By LeRoy Lawson
Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
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 (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007).
If it hadn’t been for Francis and Frank Schaeffer, the car wouldn’t have hit me and I wouldn’t have gone to the hospital.
If the elder Schaeffer hadn’t been such a prominent Christian leader in the 1970s, I wouldn’t have been crossing the street in front of the Indianapolis convention center to see his film, directed by the younger Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live? It wasn’t a serious accident—broken arm, broken nose, leg abrasions, bruised ego, damaged reputation (but I thought the light was in my favor)—but it did make me miss my appointment. The car suffered no noticeable damage.
In those days Francis Schaeffer was all the rage in the evangelical world. Literate preachers were expected to read his regularly appearing books. Their flocks were urged to see the movies. Young people flocked to the L’Abri retreat center in the Swiss mountains to listen admiringly while the goateed lederhosened pastor expostulated on all things relating to Scripture and culture.
There Francis and his wife, Edith, presided over a motley household of relatives, workers, scholars, short-term guests, curiosity seekers, and just about anybody else from anywhere else who wanted to be there. It was a hospitable place.
Before becoming the celebrated guru of L’Abri, Schaeffer was a pugilistic pastor of small churches in America, a stout defender of the fundamentalist faith. Relocating in Europe broadened him. There he studied and eventually embraced much of the godless culture he had earlier attacked.
When he and Edith later returned to the States, Francis reverted to his former rigidity and, galvanized by his son Franky (as he was then known) to take on the abortion issue, he rushed into battle and along the way (according to Frank) cofounded the Religious Right.
Wherever he was, Schaeffer found opponents. As Hankins says in Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America,
One can view Schaeffer in a variety of ways. For fundamentalists, or at least conservative evangelical inerrantists, he was a militant defender of the faith, battling for the Bible. Intellectually oriented evangelicals found in Schaeffer an inspiration for Christian scholarship. Activists looked to him as the mentor of the Christian Right, leading the way in the fight against abortion and the culture of death.
“These are three rather distinct constituencies of influence—defenders of the faith, evangelical scholars, and Christian Right culture warriors.” Even in his intellectual activities, he was on the attack against others who saw things differently. He could not be neutral about anything.
Schaeffer was not a great scholar. He was a popularizer, a charismatic figure who, by intensity and energy if not by accuracy of research, could persuade seekers—if only temporarily—to his point of view. I read his books hoping to find a soul mate. As a somewhat schizophrenic young minister and English teacher I needed reassurance. My ministerial friends did not read widely and seemed suspicious of me for doing so. My secular teaching friends dismissed most ministers as culturally irrelevant.
So I was eager to learn more about and from Francis Schaeffer. He, a minister, could talk intelligently about art and philosophy and literature and music and the contemporary scene. He seemed to be bridging my two worlds.
But he disappointed. He jumped to conclusions too quickly, generalized too broadly, and, I suppose, seemed too much like me—a dilettante, not an expert. I did not know then of his fundamentalist past, or of his connection with the wildly fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who spent a lifetime urging his followers to separate from everybody and everything he suspected of being liberal—which meant anybody disagreeing with McIntire.
Thanks to Hankins’s excellent biography, I now know my disillusionment was not misplaced. Schaeffer had not managed to harmonize his interests any better than I had. And like so many Christian leaders, Schaeffer’s personal life was not consistent with his public persona. It is painful to read of his temper tantrums, his wife-abuse and neglect of his children, his nearly debilitating periods of depression, his pride, ambition, and near-constant defensiveness. To Hankins’s credit, he does not dwell on Schaeffer’s dark side.
To his discredit, Frank Schaeffer (Crazy for God) does. As a child romping around L’Abri, Franky saw too much and tells it all. He delights in skewering his parents and in denigrating the evangelical world that nurtured (and, he would say, poisoned) him.
He probably tells the truth, but I wish he didn’t sound so much like an adolescent rebel, even though he believes he’s a rebel with a cause. This reader, at least, kept hoping he’d grow up. He has already written three novels painting his thinly disguised family in distasteful colors. Enough parent-bashing is enough.
“I believe that my parents’ call to the ministry actually drove them crazy,” he writes. “They were happiest when farthest away from their missionary work, wandering the back streets of Florence; or, rather, when they turned their missionary work into something very unmissionary-like such as talking about art history instead of Christ. Perhaps this is because at those times they were farthest away from other people’s expectations.”
“I think religion was actually their source of tragedy,” he adds. “Mom tried to dress, talk, and act like anything but what she was. . . . And Dad was always in a better mood before leading a discussion or before giving a lecture on a cultural topic, than he was before preaching on Sunday. I remember Dad screaming at Mom one Sunday; then he threw a potted ivy at her. Then he put on his suit and went down to preach his Sunday sermon in our living-room chapel.”
And yet, among Frank’s vignettes are some tender passages. He pictures his parents as terribly flawed yet very loving. Their unbending brand of reformed theology would have been unbearable for me, too, so I’m eager to cut them some slack. I couldn’t help wondering how Franky would make a living if he weren’t vicariously still feeding off them.
Reading both Hankins and Frank Schaeffer caused me to give thanks once again that my home church and my college teachers taught me the difference between fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and what C. S. Lewis called mere Christianity. They convinced me it’s possible to be Christians only and not the only Christians. That’s the road to unity and peace.
They were right.
They would have been good for Francis and Frank Schaeffer.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.