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Screwed-up saints
Frank Schaeffer, son of the 1970s Christian philosophy guru Francis Schaeffer, has written a warts and all account of his life growing up in a Christian community. The book, Crazy for God, has drawn a scathing attack from at least one Schaeffer disciple. Its subtitle, "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" is a read in itself. Iwan Russell-Jones reports.
Back in the 70s and early 80s, when he was the enfant terrible of the Christian world, we knew him as Franky. Those were the days when, cashing in on his famous parents' reputation, he was energetically sticking the boot into the evangelical subculture for sins ranging from its lack of political involvement to a collective misuse of the arts. Reviewing Franky's Addicted to Mediocrity for Ship of Fools in 1982, Paul Clowney wrote: "Unfortunately, Schaeffer's righteous indignation burns brighter than his prose. Both syntax and thinking are addled."

Now, well into middle age, he simply calls himself Frank, and his writing has improved out of all recognition. This is a witty, well crafted book. But he continues to trade on the Schaeffer name. And despite having long since converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, he's still ruffling feathers in the evangelical world. People who are deeply appreciative of his parents' ministry are outraged at the way he appears to have dished the dirt on them in a series of semi-autobiographical novels – the Calvin Becker Trilogy – and particularly in this memoir.

Crazy for God chronicles his life as the youngest child of Francis and Edith Schaeffer – American missionaries who founded the L'Abri community in 1955 – and his meteoric rise and fall as a movie producer and B-list Christian celebrity. A fascinating range of characters wander in and out of the book: Jimmy Page, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, Joan Baez, Jerry Falwell, Timothy Leary, Bunker Hunt, Pat Robertson... But few are more remarkable than the couple at the very heart of his story – Frank's mother and father. According to Frank they were polar opposites: Francis, from a tough, working class part of Philadelphia, became a Christian at a tent revival; Edith, from a refined and well-educated missionary family, grew up with a passion for books, music and beautiful things.

There's no question where the power lay in the Schaeffer household. Despite some teasing of Edith's airs and graces and grand pretensions, Frank presents his mother as a force of nature – a bundle of energy and enthusiasms, who often left everyone around her exhausted with her intense piety and attention to the smallest details of daily life. "Mom's spiritual pride, mixed with fierce spiritual ambition for her children... left my sisters and me with a lifetime of conflicted emotions... How could we ever live up to Mom's expectations?" His father is portrayed as a humble and sensitive man who was prone to dark moods that affected the entire family.

Nevertheless, Edith and Francis' gifts came together in an extraordinary way at L'Abri (French for "The Refuge"), the mission centre they established in a beautiful corner of Switzerland, not far from the borders with France and Italy. The whole thing began quite informally when Frank's older sisters started bringing student friends home for conversation with their parents about the Christian faith. Through his lectures at L'Abri, and books such as Escape from Reason and The God Who is There, Francis Schaeffer presented historic Christianity as the answer to the deepest questions of modern men and women. He became known as the guy who could make Christ relevant to the counterculture.

"In evangelical circles", writes Frank, "if you wanted to know what Bob Dylan's songs meant, Francis Schaeffer was the man to ask. In the early 60s he was probably the only fundamentalist who had even heard of Bob Dylan." Here was a thinker who watched the films of Bergman and Fellini, who quoted the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who seemed to understand the rebellion of an entire generation, and who brought it all into conversation with the teaching of the Bible.

By the late 60s L'Abri was attracting thousands of young people from all over Europe and North America, drawn by the openness and generosity of this Christian family, and the intellectual appeal of the message they proclaimed. Without the unique gifts of Edith and Francis Schaeffer, none of this would have happened. They
were L'Abri. So what did an impressionable teenager make of all this?

As he was growing up, Frank couldn't help but be aware of his father's cult status. At L'Abri, hippies were queuing up to sit next to his dad at dinner and bombard him with questions. And out in the big wide world, even the gods of popular culture were taking notice. In 1969 Frank, who was clearly never shy, was introduced to Jimmy Page, the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin. Page pulled a paperback copy of Escape from Reason from his back pocket and pronounced it "very cool". He told Frank that his father's book had been given to him by Eric Clapton. Respect! If that kind of thing doesn't lead a 17 year-old to a grudging acknowledgement of his father's achievements, then nothing will.

But there was another side to this Christian guru that his admirers never saw or to which they were blind. According to his son, Francis Schaeffer "suffered from bouts of fury punctuated by depression". Minutes before addressing a roomful of adoring guests at L'Abri, he could be upstairs in their private apartment, screaming at Edith. Frank believes that their fellow workers in the community must have known that there was verbal and physical abuse going on, but they "looked the other way". He and his sisters grew up knowing there were two things they could never tell anyone: "The first was that Dad got insanely angry with my mother; the second was that from time to time he threatened suicide."

Os Guinness has written a scathing attack on this book in Christianity Today, commenting, "With such a son who needs enemies?" Guinness lived at L'Abri for a number of years and was the best man at Frank's wedding. But he says this of his old friend: "No critic or enemy of Francis Schaeffer has done more to damage his life's work than his son Frank". He accuses Frank of portraying his parents as "con artists" and of penning a personal
apologia at the expense of their reputation and faith: "The portrait he paints amounts to a death-dealing charge of hypocrisy and insincerity at the very heart of their life and work." Guinness forcefully rejects this portrayal: "Defenders of truth to others, Francis and Edith Schaeffer were people of truth themselves."

Given the huge impact of the Schaeffers on so many lives, it's understandable that some find Frank's account distasteful and are angered by the suggestion that Francis and Edith were phonies. But, in the final analysis, does Crazy for God actually suggest this? On the evidence of this book alone, the answer must be "no". Frank Schaeffer is also concerned for the truth and an honest assessment of the trajectory of his own life, particularly with respect to his parents. But outside the gates of Eden, truth is complex.

Frank paints a picture of a driven couple whose chemistries, histories, personal faith and sense of mission sometimes combined and collided to make them – and their children – deeply unhappy. Who can dispute such a scenario? Daily experience tells us that our Christian lives are often like this. This, too, is truth, however unpalatable. Christian marriages are not immune from power struggles and mental anguish. Christian families are not spared the impact of original sin – not in the children, nor, most definitely, in their parents. History is littered with screwed-up saints. For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

And that seems to be the way that Frank views his parents. Scattered liberally among his barbs and witticisms and accusations are many beautiful and lovely things about both of them. His account of his "goodbye" to his father, who died in 1984, and his description of his mother in old age, are deeply moving. Whatever the Schaeffers' sins and failings may have been, Frank bears witness to their compassion and generosity towards countless people who passed through L'Abri: "My mother and father marshalled arguments in favour of God, the Bible and the saving work of Jesus Christ. But no words were as convincing as their willingness to lay material possessions, privacy and time on the line."

If anyone is deliberately unveiled as a hypocrite and a conman in this book, it's Frank himself, not his parents. Before his critics waded in with their condemnation, Frank got there first. He clearly accepts responsibility for having led his father in a direction which undermined his ministry and left him increasingly depressed in the years before his death.

In 1972 Billy Zeoli, the president of Gospel Films, suggested that Francis Schaeffer make a TV series as an answer to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, "secular humanist" blockbusters commissioned by the BBC. Francis wasn't keen, fearing that it would somehow betray L'Abri's mission and ethos. But Frank was excited. Gospel Films were offering lots of money and wanted him to produce the series. He saw this as a way of fulfilling his dream of getting into the movie business, and he prevailed on his father to do it.

At the age of 20, and with no formal education to speak of, Frank found himself running a production office with a whole bunch of secretaries and assistants and a budget of one and a half million. Soon he was jetting around Europe with his father filming How Should We Then Live?, a 13-part documentary series on art, culture and the Christian faith. And when the director was fired for incompetence, Frank, the budding movie mogul, took over.

But it wasn't long before he began to discover that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Gospel Films insisted that he cut a sequence filmed at the Academia Gallery in Florence, featuring Francis Schaeffer talking about Michelangelo's statue of David. Naturally, the shots showed David's genitals. "We can't have this for a Christian audience," Zeoli said. They might accept a bit of nudity, "but churches don't do cock". When Frank told his father about this conversation, Francis muttered, "We're dealing with fools".

In the wake of the Supreme Court's historic Roe v Wade decision legalising abortion, the last two episodes of the series addressed the abortion issue head on. Francis was at first reluctant to do so because he saw it as "a Catholic issue". "I'm known as an intellectual, not for this sort of
political thing," he said. At that time, even conservative denominations like the Southern Baptists were in favour of abortion rights. Frank, whose wife had just given birth to their first child, was incensed. "F***ing coward!" he yelled at his father. "You're always talking about the 'dehumanisation of man'; now here is your best example."

Francis eventually came round to his son's way of thinking, and How Should We Then Live? is credited with bringing about a substantial shift in evangelical opinion on the abortion issue. The series was immensely popular in the US and seems to have struck a real nerve. It was quickly followed by another series – Whatever Happened to the Human Race? – and both Schaeffers became hot property on the Christian lecture and TV circuit.

Frank became expert at raising money for their TV projects, telling whoever was prepared to listen (and especially billionaires concerned mainly with the salvation of capitalism) that it was "time to take their country back", to defend their young people against the attacks of "the liberals", and that the Schaeffers were the people to do it. Francis Schaeffer may not have been "the Father of the Christian Right", as Frank claims, but in the 70s he was certainly embraced, feted and manipulated by some of the deeply suspect characters at the heart of this emerging movement, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

There's a terrible irony to this story. At L'Abri, the Schaeffers set out to engage with the culture and minister to the children of the 60s, who they felt were right to rebel against the emptiness and materialism of their parents' generation. They were convinced that the artists, film-makers, writers and musicians of their time were asking the right questions, even if they were coming up with the wrong answers. In a sense, the Schaeffers believed that God was speaking through the counter-culture, laying down a radical challenge to the church and the world. The 60s were akin to a biblical
kairos moment, an opportunity for deep and profound change, and they responded to it at L'Abri with a Christian witness that was intellectual, artistic, personal and communal.

But all of this was temporarily eclipsed by their dalliance with the Christian Right. The Schaeffers found themselves allied with a bunch of people who excoriated the 60s, whose idea of ministering to the counter-culture was to wage war against it, who identified the cause of the Gospel with their version of the American way. And they jumped into bed with these people at the urging of their son, who saw it as a way of furthering his career and making a fast buck. They were not so much leading the Christian Right as seduced by it. Francis Schaeffer entered his last few months in a depressed state, privately lamenting that the evangelical world was being led by "lunatics, psychopaths and extremists". And all Frank could do was "bitterly regret what I'd gotten him into".

It's a tragic tale that Frank tells, and as a personal indictment it's far worse than anything his harshest critics could have brought against him. For all its shock value, this is a memoir that attempts to be honest and, in its own way, honouring to his parents. But the legacy of the Schaeffers needs to be viewed in a rather broader perspective than Frank is able to offer, and certainly mustn't be judged simply on the basis of the last few years of his father's life.

There's no question that their original vision has borne fruit. The impressive work of L'Abri is still going on at a number of different centres around the world, and Frank's three sisters and their families are still involved in it. And while Francis Schaeffer's books never really made it into the university curriculum – more the result of their scholarly limitations than of any anti-Christian plot against him – his ideas influenced a generation of young believers. In Britain, his call for a biblical engagement with contemporary culture contributed significantly to initiatives such as the Christian Arts Centre Group, Third Way magazine, the Greenbelt Festival, and not forgetting Ship of Fools itself, of course.

Which brings us back to Frank's title. Were the Schaeffers Crazy for God? Maybe. This, too, is a matter of perspective. To some it's an insult, to others, a badge of honour. For, to quote a line from a poem that appeared in the very first issue of Ship of Fools, "there are fools and those who only appear to be."
 
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