Sunday, October 12, 2008

Crazy for God: Book Review/Memoir

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

Crazy for God is a memoir by Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer, a major figure in 20th Century Evangelical culture and politics. It is a personal reflection by the child of a beloved celebrity. Before I read this book, I saw some of the negative reviews, which made it sound like a mean- spirited biography of his father, Francis Schaeffer. To see this book only in terms of Francis Schaeffer is to miss the confessional account of Frank Schaeffer, an intelligent, complex man, who has lived through some very interesting times. The tone of the book reads less like a bitter character assassination than a brutally honest critical and self-critical life lived in and outside of L'Abri, the Schaeffer family's mission in Switzerland, and in the larger world including Evangelical stardom in the United States. If I were to compare the tone of the book to something, it's more in the vein of a twelve-step program than anything else. Growing up in L'Abri also strongly reminded me of the novel, My Name is Asher Lev. In both cases, the protagonists are artists who must negotiate between a religious, intellectual, and political moralism and the outside world which lives according to contradictory values.

Frank Schaeffer expresses a complex relationship to his father and his father's ideas. On the one hand, he says that he was indoctrinated, but on the other hand, it is clear that after early neglect, Frank Schaeffer invested himself in learning his father's ideas so that he could present them to others.

I can't read about Frank Schaeffer without bringing myself into the equation because I see many of the same dynamics at work in my life also. Like him, I was raised by parents who were leaders in a movement to renew the political and cultural world: the Christian Family Movement (CFM). In high school, some of my friends were active in the Protestant Youth For Christ movement; and in my first two years of college, I was recruited by another fundamentalist Christian group, although eventually they asked me to leave.

The dynamic at work here has been well described by Luigi Giussani in his book, The Risk of Education:

"Skepticism remains in our soul and is overcome in practice only by fanaticism — the intransigent assertion of a one-sided reality. This situation also applies to those students who come out of the fray still resolved to keep the religious and moral teachings they received. To save themselves they become defensive, as if retreating in a fortress, either out of caution or fear, and shut out the environment that they feel is attacking them" (61).

What's interesting to me is that this fortress mentality can be anti-intellectual or it can powerfully intellectual. For Francis Schaeffer, the difference between Christianity and the world is that of different ideas, different ways of thinking. In Escape from Reason, he wrote that "The reason Christians do not understand their children is because their children do not think any longer in the same framework in which their parents think. It is not merely that they come out with different answers. The methodology has changed" (41). For Schaeffer, then, the question is always: what ideas does this work of art or literature express? Is the root idea Christian or anti-Christian? With this eye for metaphysical presuppositions at hand, the Christian could approach any cultural production without fear of losing his faith.

At a CFM Convention one year, a youth minister drew in me and other teenagers with this approach apparently patterned after Francis Schaeffer. In a darkened room, he sat with his guitar on his knee, while singing and playing "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas. After getting our attention with the rock ballad, he explained that without Christ that's all we have: dust in the wind. In one way he inoculated us against the nihilism of the song by asking us to compare its stated creed with our own. But at the same time, we lost the beauty and the depth of the song as a meditation on human fragility. Christians are not immune to this frailty: we should not act as if Christian ideas can save us from the sufferings and trials of human existence. This approach was triumphalist, dualistic, and reductionist. Like Frank Schaeffer, I got to be pretty good at it.

Eventually, I realized that being right all the time was not enough for me. I felt like I was reading and re-reading a menu instead of going inside the restaurant to eat. Christian ideas (no matter how correct) without the Christian experience are worse than worthless. And Christian culture is not produced rationalistically by extrapolating Christian ideas in forms that imitate the world. As Frank Schaeffer says of a Christian Booksellers convention, "Everything was copied from the secular world but made bizarrely religious" (337). Instead, Christian culture is formed the way that all human culture is formed: it is the articulation, the expression of an experience. And there's no other door to Christianity than the narrow door of human experience in all its fragility, poverty, and suffering. Since God became man, there is no other way to God but through Him, which means through the risk and vulnerability of being human.

This post started as a review of a memoir. Instead, it has become a memoir responding to a memoir. Even so, I would like to look at the consequences of Francis Schaeffer's approach for the human person, the self. Frank Schaeffer's mother gave up dancing for the Gospel and encouraged other young women to do the same. And the description of how Francis Schaeffer's experience contradicted his ideas is especially haunting:

"In his L'Abri lectures, and later in his books, Dad would explain and even lament all this "humanistic art" that placed "man, not God at the center of the universe." But when he was looking at the art with me, all we talked about was how beautiful it was, how remarkable it was that they competitions were held to design Florence's baptistery doors, how stunning the achievements were: Bruneleschi's dome for the cathedral, Giotto's bell tower, the Della Robbia family and their blue and white glazed terra-cottas, not to mention our favorite, the choir stall carved by Della Robbia and preserved in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo" (205).

Christianity does not require this negation of the self, this crushing of the person for the sake of a bloodless truth. True sacrifice is not a preemptive strike against what we love, but the drawing up of our loves into the totality of God's plan.

Finally, it goes without saying that this book is a personal memoir. It is the cry of a self who has lived and struggled and made mistakes and been angry, calculating, bitter, desperate. It's very human but at the same time strives to complement the fragmentary perspective with letters of his siblings, children, and others who see things differently than Frank Schaeffer does. It should not be taken as the final word on Francis Schaeffer, but the witness of one who lived through everything (including the turmoil of 1968). At the conclusion, Frank Schaeffer acknowledges many of the social criticisms where his father was prophetic. He also remains strongly prolife while at the same time lamenting the destructive impact of the alignment of the prolife cause with Republican politics.
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