a review by Jim Forest of Frank Scheaffer’s memoir
Frank Schaeffer doesn’t really fit into a brief description. An American, he grew up in rural Switzerland. His parents were fervent Calvinist missionaries living in a Catholic culture which they regarded as barely Christian. Their chalet, known as L’Abri, became a house of hospitality in which a never-ending seminar on culture and Christianity was the main event. Though an Evangelical, a strain of Protestantism usually hostile to the arts, Frank’s father was an avid lover of art done in earlier centuries by, in most cases, Catholic artists — an enthusiasm that in time inspired his son to become an artist. Later Frank gave up the easel to makes films, first documentaries in which his father was the central figure, then more general evangelical films, and finely several unsuccessful non-religious films aimed at a general audience. Eventually — profoundly disenchanted with the form of Christianity his parents had embraced, and still more alienated from the shrill varieties of right wing Evangelical Christianity that both he and his parents had helped create, Frank joined the Orthodox Church, where he still remains, though no longer in what he refers to as the stage of “convert zeal.” After his son, John, became a Marine, Frank became something of a missionary for the Marine Corps, and the military in general, at the same time avidly supporting the war in Iraq in which his son was a participant. A statement I helped to write that urged George Bush not to attack Iraq was the target of a column (published in The Washington Post and many other newspapers) that Schaeffer wrote in the early days of that war. Now Schaeffer regards the Iraq War as a disaster and has become an outspoken critic of George Bush.
“Crazy for God” is a gripping read, both candid and engaging. More than anything else, I was touched by Schaeffer’s unrelenting honesty. There are pages in which you feel as if you are overhearing a confession. Yet it’s a very freeing confession to overhear, in the sense that it allows the reader to make deeper contact with painful or embarrassed areas of his own wounded memory. The book also serves as an admonition not to create a self for public display which is hardly connected to one’s actual self.
Being raised in a hothouse of Calvinist missionary zeal, in which Schaeffer and his three sisters became Exhibit A (especially whenever their mother wrote or spoke about Christian Family Life) is not something I would wish on any child. I expect Frank Schaeffer will always be in recovery from that aspect of his childhood.
Those — and they are many — who still revere his parents (or for that matter Schaeffer’s earlier self, in the period of his life when he was a hot voice packing in the evangelical/Christian Right crowds) are furious at this lifting of the curtain.
Yet I found Schaeffer much harder on himself than on his parents, whom he sees as having been damaged, in some ways made crazy, by the burden of a harsh Calvinist theology. Nonetheless his parents emerge as real Christians whose loving care for others, including people whom many Christians would cross the street to avoid, was absolutely genuine. (I was impressed by the book’s account of his parents’ response to homosexuals who came to visit L’Abri. They were as warmly received as any other guest.)
While objecting to his parents’ theology and the distortions that it created in their lives and in the lives of many influenced by them, clearly he loves them passionately and deeply respects the actual Christian content of their lives — their “grace, generosity, love and unconditional support.”
Schaeffer’s book also reminds me that it’s one of the recurring tragedies of US history that, from time to time, various movements of self-righteous, ideology-driven Christians decide it’s time to try to impose their ideas on society at large. Schaeffer has to live with the painful memory of having been one of the key figures helping to create one of the constituencies that did the most to put George Bush in the White House in their one-issue hope that he would find ways to make abortion, if not illegal, at least less frequent. After eight years in the Oval Office, in fact abortion is no less deeply embedded in American life than it was before Bush’s election. Little if anything was done by his administration to help women who felt they had no option but abortion find alternatives.
I was touched by Schaeffer’s comments about the powerful influence children can have on their parents, far more than the children usually realize. As Schaeffer has come to understand, in reflecting on his relationship with his father, that influence is sometimes far from positive.
Schaeffer — now far more caring about the quandaries others face than he was earlier in his life — has in the process become aware that self-righteousness is often the hallmark of each and every “movement,” whether religious or secular, and whether for the unborn, for peace, for those on death row, for animal welfare, for the environment, etc., etc.
In putting the book down, I find myself profoundly grateful for where Frank Schaeffer’s journey has taken him so far, yet hope for further evolution in his views in regard to the military and how those in the armed forces are used. I take it as a given that he is aware there are men and women who died or live crippled lives in part because of the impact on their lives of several of Schaeffer’s earlier books which viewed the military uncritically and seemed unaware of how often those sent into battle — because of accidents, misinformation, panic, bad orders, or even the passion for vengeance — kill innocent people. Nor does he seem aware of the damage, often unhealable, done to those who bear responsibility for such deaths. I hope Schaeffer will give more thought to why the early Church took such a radical stand in regard to warfare and other forms of killing, accidental or intentional, and what that might mean for any Christian in our own day.
Also I would have been glad to hear more about what drew him to the Orthodox Church and what keeps him there, now that he is past what he calls the “zealous convert” stage. In his autobiography, being Orthodox is a minor topic.
As “Crazy for God” bears witness, life is mainly shaped by one’s parents and family, peer group pressure, and — not least — the white water of ambition. Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. I was reminded several times of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s insights: “Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be.” It’s something of a miracle that Frank Schaeffer escaped from the highly profitable world of the Television Church.
“Crazy for God” also reminds me of what a dangerous vocation it is, more perilous than mountain climbing, when one becomes a professional Christian, writing or speaking about the Gospel, Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, making some or all of your living doing this. It’s a danger I live with too.
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