I was gonna keep my mouth shut about this. And maybe I should stick with that idea. Oh well . . .
I’ll be honest up front — I have not read the book that I am going to reference. Some feel that this instantly disqualifies me to comment on any aspect of the book. I would beg to differ. Particularly when some of my biggest beefs are not with the content of the book, but with the author’s own self-confessed motivations and description of the book and the surrounding issues.
If you aren’t familiar with the back-story, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was something of an icon in evangelicalism. He also was involved in the early days of (but didn’t start, as his son suggests) the “religious right” political movement. His son, Frank Schaeffer, has written several books, the latest of which is a memoir, called Crazy for God, that details his participation (alongside his father) in politics, among many other things. It also airs a whole lot of dirty laundry regarding Frank’s parents, Francis and Edith.
The Mother of All False Dichotomies
Many of the negative reviews, admittedly, are by people who have Francis and/or Edith on a pedastal, and don’t want their illusions shattered. And so that pretty much flushes their credibility right away. But many of the positive reviews dwell on little more than the inverse of that concept. And Frank himself holds to this false dichotomy of what (he believes) can be the only two camps into which readers of his book will fall:
… my dad’s cultic, weird, bizarre, pathetic, evangelical, fundamentalist followers — they will … say “This book is all lies, and we just have to reject it, because Francis Schaeffer never could have been this person, because he was our one and only intellectual voice” … or they will be people who … [say] “it gave me such hope and it was such a relief to read this. I’ve always looked up to your parents and now that I know your father had these struggles and still came out the other end of his life as a man of faith, it actually bolsters my faith.”
So I think there will be two different reactions, depending on whether people are worshiping my parents in some nutty way or reasonably looking at them as human beings.
That’s it. No middle ground whatsoever. Either you’re reasonable and appreciate what Frank did, or you’re a cultic, weird, bizarre, pathetic, evangelical, fundamentalist nutcase. That, my friends, is a steaming pile of egomaniacal skubala.
Guinness (on the) Book
Along comes Os Guinness, noted philosopher and author. He doesn’t fit into either of the camps that Frank defines. As Guinness writes:
I have no problem with a picture of Francis Schaeffer “warts and all.” I knew him well, and could have added one or two stories myself.
In fact, Guinness describes himself as Frank’s friend:
For six years I was as close to Frank as anyone outside his own family, and probably closer than many in his family. I was his best man at his wedding. Life has taken us in different directions over the past thirty years, but I counted him my dear friend and went through many of the escapades he recounts and many more that would not bear rehearsing in print.
But he has problems with the book too:
It pains to me say, then, that his portrait is cruel, distorted, and self-serving, but I cannot let it pass unchallenged without a strong insistence on a different way of seeing the story.
So is this just the mad ravings of another cultic, weird, bizarre, pathetic, evangelical, fundamentalist nutcase? By Frank’s definition, it must be. But I’m thinking not.
Thou shalt not make thy mother cry
One thing that I find particularly troubling is that when asked what Edith’s reaction is to the book, Frank evades the issue by detailing the partial failing of her 93-year-old mind. As with many older people, she doesn’t remember recent events soon after they happen, but she can give vivid detail about events from much earlier in her life. Frank goes on:
So my mom has not “lost her marbles”, but she’s gone to a different place. I know this sounds strange and awful, but in that sense, I waited to write this memoir until both of my parents had passed away.
There’s no way that I would have subjected them to the kind of nonsense that I’m gonna be subjected to when people start asking me all sorts of questions about this book. That’s my problem; I’m the writer. But it would be mean to do to your parents.
Yes, it’s nothing that Frank has done or written that would be mean to do to his parents. It’s just what all those horrible critics will say. Ya know, all the cultic, weird, bizarre, pathetic, evangelical, fundamentalist nutcases.
Frank would never do anything to hurt his mother. That must be why Guinness wrote regarding a statement she made many years ago:
“If I read it,” she said to me about one of Frank’s earlier books, “it would probably break my heart.”
Although the book is not named, I would imagine that it was one of the Calvin Becker books, a fictionalization of Frank’s early years. I made the mistake of reading Portofino, the first book in that series, several years ago. Even though it was at a time in my life when I was extremely angry at the hyper-fundies that surrounded me as a child, and I would love to see them skewered, I still thought that Calvin’s parents were way over the top. His mother was a crazy religious nut, and his father — to be blunt — was a hypocritical, two-faced defecatory orifice. At the time, I didn’t realize that Frank was fictionalizing his parents. I just thought that he had a couple of very dark, very damaged characters banging around in his head. In short, the Calvin Becker books made Dennis Lehane look like he should be writing 1960s-era Disney movies.
It strikes me as strange then, that a fictionalization — which can easily be dismissed as being extremely caricatured — could have the potential to break her heart; but when Frank sits down at his typewriter and writes, “This is what Edith Schaeffer is really like . . .” — no problem there. It would only be those who react negatively toward her son that would hurt her.
Bad Problem, Worse Solution
Frank admits that his father . . .
. . . did nothing to build the weird, cultic worship that follows him around in evangelical circles.
… If that’s anybody’s fault, it’s mine because of [earlier actions that I took]. So maybe this [book] is a way of fixing a little bit of that.
So, the problem, as Frank sees it — and yes, it is a problem — is the placement of Francis Schaeffer on a pedastal. Frank’s solution to that problem is to kick the pedastal out from under his father — a pedastal that Frank freely admits that he built himself.
Now, silly me, I’d think that the problem was because Christians are looking to Schaeffer instead of Jesus. And so (silly me, again) I would think that the solution would be to help those people realize that their focus is in the wrong place by re-directing it back to the right Place.
Given the disdainful way in which Frank speaks of those with a wrong focus, perhaps he sees them as irredeemable, and so this is why he chooses not to go with that route. Why bother trying to help a brother overtaken in a trespass? Well, ya know, other than the fact that the Bible tells us to do this.
Update: I was wrong to say that perhaps he sees them as irredeemable. I apologize for citing this without certainty. In going back over the video again, I see that he definitely sees this as being the case. Regarding one of his hopes for the book, he states:
. . . it won’t help [Francis'] groupies who worship him because they’re beyond help . . .
Or perhaps it’s just because it’s harder to charge $25.99 a pop on that route. (Nah, he’s probably not that crass.)
Either way, he has shown that his solution to a problem of man-centeredness is no less man-centered than the problem was in the first place.
Much of the discussion regarding Schaeffer and the book took place over at the BHT.
- Adam O pointed out the Guinness article
- Josh S went off on a self-censored, profanity-laced rant about Frank. It was a bit more than I would’ve done — I save my crankiest work for when Camp goes off on Driscoll — but it was dead on. Also, I stole the “Thou shalt not . . .” line from Josh.
- The Schaeffer quotes come from a book reading and Q&A session that appeared on C-SPAN. It can be seen here.
- I wouldn’t have known about the C-SPAN link had it not been for iMonk. I love him, but he’s wrong in his support of this book. In fairness, here is a link to his review. He makes some very good points about the problems in the church that this book seeks to address. But as I said, the “solution” provided by this book is way off.