Fathers & Sons: Francis Schaeffer, Frank Schaeffer, and ‘Crazy for God’
A review article by Os Guinness of Frank Schaeffer’s 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 [New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007], 304pp, ISBN 978-0-78671-891-7.
If asked what is the deepest relationship imaginable, many people would say it is between husbands and wives. The case can be made, however, that from a Christian perspective, no relationship is more mysterious and more wonderful, yet sometimes more troubling, than that of fathers and sons. The depth and wonder begin with all we know of the relationship of God the Father and God the Son, while the troubled aspects stem from the Fall. Consider Absalom’s rebellion against King David in the Old Testament, Edmund Gosse’s exposure of his father Philip, the Oedipal drive in the writings of Sigmund Freud – and now Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, a memoir that is his personal apologia at the expense of his famous father, Francis Schaeffer, who was the founder and leader of the worldwide network of L’Abri communities.
Frank Schaeffer unquestionably adored his father, just as his father passionately adored him. Having lived in their home for more than three years, I have countless memories of this, including the sight of the two of them wrestling on the floor of the living room of their chalet, and ending with a fierce hug. Yet no critic or enemy of Francis Schaeffer has done more damage to his life’s work than his son Frank – a result that one might not be able to infer from many reviews of the memoir.
The problem is not so much that Frank exposes and trumpets his parents’ flaws and frailties, or that he skewers them with his characteristic mockery. It is more than that. For all his softening, the portrait he paints amounts to a death-dealing charge of hypocrisy and insincerity at the very heart of their life and work. In Frank’s own words, his parents were ‘crazy for God.’ Their call to the ministry ‘actually drove them crazy,’ so that ‘religion was actually the source of their tragedy.’ His dad was under ‘the crushing belief that God had “called” him to save the world.’ Because of this, his parents were ‘happiest when farthest away from their missionary work.’ Back at their calling, they were ‘professional proselytizers,’ their teaching was ‘indoctrination,’ and it was unclear whether people came to faith or were ‘brainwashed’ and ‘under the spell’ of his parents. Frank’s own arguments in their support, he now says, were a kind of ‘circus trick.’
Commenting on the time when Francis Schaeffer went through his watershed crisis of doubt in 1951, which he claimed was pivotal to his faith and work, Frank says it was never resolved with any integrity: ‘Somehow he convinced himself to still believe.’ His father’s ‘stunted’ theological convictions ‘he held on to more as emotional baggage . . . than for any intellectual reason.’ Really? ‘Left to himself, Dad never talked about theology or God . . . God and the Bible were work.’ And he was different when away from L’Abri altogether: ‘Dad never said grace over meals. It was as if Dad and I had a secret agreement that away from L’Abri, we were secular people.’
And so it goes. With such a son, who needs enemies? To be sure, Frank tries to nuance the conclusion:
I once thought Dad’s ability to present two very different faces to the world – one to his family and one to the public – was gross hypocrisy. I think very differently now. I believe Dad was a very brave man,
one who simply had to ‘carry on’ – the victim, presumably, of his own unresolved but inadmissible inner tensions. Yet there is no way round it. Francis Schaeffer, in his son’s portrait, lacked intellectual integrity. There was a lie at the very heart of the work of L’Abri, and the thousands of people who over the decades came to L’Abri and came to faith or deepened in faith, were obviously conned too.
I challenge this central charge of Frank’s with everything in me. I and many of my closest friends, who knew the Schaeffers well, are certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they would challenge it too. Defenders of truth to others, Francis and Edith Schaeffer were people of truth themselves.
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. It pains me to 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. There is all the difference in the world between flaws and hypocrisy. Francis and Edith Schaeffer were lions for truth. No one could be further from con artists, even unwitting con artists, than the Francis and Edith Schaeffer I knew, lived with, and loved.
Crazy for God unquestionably has its humorous passages. It also has some pages of lyrical beauty and poignancy in which Frank describes his wife Genie and his daughter Jessica. 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. He was always open about his flaws, just as he was compassionate toward those of others. I had my own disagreements with him. My wife and I actually left L’Abri in 1973 for principled reasons, grieved but certain that we, along with several others, needed to break with a community that we believed was missing its way – mainly because of the direction Frank was intent on taking it. Yet despite all that, for those of us who were part of the story of L’Abri in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the better qualities and the legitimate revelations in the memoir are overwhelmed by a blindness and bitterness that cannot be excused. No one who witnessed the stature and diversity of the thousands who came to L’Abri’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 2005 could doubt the depth of quiet, enduring gratitude that thousands owe to Francis and Edith Schaeffer. For many of us, they changed our lives forever and set us off on the strenuous and costly path we are still pursuing decades later with no reservations.and no regret.
Are there other problems with the book? First, Frank’s portrayal of his mother is cruel and deeply dishonouring, monstrously ungrateful since she poured herself out for him far more than his workaholic father. Edith Schaeffer was one of the most remarkable women of her generation, the like of whom we will not see again in our time. I have never met such a great heart of love, and such indomitable faith, tireless prayer, boundless energy, passionate love for life and beauty, lavish hospitality, irrepressible laughter, and seemingly limitless time for people – all in a single person. There is no question that she was a force of nature, and that her turbo-personality left many people, and particularly young women who tried to copy her, gasping in her slipstream. To many of us she was a second mother, and in many ways she was the secret of L’Abri.
Yet Frank describes his mother as a ‘high-powered nut,’ who was ‘best at the martyrdom game.’ He mocks her with vitriol in several of his books, and her incredible and justly celebrated passion for beauty and excellence he dismisses with a postmodern sneer as a mission that was ‘nothing less than repairing the image of fundamentalism.’ Several times I saw her reduced to tears in private after his barbs against her. But now in her nineties, with her failing memory, she neither fully knows nor is able to respond to all he has written about her. ‘If I read it,’ she said to me about one of Frank’s earlier books, ‘it would probably break my heart.’
Second, Frank’s descriptions of other people and events are often equally irresponsible and wildly inaccurate. He rightly disavows the immaturity of his early books and films. He was as ‘addicted to mediocrity’ as anyone he attacked. But for all his improved writing style, his manner of sneering dismissals is unchanged. Sometimes he is ludicrously negative, as in his remarks about Billy Graham and Carl Henry. Sometimes he is self-servingly positive, citing compliments from people – such as Malcolm Muggeridge – who were well known for their overall scathing dismissals of both Francis and Frank. Sometimes he is just plain cruel, as in his description of the woman assigned to be his home school tutor – and as in most cruelty, he is worst when mocking those unable to reply.
Third, Frank’s broad dismissals of faith different from his own are often absurd, and his portrayal of recent Christian history is woefully ignorant. On the one hand, he routinely conflates evangelicalism with fundamentalism, or disdainfully dismisses evangelicalism as ‘fundamentalism-lite,’ the child of an older fundamentalism. The reverse, of course, is true. Fundamentalism is the recent movement, and evangelicalism pre-dates it by centuries. On the other hand, he inflates his own role in founding the Religious Right, even if out of self-flagellating disgust.
Frank says he was ‘the prime mover and shaker when it came to making sure that Dad got truly famous within the evangelical subculture,’ and that he and his father were ‘amongst the first to start telling American evangelicals that God wanted them involved in the political process.’ Yet Francis Schaeffer’s international recognition came far earlier than the Religious Right, and calling Schaeffer ‘the father of the religious right’ overlooks the far more crucial early role of such players as Ed McAteer, Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Jerry Falwell, who were the real fathers of the movement.
Apart from these flaws, and above all the central one mentioned first, Frank Schaeffer’s memoir raises other grave issues for me. For a start, I am dismayed by the responses to the book. It has understandably given perverse comfort to those who already dislike the Christian faith, or evangelicalism, or conservatism. More troubling is how many evangelical reviewers and readers have betrayed symptoms of the postmodern disease in their response. The book’s revelations are taken as gospel and the book is judged in terms of its style rather than its substance. Our postmodern age is a free schooling in cynicism, so nothing is ever what it appears to be and there are no heroes once you see what really makes people tick. But no one should take Frank’s allegations at face value.
At a deeper level, Frank’s baleful influence on his father is a textbook example of how Christian ministries and organizations can be ruined through undermining their own principles – in this case, through nepotism and family politics. We have a rash of nepotism currently afflicting evangelicalism across the board, so this point carries wider lessons. In the early 1970s, when I was considering my long-term future at the Swiss L’Abri, I remember asking John Stott and James Houston what sort of questions I should be asking. Among other things, they both made the same point: ‘Watch and see whether the Schaeffers truly give authority to those who are not family members, or whether the family members are always more equal than others.’
Frank unwittingly confirms their wisdom by openly admitting that his role was the result of ‘nepotism,’ and by acknowledging that ‘it was our family, not the other L’Abri workers and members, who were really calling the shots.’ Yet the worst example of nepotism and family politics was his own disastrous persuading of his father to enter the political fray. After the Lausanne Congress in 1974, I remember well how Francis was blackly depressed, believing he had no more to say. It was Frank, alarmed at what he saw, who then abandoned his own aspirations as an artist and became his father’s ‘sidekick’ in order to re-charge his father with visions of political activism.
In the process Frank overrode the established principles of how decisions were made at L’Abri. As he acknowledges, he ‘goaded’ Schaeffer toward the strident and increasingly gloomy last period of his life, and he himself became a brash and intemperate hothead. notorious for his slashing attacks on evangelical scholars who disagreed with him. The net effect of Frank’s efforts was to sow the seeds of his own self-loathing, and also to return his father to fundamentalism and to undermine his reputation in the long term. That was the first time in my experience at L’Abri when a major decision was made without unanimity among the leaders, and it was clear that the family trumped everyone else and Frank trumped everyone else in the family. It was the breaking point for me and many others.
The deepest issue of all lies in how all this happened, and here Frank gives us the clue but never follows the trail with the honesty he should have. Throughout the memoir he says he was neglected by his parents, which may have been true – though he was always central in the daily thoughts and prayers of his mother, and at the time he welcomed the neglect as freedom. Frank also hints at his ability to manipulate his parents because of their guilt over the neglect: ‘No one has more power over a loving father (especially if that father feels a bit guilty for neglecting his children) than a beloved son.’
But neglect and guilt are not the deepest explanation. The real truth is that Frank, as he then called himself, was spoiled. He was more like a poster child for Benjamin Spock than the son of ‘fundamentalist missionaries.’ Having been born well after his sisters, and having survived polio as a child, he was rarely challenged, disciplined, or denied. As a result, he grew up a ‘little Napoleon,’ as some of the L’Abri students called him. He would boast that he could twist his parents around his little finger, and time and again he proved it.
Running away from boarding school at fifteen, Frank was bright and gifted, with talents that showed as clearly in his art then as in his writing now. But he bucked at all formal education and serious tutoring, and his claim that he then received a ‘”great books” British university-level literature course’ comes as quite a surprise to his tutor. Francis actually praised Frank’s dropping out of school to a friend of mine, arguing that ‘Christians should be like Bolsheviks.’ Later, pushed far out of his depth by the momentum of his and his father’s activism, Frank found himself propelled into becoming the arrogant, pompous, and hollow young fraud that, to his credit, he came to loathe and then repudiate. Frank himself is where the con artistry came into the story.
In sum, the combination of neglect, guilt, nepotism, and spoiling was a toxic brew. Some sons of famous Christian fathers are pushed by their fathers into following in their footsteps, and they respond with a slow-burning resentment that comes to cast a shadow on their fathers’ reputations. In Frank’s case, he chose to steer his father’s steps for his father’s sake, so he is responsible rather than resentful. But he is responsible for what he now acknowledges was a horrible outcome, so he turns on his entire upbringing to excuse his role.
Does all this matter outside the Schaeffer family and the wider L’Abri community which in its many branches continues the Schaeffer’s work quietly and effectively? Would it not be better to let sleeping dogs lie, and judge Frank’s memoir by its readability? There are powerful lessons here for any organization and ministry in which the founder’s family plays a part. But what matters in the end is that Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s place in 20th-century evangelicalism – and their contribution to the lives of so many – is too important to surrender to such a scurrilous caricature
Speaking for myself, my heritage is not fundamentalism and my intellectual mentor is the eminent sociologist Peter Berger. But there is much that I owe directly to Francis Schaeffer, such as my understanding of apologetics. One thing above all I will never deny, and for that I am eternally grateful, however great his flaws and however wrong he was on certain details of philosophy and history: I have never met anyone anywhere like Francis Schaeffer, who took God so passionately seriously, people so passionately seriously, and truth so passionately seriously. The combination was dynamite, and it is that vision and style of faith, rather than the content of his thinking, which is the debt I owe to him. With Nietzsche, Schaeffer could well have said, ‘All truth is bloody truth to me.’ The idea that such a man was ‘crazy for God,’ let alone a two-faced con man, is and will always be utterly anathema to me. I was there. I saw otherwise, and I and many of my friends have been marked for life.
One of Frank’s more curious accusations is that evangelicals have no sense of the journey of faith. Perhaps he has forgotten John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress,1 which has far outsold any other account of the journey of life and faith. And that is where I find hope at the end of Frank’s memoir. He is plainly still on the road. The book is dedicated to his daughter Jessica, and he hints of his guilt over the way he treated her when she was small. He may yet examine himself more deeply, and he may yet find himself at home with his faith. I pray he will one day.
Forty years ago, Frank and his father used to mock the weak ending of John Osborne’s play Luther, in which the ringing certainty of ‘Here I stand’ was replaced by the hesitancy of ‘I hope so.’ Yet ‘I hope so’ and ‘If there is a God’ are the very words Frank uses to describe his own Orthodox faith now. With his prodigious but wayward talents, my old friend still has the air of the restless prodigal. But we all have journeying still to be done – in Frank’s case, a long and winding journey home indeed, but with both a waiting Father and a waiting father and mother at its end.
A review article by Os Guinness of Frank Schaeffer’s 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 [New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007], 304pp, ISBN 978-0-78671-891-7. If asked what is the deepest relationship imaginable, many […]
Os Guinness is the author most recently of The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It, just published by HarperOne. The above review article is reprinted with permission from Christianity Today International’s Books & Culture magazine, Volume 14, No. 2 (March/April 2008).
God Means It For Good January 22, 2021
The Bible tells us that God controls everything in our lives and in our world. The problem is, however, that our lives and our world often seem so out of control. We all have a year full of examples of that, don’t we? One of the most helpful places in Scripture to give us perspective on this […]
Unexpected Joys: A Trip to a Banner Ministers’ Conference January 13, 2021
In the video below, join a pastor, a ruling elder, an intern, and a seminary student as they travel from Greenville, SC to a Banner Ministers’ Conference in Elizabethtown, PA. https://youtu.be/GGbad-PkSDo The US Ministers’ Conference is an annual event in Elizabethtown, PA, where men gather from a variety of ministerial vocations to worship God and […]