Thursday, September 17, 2009

Crazy for God

"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" by Frank Schaeffer
William H. Smith
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Crazy for God is a sassy, angry, honest, revealing, vulnerable, unsettling, insightful, frustrating book. In other words, it sums up Frank Schaeffer. It is not, however, the tell-all, reject-all book about his parents and evangelicalism that I thought it might be.

I do have serious misgivings. He has been accused of dishonoring his parents, especially his aged, impaired mother who is not able to defend herself. Reading the book is much like sitting in as a damaged child of famous parents unburdens himself to his therapist. If saying such things at all, or saying them in public, breaks the Fifth Commandment, then he is guilty, but I'm not ready to declare that this is the case.

As I read the book, the words of the psalmist, "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of your children" (Ps. 73:15), came to mind. The psalmist wrote honestly of his doubts only after they were resolved. But what if one has not resolved his doubts and no longer believes they can be resolved by any "answers"? Is he bound to hold his peace? I don't know.

Schaeffer's language is earthy. He uses both the "s" and "f" words freely. If Paul had this kind of thing in mind when he directed "let no corrupt communication come out of your mouth," then Schaeffer is guilty. It does seem that he could write a soul-baring book with the same punch with less frequent use of such language. That he uses it at all will offend many.

He is a man who is still angry with his parents for who they were, what they did, and how they reared him. But this book is not a hate-filled temper tantrum. He has come to terms with his experience of his father better than of his mother, but he has sincere affection for both. The descriptions of times of tenderness and intimacy with his father are moving. His appreciation of his mother's frustrations in marriage and life shows genuine empathy, while his sensitivity toward her in the times he spends with her in her frailty is admirable.

One reviewer has said that Schaeffer is obsessed with sex, but I don't think obsession is the right word. He has the fascination and conflicted feelings about sex that is not uncommon among those who grew up in fundamentalism. In addition, he has an excuse for his "level of interest," if he is telling the truth about his parents. His mother was unusually open with her children about her intimate marital relations (distinguishing her from the vast majority of fundamentalists) and his father's sexual needs were (shall we say) intense.

Schaeffer may be wrong in terms of the accuracy and balance of his memories and perceptions of his parents, but he does not seem motivated by a desire to smear and discredit them. His father had a temper, experienced periods of doubt and depression, was both indulgent and negligent toward his son, and allowed himself to be pushed by his son and others toward a political and public role that negated much of the good he had done earlier. His mother was vain, at times dismissive of his father, self-righteous, and for the most part (unlike her husband) blissfully unaware of her faults.

But Frank does not spare himself. He may confess his sexual sins with a little too much glee and be a bit too proud of his doubts, but for the most part he is honest-honest about his rebellion, his arrogance, his hypocrisy, his failures as a husband and a father, his intensity, and his impulsiveness.

He is also honest about his doubts and his rejections of the Christian faith. It is somewhat surprising that he is so honest about them inasmuch as he does not write to debunk faith. Most markedly he has his doubts about God, not an uncommon doubt to have but an uncommon one to admit. He has dismissed the inerrancy of the Bible as a view that can be sustained only by denying or explaining away the things that argue against it. He can no longer accept, and was never really comfortable with, the glib and formulaic expressions of Christian belief and practice so common among the old fundamentalists, the parachurch organizations, and the "faces" of current evangelicalism.

Yet he is not entirely without faith. He knows that his persistent search for meaning comes from somewhere. He does not expect to get closure in his search, but he takes even that as evidence of a universal quest for the infinite. He hopes that "maybe there is a God who forgives, who loves, who knows." Is this saving faith? Not exactly? He has not rejected Christian ethics, but, if anything, has become more consistent in their practice as he aged. Perhaps the fact that Frank cannot let go of his faith says he is in the grip of a God who will not let go of him.

He probably did not intend it to be so, but the book throughout points to the fundamental weakness of twentieth-century evangelicalism—its ecclesiology.

His father had little regard for the church as an historic and concrete institution. Both Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri were, like so many evangelical stars and all parachurch ministries, beyond the accountability to and the oversight of the church in her governing role. Revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, liberalism, and spiritual pugilism had all done their parts in emasculating the church and putting the individual, his conscience, and his ministry outside the authority of the church. As Frank observes about his father, "Dad was our 'holy tradition.' He was bigger than any church." And so it is with them all.

The weakness in ecclesiology is revealed also in the church's worship. Frank got to the point that he could not put up with the tackiness of so much of evangelicalism. Take its music for an example: "How I wished that God had never made any men or women with a 'ministry in music.' I wish he would strike them all down so I'd never have to spend another minute listening to another fat lady (even the men were 'fat ladies' to me) sing another Jesus-is-my-boyfriend song synthesized to violins." Preach on, brother!

His father's funeral, which was held in a gym and not conducted by a minister, shows evangelical worship at its worst. "Dad's funeral embodied all the chaos, make-it-up-as-you-go insanity of evangelicalism. It was to funerals what 'personalized' weddings are to marriage, one where the young couple compose their own vows while some friend 'really like into guitar' provided the music."

One of the most insightful paragraphs in the book comes from Frank's experience of that funeral. "There is good reason we humans take refuge in the collective wisdom accumulated over time as expressed in the liturgies and cultural habits of long practice. And the arrogance of the Protestant notion that one's individual whims are equal to all occasions manifests itself in innumerable bad hair moments and in dreadful worship services, let alone innumerable do-it-yourself weddings. But funerals are supposed to be serious. Creativity isn't always good."

Frank Schaeffer regrets his role in the rise and development of the religious right, which is an example of the church getting confused about why it exists. This is a significant admission. I can remember thinking to myself in the 70s that his father had gone off the tracks with his Christian Manifesto and that Frank's A Time for Anger was over the top. The church then was guilty of hitching its wagon to the various horses of politics, and the faithful still do not always understand that the kingdom does not come about in this way.

He has rethought his position on abortion. He remains essentially conservative though no longer absolutist. He scorns and skewers the liberal position far more than the conservative, but he now thinks that it was a mistake in the wake of Roe v. Wade for evangelicalism to move to the "no abortion for any reason" position. I can remember being in a seminary class pre-Roe where there was a discussion of abortion. One student spoke of his wife's having had an abortion upon a doctor's recommendation, and there was no horror expressed. It still seems to me that it is impossible to draw a line, so it is safe and wise to mark the beginning of life and of its protection at conception, but we have got ourselves in a situation where rational discussion of national policy is impossible for either side.

For some reason Schaffer has turned sour and mean about Calvinism, identifying it with fundamentalism in its simplemindedness, rigidity, smug piety, and legalistic rules. On this he is wrong. But, perhaps, the problem is that he learned his Calvinism from his father, and his father never understood it either. Francis "didn't like" Calvin. Added to Frank's attribution of most of the things he doesn't like about his parents to Calvinistic sources, and I guess you can understand.

Surely the book needs to be answered, as Os Guinness has sought to do. But what we need first to do (and Guinness I think has tried) is to hear Schaeffer. We may not like it. It may make us uncomfortable. Heaven, forefend! It may make us think. But hear and think we must because he's telling us a lot of truth about ourselves.


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William H. Smith is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (Louisville, Missouri).

Issue: "Discipleship: Wisdom for Pilgrims' Progress" Sept./Oct. Vol. 18 No. 5 2009 Pages 43-44

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1 comment:

Miss Jen said...

Wow.... thank you for sharing this!
I am greatly saddened that such a
well known minister would use
such foul language. :(
Enjoyed your thoughts....
:>)

Love~ Miss Jen