Saturday, November 03, 2007

Jaded: Frank Schaeffer 35 years later

He looks tired, a trifle harrowed, maybe even a bit perturbed. But one can see traces of both his mother's beauty and his father's resolution in that face that we knew back in its less jaded teenage years at Les Mélèzes in Huémoz sur Ollon, Switzerland, back in the early seventies -- back when his good friend Os Guinness was barely in his thirties.
"Frank Schaeffer grew up in Switzerland's L'Abri, an idealistic community founded by his parents, the American evangelicals Francis and Edith Schaeffer. By the time he was 19, his parents had achieved global fame as best-selling authors and speakers, l'Abri had become a mecca for spiritual seekers worldwide — from Barbara Bush to Timothy Leary — and Frank had joined his father on the evangelical circuit. By the age of 23, he had directed two multi-part religious documentaries and had helped instigate the marriage between the American evangelical community and the anti-abortion movement. But as he spoke before thousands in arenas around America, published his own evangelical bestseller, and worked with such figures as Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Jerry Falwell, and Dr. James Dobson, Schaeffer felt alienated, precipitating his own crisis of faith and eventually resulting in his departure."
"Departure" may not be quite the right word, if one means an abandonment of his faith, because in a candid interview with John W. Whitehead, "Crazy for God: An Interview with Frank Schaeffer" (Oldspeak, The Rutherford Institute, November 3, 2007), Schaeffer states that he still believes in God and in the unique centrality of the teachings of Christ. Yet that is how the editorial description reads of the new book Frank Schaeffer has just written, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Carroll & Graf, 2007). But if by "departure" one means that he has turned jaded about the world of the religious right with which he was previously associated, then that would be true. Here's a case in point:
"The public image of the leaders of the religious right I met with so many times also contrasted with who they really were. In public, they maintained an image that was usually quite smooth. In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have had a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement." (Crazy for God)
I doubt Frank would remember me, although (with one of my sons) I've visited his oldest sister and her family in Huémoz in the mid-1990s -- long after their father's passing in 1984. I've always been a bit saddened by the need he felt to air the family laundry in public. His criticisms of his parents at times seem overly harsh and untoward. On the other hand, I have some sense that much of the junior Schaeffer's angst is the somewhat predictable result of growing up half-neglected in the shadow of near-celebrity parents. Notwithstanding their common human shortcomings, Frank's parents were in many ways great human beings. Both of them bore a shining testament to the truth of the Christian Faith to a generation of lost and confused misfits. Many found their way to Christ at L'Abri. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen quoted Francis A. Schaeffer, Sr. in an interview he gave in the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today before he passed away. The irony is that now Frank Schaeffer in some ways seems just a bit like one of those lost and confused misfits of the Alan Ginsberg generation who used to come staggering into the L'Abri community looking for answers.

It is not hard for me, also the son of missionary parents, to empathize to some extent with the struggle for identity that the junior Schaeffer has experienced over the last three-and-a-half decades. It has been an undertaking that has led him down diverse paths socially, politically, and religiously, leading him out of Evangelicalism into Eastern Orthodoxy -- and whither, God only knows. Many of us knew his father much better than we knew him, even though we may have appreciated some of the work the junior Schaeffer did both in his films and books over the years. I enjoyed in particular his hilariously amusing, if slightly acerbic, autobiographical novel, Portofino (Macmillan, 1992; rpt. Carroll & Graf, 2004). Others of his books, like Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion (Regina Orthodox Press, 2002), sounded a disturbingly shrill note (see my review here), declaring that "Protestant theologians are the fathers of deconstruction," tracing pro-abortion views back to Zwingli's view of the Eucharist as mere symbol, and making him come across like a bit of a loose canon. Here, in his latest book, he sounds a bit like he looks: tired, jaded, and still a bit angry. God love you, Frank.

[Hat tip to J.M.]

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