An Apostasy Full of Grace and Truth: Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God

He was once the fair-haired boy wonder of evangelicalism, there at the creation of the American Religious Right. He helped define the culture war, especially over abortion. He helped create the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican majority, the conservative Supreme Court and the New Evangelicals. Now, he’s an apostate, a unborn-again seeker, a member of an Eastern Orthodox church, and a a self-acknowledged failure. Which means that, strangely, he’s a finally a success.

Frank Schaeffer, the son of evangelical theologians Francis and Edith Schaeffer has, in his memoir Crazy for God, provided a beautiful, touching, and painfully honest story of growing up in the evangelical sub-culture in the age before it emerged as the culture. His portrait of his famous (at least in some circles) parents, and their Swiss Christian community, L’Abri, will anger those evangelicals who regard the Schaeffers (especially Francis) as saints. But, if you’re looking for a Daddy Dearest, you’ll be mightly disappointed. There is no scandal here, other than the scandal of evangelical Christianity in America once it got itself fitted into Constantine’s vestments.

Frank paints his father as an art-loving historian, a free-thinker more at home in the Florentine Accademia than on the radio with Dr. Dobson. The elder Schaeffer apparently detested the power-hungry theo-politicians like Dobson, Falwell and Robertson, and was far more concerned with reaching young people in search of life’s big questions than in reaching the halls of power. Still he allowed himself to be manipulated by the theo-politicians, to become the most sought after evangelical teacher of the 1980’s. Francis Schaeffer is revered in evangelical circles, where his books and film series (produced by Frank) are still best-sellers two decades after his death. He created the intellectual underpinnings of the Religious Right (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) and did more than any other theologian to gain evangelicalism its entry onto the political stage.

Edith is considerably more God-crazy than her husband, but her son clearly adores her. Beautiful, stylish, and fiercely intelligent, she is the fire in L’Abri’s stove, warming everything with her presence, all the while irritating the living hell out of her family with twenty minute sermons masquerading as prayers, and her passion to “save” every living being in earshot.

Frank Schaeffer is honest about the dysfunction of his family, his sister’s mental illness, his own sexual coming of age (sometimes uncomfortably so–the man apparently was a world-class wanker as a teen), the family fights over theology (which nearly wrecked L’Abri), and his parents’ love affair with art, music and literature. He’s also painfully honest about his failed career as a secular film maker, and genuinely regretful at giving up his early and promising career as an artist to chase the big evangelical donors who were underwriting the Schaeffer phenomenon.

Where he’s at his best is also where’s at his angriest: about the destructive role he played in American political life and the unleashing of the monster that ate the Republican Party. These days, he’s a post-evangelical who rejects “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 stupidty, the paranoia of the American right-wing enterprise, the platitudes married to pop culture.” He also considerably more nuanced about abortion, though calling him “pro-choice” would be a stretch.

In this he taps into that ironic vein that has created most of us evangelical apostates: the very success of evangelicalism, its emergence as the dominant religious influence in America, and its naked lust for power have driven us far from our home. One of Francis Schaeffer’s most famous works is a film series about abortion and euthaniasia entitled, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? His son wants to know: whatever happened to the Evangelical Church?

Frank Schaeffer’s apostasy is full of grace and truth. But what else would you expect from Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s boy?

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