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Fearing Well

The Christ-Haunted Life of Frank Schaeffer: A Review of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take It All (or Almost All) of It Back, by Frank Schaeffer

crazy Frank Schaeffer, only son of the late Francis and Edith Schaeffer, can't seem to shake God.  Early on in his recent memoir, Crazy for God, he puts it this way: "Every action, every thought, every moment I stumble into is judged by some inner voice.  Everything seems to have a moral component: eating --- because there are hungry people; sex --- don't even start.  What I write, don't write, who I talk to, don't talk to, and how I raised my children, their characters, accomplishments, failures, whether they 'love the Lord' or not, everything points to my relationship with God, real or imagined."  Raised in a home and larger social community where Christianity was taken seriously as having implications for all of life, he has spent most of his life alternatively embracing, questioning, and castigating that faith.  In Crazy for God he continues this tortured ambivalence, using memoir as his form rather than the veiled and semi-autobiographical fiction of his trilogy of Calvin Becker novels --- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

Frank Schaeffer grew up as the fourth child and only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of a ministry known as L'Abri.  Though both were Americans, they relocated to Switzerland in the late 1940s, shortly after WWII, with a two-fold charge from their mission board: to help strengthen the church from the tide of theological liberalism sweeping Europe, and to continue a ministry to children, called Children for Christ, a teaching ministry actually begun in the United States when Schaeffer was a pastor of Bible Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  Tiring of the rancor and divisive arguments in his denomination, the Schaeffers left the mission in 1955 and founded L'Abri (French for "shelter").  They began opening their home to whoever came, offering discussions of art, social problems, and politics, all from the standpoint of biblical Christianity.  Eventually, both Francis and Edith published bestseller books which grew out of the L'Abri discussions.  Frank lived in the midst of this budding community of discussion, with upwards of  20 to 30 people staying in his home, Chalet le Melezes, at any one time, with regular late-night discussions--- a constant milieu of faith expressed in word and deed, 24/7, punctuated only by their annual family vacations to Italy.

Frank's memoir is roughly chronological, though there are flashbacks and more polemical asides (which are sometimes lengthy) along the way.  By Frank's account, his father had a "vicious temper," was sometimes verbally (and on occasion, physically) abusive toward his mother, and was chronically depressed and occasionally suicidal.  He describes his mother as a "high-powered nut" and control freak who portrayed his father as an "ogre" and herself as a "long-suffering heroine." He spends a significant amount of time detailing his own sexual exploits and the various forms his rebellion took, but along the way, he not only tells his story but that of his sisters, brothers-in-law, and parents as well, portraying his family as dysfunctional, L'Abri as riven by disputes (such as that surrounding the allegedly unorthodox teaching of his brother-in-law, John Sandri), and family reunions as usually ending in arguments.  There is an acerbic tone to much of what is said, manifesting itself in mockery ("When Mom met people, then told her children about her encounters, the story line was always the same: They were lost, and Mom saved them"),  anger (railing against a "Reformed Calvinist God" who struck down people for "not believing right"), and ridicule of evangelical personalities (describing Billy Graham as "just plain bizarre" and "a very weird man indeed," James Dobson as "the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met," and Jerry Falwell as an unreconstructed bigot reactionar[y]").  Neither the tone of the book nor the revelations are  shocking by today's low standards, when tell-all memoirs are ubiquitous.  However, these assertions will likely come as a surprise to many admirers of the Schaeffers and, presumably, to many of the workers at L'Abri as well, and have already evoked an understandable emotional response. 

To be fair to Frank, it must be noted that, while likely understated given his propensity to be critical, he does express admiration for his parents even while criticizing them, noting that "Mom was often on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors, rising at four in the morning to pray and then to type up the dictation she'd taken from Dad as his secretary of the day before, or spending hours talking to and counseling the guests and students."  He regarded his "parents' compassion [as] sincere and consistent," noting his mother's consistent treatment of everyone the same, from a hotel chambermaid to the President of the United States and the selfless way in which they opened their home.  Furthermore, Frank recognizes his own complicity in his difficulties --- his rebellious attitude, promiscuity, stealing, and poor treatment of his own wife and children.  In fact, perhaps he takes on too much blame, crediting himself with contributing significantly to the rise of the Religious Right and steering his father, in his later years, into their influence, something he now deeply regrets.  He's often funny as well.  For example, his description of life in the chalet occupied by Jane Stuart Smith (a former opera singer) and Betty Carlson (Chapter 8) is hilarious, true or not.  Thus, reading the memoir is a wild and passionate ride, because Frank has a tendency never to understate but often overstate his case, with gross generalizations and hyperbole, and contradictory images of his parents that either betray his own ambivalence or their complexity, or both.

Frank's memoir, though sure to incite controversy and an emotional response with the claims he makes, has to be evaluated as would any work of art or literature:  First, is it technically excellent, that is, does it meet the standards of the genre?  In other words, is it good writing?  Second, is it true, that is, does it substantially correspond to reality?  Memoirs have been written that are technically excellent and yet untrue, as in James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a bestseller memoir that was ultimately determined to be a complete fabrication.  Even though a memoir is, by its nature, a story that unfolds from a person's subjective experience, incomplete and biased, we expect it to be rooted in an objective reality.  After we experience it as a well-told story, we want to know if it's true --- not a perfect recollection but, at least, not substantially inconsistent with what others would confirm as basically true.  Sadly, on neither count does Frank's memoir fully hold up.

In his introduction to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser says that a good memoir requires two elements: integrity of intention, that is, a serious quest by an author to understand his life, and carpentry, that is, a successful imposition of a narrative structure (or framework) onto a jumble of half-remembered events.  Frank Schaeffer is at his best when he is writing about his memories of events he witnessed, that he experienced.  At least facially, he seems intent at understanding himself, and though his style is rambling, it has a narrative structure that is not difficult to follow.  So, in this respect, it functions as a good memoir, representative of the genre.  However, the difficulty with concluding that this is a good memoir is the inclusion of material critiquing the Religious Right, where he lapses into sermonizing and unfounded generalizations tangential to his story.  Is he playing to a target audience of disaffected evangelicals and secularists who would group Christians together with Islamic terrorists?  It's difficult to say, but the odd inclusion of this material detracts from the memoir and raises some doubt as to the integrity of his intention.  At the very least, this material should have been left for another book where he could maintain a more sustained (and perhaps supported) argument against the Christian right.  It's almost as if he added the material in order to make the book fit its extended subtitle, which itself may have been added to stoke the interest of critics of Christianity.  So, this is a memoir which simply veers off course, diminishing its credibility and impact.

The second standard of judgment, whether the memoir is true, is even more problematic.  The Prologue to the book contains a telling qualification when Frank states that his book is not "objective history," and "[w]hat I've written comes from a memory deformed by time, prejudice, flawed recall, and emotion."  Of course.  And yet why say this unless you lack the confidence to say "this is the objective truth, as best I can discern it?"  And why include letters from his sisters when it's his memoir, not theirs', unless he is seeking to buttress his own assertions about his parents, that is, to assert that what he says is in fact objective history?  And finally, if some of his more outrageous assertions are true (like his claim that his father physically abused his mother, or that his father talked about hanging himself), where are the other witnesses?  Hundreds of workers and guests passed through L'Abri over its many years when the Schaeffers were in residence, many living in the same home with Francis and Edith.  It was an open community, not a cult, and there was no fear of reprisal for breaking any implied code of silence.  That the Schaeffers were imperfect is well-documented in Edith's own biography of their life, entitled Tapestry, though given the reserve of her generation, family matters were not aired publicly.  Yet to my knowledge, no one has supported some of the more lurid allegations made by Frank.

In addition, the objective truthfulness of the memoir is called into question by the patently false conclusion Frank draws about the marriage of Gigi Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, to a man twenty years her elder.  Frank states that "Billy --- like some Middle Eastern potentate --- arranged for his seventeen-year-old daughter's marriage to the son of a particularly wealthy donor who lived up the road from us in the ski resort of Villars," and that "he'd plucked [her] out of her first semester at Wheaton College to marry a man almost twenty years older than her whom she had never met until Billy introduced them?"  That unsupported allegation is patently false, the daughter, Gigi Graham Tchividjian, having asserted in interviews that it was she who insisted on getting married, over her parents' objections!  Such careless accusations and demeaning language cast a shadow over the other assertions made by Frank, some unverifiable (like private conversations with his mother or father), others disputable.

In the end, however, it's impossible to come to any final conclusions about Frank's truthfulness.  The difficulty is evident in the contrast between two different recent statements about the book.  In a carefully-crafted statement in the August edition of the newsletter of the Francis Schaeffer Foundation, Udo Middleman notes that he (and presumably Debbie, Frank's sister) enjoyed Franks book, noting that "[a]s a memoir of an imperfect childhood, it has a personal perspective and will forever be incomplete" and is "very honest, touching, at times funny, and always passionate."  (Note that he didn't say it was true or that he agreed with it!)  On the other hand, Os Guinness, who lived with the Schaeffers for five years in the late 1960s, calls what Frank has written a "tissue of falseness, distortion, and unchecked allegations," and notes that "Francis Schaeffer had his flaws, and he certainly had his enemies. But no one has done more damage to Schaeffer's reputation, and to the things for which he stood and fought, than his own son whom he adored."  Frank accentuates the imperfections of his family life, giving you an overall negative impression of the family and ministry, when in actuality, his perspective is an inverted one, quite in contrast to what most who knew the Schaeffers would say.

In the end, of course, this imperfect memoir will not dissuade anyone who knew and loved the Schaeffers from continuing in their admiration of them.  It may even serve as a helpful reminder of their humanity, if we even need it, and further endear them to us.  I know it only strengthened my admiration for them.  Frank himself, even if bitter at times, cannot help but love and admire his parents, and he cannot escape their impact on him.  In the end, the real story is more about Frank Schaeffer's lifelong struggle with God than about his parents and L'Abri.  That story is not yet over.