Frank Schaeffer. Crazy for God.

Frank Schaeffer. 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. DeCapo Press, 2008.

This is an fascinating book for a certain population–namely past and current evangelical Christians who have at one time been influenced by the author’s father, Francis Schaeffer. That population includes me, so I indeed did find this a fascinating book. To readers who are not familiar with the Schaeffers, I am not sure this book would be worth reading.

Francis Schaeffer made his name first of all as a Presbyterian missionary in Switzerland who in time founded a ministry called L’Abri and specialized in ministering to young adults who had religious questions–whether because of disaffection with standard Christianity or out of post-Christian Western ignorance of Christianity.  Schaeffer was known as a thoughtful person who took the questions seriously.  And his wife, Edith, gained fame due to her hospitality and ability to write engagingly about the missionary work.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of Schaeffer’s lectures in apologetics were published in North America and gained a wide audience.  The Schaeffer’s mission work increasingly attracted young Americans, heightening their fame.

They had three daughters and their youngest was their one son–named after his father, called “Franky” for many years, and now known as “Frank.”  As Franky came of age, he joined his father in ministry.  He helped influence Francis to exploit his popularity by joining with the emerging Christian Right in America to lead opposition to abortion and to defend biblical inerrancy.  They produced a couple of films and some best-selling books.

At the height of his popularity, Francis contracted cancer, dying in 1984–celebrated by that time primarily by his “co-belligerents” on the Right, including Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell.

With the death of his father, Franky began drifting, trying his hand at movie production and other media work, but without much success.  In the midst of his struggles, he wrote a novel that caught a publisher’s attention and redirected his life.  In time, he joined the Eastern Orthodox faith and continued to find success as a writer.

Crazy for God tells this story from Frank’s point of view.  It ends up being quite an exposé of his own family and of the evangelical movement that he and his father found such fame with.  Again, for anyone who has been influenced by the Schaeffers, this will be fascinating (and somewhat scandalous) stuff.

My own time as a “Schaefferite” was short–from the summer of 1975 through the spring of 1977.  I was fortunate to encounter the “progressive” Schaeffer who asserted that Christians should never be afraid of any questions, who advocated environmental responsibility, and who challenged the empty materialism of Western culture.  My own turning point came with the release of the Schaeffers ambitious film and book project that sought to apply Francis’s apologetics on a grand scale, called How Should We Then Live.  I was on a team of three Schaeffer fans who taught a class on the book and film at the University of Oregon.  There is nothing like teaching a book to help one perceive the book’s flaws.  By the end of the class, I was convinced that Schaeffer did not really know what he was talking about–and combined his ignorance with a bad attitude.

Then, as I moved to the left politically and theologically, Schaeffer became an icon in the Christian Right.  I later learned that he had begun his career as a rigid, devisive fundamentalist, a close colleague of the legendary Carl McIntire in battles among American Presbyterians in the 1930s.  Sadly, these instincts never really left him.

Frank Schaeffer portrays his father as a mostly well-meaning and caring person whose brightest moments came in his non-judgmental acceptance of the troubled young people who flocked to L’Abri in the 1960s.  Francis tragically got caught up in his bigger “mission” that moved him away from the things he truly cared about–art, beauty, creativity.

While the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the Schaeffer family saga (Edith Schaeffer somes off much more negatively than her husband), I ended up feeling surprisingly unenlightened.  Frank throughout comes off as a pretty unattractive character (which, I suppose, is a credit to his honesty).  I really didn’t feel much empathy toward him nor interest in his own journey.

The kinds of things I would have been most interested in–the intellectual dynamics in Francis Schaeffer’s ministry–were given pretty short shrift.  Likely Frank Schaeffer never really engaged with the ideas that pulled in many questioning young thinkers to his father’s orbit.  If one were to write a history of the most interesting evangelical thinkers of the past generation, Francis Schaeffer’s impact on awakening many people’s intellectual energies would be seen in its enormity.

But such a history is not what this book ultimately is about.  It is about the rise, fall, and recovery of a pretty uninteresting person who nonetheless rubbed shoulders with many who did (for better and mostly for worse) impact our society.  As such, it’s an important artifact.

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