needed corrective to the romanticization of Francis by Evangelicals (esp older Evangelicals). Growing up, Francis was a major figure, very charismatic and influential; to me he was like another Calvin or Apostle Paul or something, especially with the beard. (And Franky was a pro-life hero, heir to his father as it were.)

Yes, the book is often oddly and squirmingly inappropriate. And I know that people who knew the Schaeffers were quite ticked of (Os Guiness for example). I think Frank should have shelved the book for 6 months, then come back and edited it both for bitterness and TMI-oversharing. But you know? people would be just as upset and angry. Sacred cows and all that.