And then there's Franky Schaeffer...

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(TB: This post is written by our American-African correspondent, David Wegener.) Recently, Tim passed on a mutual friend's heavily-annotated copy of Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God and I read it pretty quickly...

Having come of age in the Christian faith in the 70s and early 80s, I was very familiar with the Schaeffers. I read Francis Schaeffer’s trilogy (The God who is there, Escape from Reason and He is there and He is not silent) and his How Should We Then Live and The Christian Manifesto. I also read some of his shorter works, The Mark of the Christian, his address at the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization (1974), and Art and the Bible. I watched his two film series, the first on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia (Whatever Happened to the Human Race) and the second on the history of western thought and culture (How Should We Then Live). These works helped to shape my thinking as a young Christian and they gave me tools to witness to unbelieving friends...

I also read the story of the study center founded by the Schaeffers in Switzerland, L’Abri (by Edith, his wife), and my wife has read most of Mrs. Schaeffer’s other books.

Before I read this more recent book, I'd been pretty familiar with Frank’s other work. I read his early books Addicted to Mediocrity and A Time for Anger. I also read his newspaper the Christian Activist for a while, until his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Another friend gave me a cassette tape of his description of his conversion to Orthodoxy but it was such a rotten reproduction, I could never really “hear” it. But I did think he was a loon for going that way and turning his back on the Protestant faith.

Then Frank started to write “fiction.” I have to put that word in quotes since his fictional works about a conservative Presbyterian family of American missionaries living in Switzerland and vacationing in Italy were so close to autobiography that it was a real confusion of genres. Still, I read Portofino and Saving Grandma. The former has some uproariously funny parts in it. The bit about the saltshaker and eating the octopus in the pensione restaurant and the gospel walnut were especially memorable. But the way he exposed his family to ridicule (by revealing their faults and secret sins) was embarrassing and it made me want to slap him around to try and teach him some sense.

After I finished Crazy for God, I wrote some random thoughts on the book.

- Was helped by my friend's comments in the margins.

- Wasn't as offended by the book as I thought I would be. This makes me a little worried about myself.

- Frank is still making his living off his parents, just as he did during his "evangelical phase".

- Why are husbands so harsh with their wives? That includes me.

- Are women more holy than men? Are wives equally harsh with their husbands? Or are their sins against their husbands just different?

- The book strikes me as therapy. Frank is trying to work through his upbringing by writing about it, trying to come to some kind of resolution.

- Frank is pretty self-serving in the book. Even when he confesses his sins, they are sins that aren't really his fault.

- However, the book did make me think of my sins against my children and it made me think about my father.

- Why did Francis always refer to his son as "boy," and not by his name?

- The greed and superficiality of evangelicalism stands out pretty starkly. 

- Evangelical leaders are not the super-spiritual Christians we think they are.

- We will never know who the spiritually mature believers are in this life.

- Christian spiritual maturity needs complete re-thinking. At least, I need to do that.

- We're children of our age. We love openness and transparency and "honesty".

- Covering the nakedness of another goes against the spirit of our age. 

- How can we walk in the light and expose the deeds of darkness and cover another's mistakes and sins? Impossible?

After making the above comments, my friend whose book I'd read responded:

I agree with all you wrote above. I was struck by how bad the book makes Frank look, but how he seems compelled to tell us all of it anyway, thinking it somehow excuses him. He also clearly shows he is a liar. That makes the book unreliable for any individual factual claims. It is clear, though, that the Schaeffers, despite their manifold talents, failed in bringing up their son--his flaws are the kind that proper upbringing can avoid. That is a warning to us all.

The book actually is similar to Christopher Buckley's bio of his parents. That book is a self-demolishing Ham job, too, though there it seems Christopher's deficiencies can less be blamed on the parents and more on his own feeling of inadequacy compared to special parents. Frankie doesn't seem to have feelings of inadequacy; he thinks he's better than his parents; it's just nobody appreciates him.

Then I responded:

Didn't know anything about Buckley. Really don't know anything about [his] family.

[Years ago], I found [a copy of Frank’s] book on his conversion to Orthodoxy, Dancing Alone, but gave it away. Didn't want to invest the time to read it.

One of the things I keep trying to tell my kids is that there is a "wide range of freedom we have in this life." Why do I repeat this so often? Lots of kids who grow up in our circles, and who don't rebel, often become proud little legalists. I don't want that. There is so much freedom we have. It is never a freedom to sin, but a freedom to explore the world, to study it, to exercise creativity. I don't want them to operate out of fear, but out of confidence. I wish I had done better.

[Nowadays] I'm very much in the mood not to worry about the little stuff, but to be tender [with my children] and to cut to the chase on the majors.

Now some final thoughts: I can’t really recommend Frank’s book to people. If someone reads Crazy for God, they should certainly read the review of it by Os Guinness (search for it on Google).

Frank now lives in doubt, doubt about the Christian faith, about the wrongness of abortion and about the existence of God. That makes me feel sorry for him. But seeing him on TV denouncing the religious right (“which I helped create”) and offering his criticisms of Republicans to liberal TV journalists makes me think poorly of him. To paraphrase a mother in Israel, “well, at least his mother doesn’t have to worry about his self-esteem.” He really shouldn’t be writing what he is writing. He helps to confirm the worst fears of liberals (about the religious right), a few of which are true.

There are dangers in being famous because of your famous parents. People take your words too seriously.