After reading Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God a few years ago (which prompted me to write this open letter to him, to which he responded), I felt like I needed a shower. I felt this way less because of Frank’s relentless skewering of his very flawed parents than because I found the dark pit of Schaeffer’s own undiluted bitterness and rage to be somehow…well…tarnishing. Frank Schaeffer, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a very, very angry man. I told him that in an email after I read the last book. He responded by saying that he was getting tired of the accusation. No doubt he is, but Sex, Mom, & God is not going to help him break free of the charge (nor are his frankly bizarre, weird, fear-mongering news show rants that can be viewed easily on YouTube).
Now, does Schaeffer have a right to be angry? You bet he does. If his own hyperbolic excesses would stop throwing roadblocks up, I personally would feel even more sympathy for him than I already do. Frank did get a raw deal and he grew up in an unbelievably strange situation.
Frank is the only son of the late Francis and the still-living-but-very-elderly Edith Schaeffer. Francis Schaeffer was an Evangelical superstar in the 70’s and 80’s in particular and, to some extent, still is today. As I mention in the open letter linked above, his writings had and still have a profound impact on my own life, though for various reasons (Frank’s work included) I have cooled in my affection for Francis’ writings (and some of his later writings I’ve rejected almost in toto).
Frank indeed grew up in a strange world. Growing up the son of hardline Presbyterian missionaries in a missionary chalet and spiritual-seeker-haven in Switzerland would have to have been a very unique experience (though it must be added that many, many people count their visits and time at L’Abri as seminal moments in their own Christian journeys…and I do wish I had been old enough to visit as well). As Francis and Edith grew more popular, Frank was left alone for long periods of time as his parents went on their speaking tours. He witnessed a double-life in his parents as well that scarred him deeply. Francis had a terrible temper and would hit and throw objects at Edith. Edith, on her part, would defend Francis, oddly tell her young son about his father’s demand for sexual relations every night and would speak patronizingly of Francis’ shortcomings and weaknesses to her children.
Frank himself became part of the family business, the heir-apparent as it were, producing the well-known film series, How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? The latter film and book helped establish the Schaeffer’s at the forefront of the pro-life movement and played a pivotal role in calling Evangelicals into the pro-life and, more generally, into the political fray. (I wrote a thesis paper in seminary on Francis Schaeffer’s role in the pro-life movement and the role of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I was surprised and mildly amused to see my paper cited in a footnote in Colin Duriez’s biography of Francis Schaeffer some years back.) In this way, Frank (then called Franky) Schaeffer can indeed be credited with playing a part in the rise of the so-called Religious Right. His own star rose in the 80’s as he became a kind of angry prophet for conservative Protestants in North America. Frank wrote bestselling books (he is a prolific writer by any account), hit the speaking circuit and saw his own fame and financial situation grow impressively.
By Frank’s account, though, he was a living a lie. He knew that he was profiting from a platform in which he was quickly losing trust. He detested some of the creepier fringes of fundamentalist Protestantism and would soon break all ties to the movement he helped create. He would eventually convert to Greek Orthodoxy (and write his fascinating but shrill defense of this act, Dancing Alone) and, even later, to political liberalism and to the anger-and-disillusionment-driven pseudo-Christian agnosticism which he seems to espouse today.
Along the way, Frank has created a niche market of literary parent lambasting. He has vented his spleen against his parents, his upbringing and fundamentalism in general in the fictional Calvin Becker trilogy Portofino (an hysterical novel, by the way!), Zermatt, and Saving Grandma, and now in a non-fiction trilogy consisting of Crazy for God, Patience with God, and Sex, Mom, & God. I suspect I am not the only Evangelical who has been impacted by Francis Schaeffer’s life and writing who yet feels a strange mixture of fascination, disgust, sympathy, understanding, anger, and eye-rolling at these works.
There is a long venerable tradition of sons writing against their fathers, but Frank’s work seems to go beyond even this. He has what appears to be an almost unfettered pathological needto…tell…everybody…everything. I can only imagine that getting paid to…tell…everybody…everythingdoesn’t hurt his penchant for self-disclosure. And, of course, people like myself are to blame for buying and reading the stuff. That being said – dare I say it? – I really do think I’ve now heard enough.
In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank Schaeffer has given us a full-scale polemic against his past and an often laughable defense of his current positions. My goodness, I don’t know that I have ever read such a staggering collection of ad hominems, non sequitors, category errors, irrationality, truly bad hermeneutics, even worse exegesis, stupefyingly bad theology, guilt-by-association, character assasination and flat-bad thinking in my life.
Yes, yes, Frank does score many points here and there and they are not unimportant. Yes, large swathes of fundamentalist Christians have foisted a kind of weird, guilt-ridden approach to sex on their children marked by a constant harping on the dangers of sexual sin, the creation of the impression that sex itself isinherently sinful, a disproportionate fixation on sexual sin as opposed to more accepted sins, and the lack of a healthy, biblically-informed and balanced understanding of sex. And, yes, as Frank acknowledges, the lack of a healthy and honest approach to sexuality has scarred many young conservative Christians who were unable to be open about that through which they were going or that with which they are dealing. Only a person with his or her head in the sand would deny that there is a strange subterranean reality of sexual dysfunction in many Christians of certain ilks because of the heaping portions of shame they had shoveled upon them in this area of their lives growing up. It is no wonder that young boys who can’t speak openly of their struggles internalize that whole area of their lives and end up, in many cases, going into some weird corners of the modern, sexual, anarchic landscape.
I know few Christians who would deny the problem here, but this is not the problem as Frank sees it. Frank sees the Bible itself as the problem and the sexual ethic of scripture as the problem. Of course, when you see the sexual ethic of scripture as Frank defines it, it is indeed terrible. But he defines it thus only by some amazing hermeneutical gymnastics that frankly left me aghast.
I resoundly reject the notion that the Bible and the God of the Bible (as Schaeffer puts it) has a weird notion of sex. Indeed, the sexual problems of some fundamentalist Christians are not the result of the application of the biblical principles but rather of the perversion of them. The Bible’s sexual ethic of monogamy, marriage between a man and a woman and its strictures against fornication and adultery are healthy, God-given, and good common sense. When I survey the modern tragedy of sexual ethics today, it seems to me that only a hack with an agenda and a penchant for the open fields of sexual anarchy would hate the good, healthy and protecting biblical boundaries that keep us from degenerating into mere animals.
Is there some sexual weirdness in the fundamentalist sub-culture? To be sure. But the greatest things are always open to the greatest perversions, and the perversion of a good thing does not make the good thing less good, it only makes the perversion of it that much more wicked. If Frank Schaeffer wants to see sexual weirdness, sexual wounding and sexual confusion, let him spend another few years in the anything-goes fields of body-anarchy and sheer license that he now calls home (not that he himself practices these things, I hasten to add, but these are the hallmarks of the modernity he has now embraced and is now seeking to resuscitate).
Frank’s handling of the Bible in this book is breathtakingly and almost unbelievably bad. He seems to posses virtually no understanding of the relationships of the Old and New Testaments, of the reality of Jesus as the hermeneutical key to scripture, of the difference between descriptive passages and prescriptive passages (good grief he does not get this at all!) and of the idea of progressive revelation. He repeatedly, ad nauseum, refers to the Bible as a collection of “Bronze Age myths.” He depicts the God of the Bible as a misogynistic, perverse, woman-hating, sex-obsessed, murderous tyrant. In this regard, Schaeffer makes Richard Dawkins (a man whose writings he professes not to respect) sound like Mister Rogers.
I don’t know what it is, but Frank Schaeffer never a met a shrill denunciation he couldn’t amp up, a hyperbole he couldn’t stretch even further, or a non sequitor (a particular flaw of his that he traffics in on almost every page) he couldn’t embrace and trumpet. He is a master craftsman of barely comprehensible blasts of unhinged vitriole and palsied jeremiads.
Again, among the drivel there are moments that almost (but not quite) make the whole painful ordeal of reading him worthwhile. His autobiographical notes are, as you might imagine, very interesting. His account of his meetings with Rousas Rushdoony (a truly strange, fringe-dwelling idealogue) and the Dominionists (Reconstructionists) is fascinating (though his guilt-by-association conclusions for lots of us who wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of those guys are not). His brief comments on Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the founding of First Things, on Robert George and on Crossway Press were interesting as far as they went (though he scored no real points on any of these). His comments on Billy Graham and some of his own conversations with the Graham children painfully illustrate that there is indeed a particular burden placed on the shoulders of the children of Evangelical superstars.
But over all this grist for the mill for Evangelical-dirty-laundry-voyeurs is Frank’s own, strange, idiosyncratic current position on life and God and sex. In many ways, Frank simply sounds like a commercial for the more stridently-liberal wing of the Democratic party (albeit a commercial featuring some wild-eyed, crazy cousin of even that wing – again, YouTube “Frank Schaeffer” and you’ll get what I’m saying). All the standard soundbites are there: abortion on demand (though he thankfully wishes to see some limits on this – notably in late-term abortions), the propping up of the gay agenda, anti-Republicanism, the charge of racism against those who don’t like Obama, the alarmist rhetoric about a coming theocracy, etc. There is a kind of trite and tired wearisomness to these aspects of the book and of Frank’s schtick in general. In this regard, Frank Schaeffer kind of sounds like a radical-leftist-on-speed who is seeking to cram as many left-leaning platitudes into his remaining career as he possible can. It’s almost as if he wants to match the Scylla of his former fundamentalist extremism with the Carybdis of his new-found fundamentalist leftist extremism. As I say, all of this is yawn-inducing and worthy of skipping. Moreso, it illustrates a point that seems glaringly obvious when one considers the totality of Frank’s work: Frank is simply an extreme person who goes all in on his tangent of the moment (fundamentalism – abortion politics – Greek Orthodoxy – daddy bashing – liberal theology and politics) only to ricochet after it all plays out (for, after all, that kind of extremism is inherently very hard to maintain) onto his next soap box. One does wait with baited breath for Frank’s next cause and spate of angst-driven monographs.
His theology, however, is a little more nuanced if nontheless still mired in an epistemological and theological trainwreck. In short, Frank seems to still think there is a God. He still even calls himself a Christian. He seems to like Jesus, even though he doubts that a lot of what was attributed to Jesus was actually said by Jesus…especially, one notes, when the words of Jesus conflict with the programme of modern, leftist, “progressive” (an ironic monikor) politics. He still attends the Greek Orthodox Church.
That being said, he is more of a watered-down theist lapsing here and there into agnosticism and, on his really, really angry days, dipping his toe into atheism. The God Frank Schaeffer believes in is not the ugly God he claims to find in the Bible. No, the God Frank believes in is infused with the best virtues of modernity: He (or She or It, according to Frank) is a God who likes love and puts no boundaries anywhere accept, one assumes, on really bad things like when a pedophile claims to love children, or when a Republican claims to be against gay marriage, or when an Evangelical professes to believe in inerrancy, etc. But other than that, the God-of-Frank wants people to love each other in whatever combinations they feel inclined to muster without fear and without guilt. Sex is a REALLY big deal to Frank and he now knows that God has no hangups with sex. Frank’s God loves everybody and doesn’t dislike much except for religious people and all of their phoney, hooey books that claim to speak for God. Frank’s God is kind, gentle, nice, sweet, politically-liberal, socially progressive, thinks Obama is doing a great job, hates Republicans and wants people to feel an unquestioned mastery over their own bodies and what they choose to do with them. Franks God, in other words, thinks just like Frank.
How Frank knows these things about God presumably ought not be asked by skeptics. For Heaven’s sake (if there is a Heaven, right?), don’t point out to Frank that he is living parasitically off of the Christian worldview he professes to hate so much and that his idiosyncratic renderings of that worldview could only come about because he was immersed in it in the first place. Don’t point out to Frank that the very stuff with which he has crafted his new ideology was taken on the sly from the book and the church and the faith he is now scoffing at and redefining.
Furthermore, don’t ask Frank how it is that he could be so very uncertain of so many things…but simultaneously so very certain that God is the God who just happens to think as Frank now thinks. It is an almost tired truism nowadays that the tolerant are profoundly intolerant of those who don’t buy their version of tolerance and that the agnostics can sound eerily fundamentalistic about what they profess actually to know about the God they profess is unknowable. You might also want to avoid reminding Frank of Voltaire’s idea that God created man in his own image and man has returned the favor, and that the liberal elites of a society or as prone to this malady as religious fundamentalists. What is more, don’t ask Frank if it’s not just possible that his view of progress might actually be a staggering regress or if the age of abortion-on-demand, sexual anarchy without boundaries, political leftist ideology and fashionable agnosticism might not in time come to be judged as even more vapid and silly and degenerate than the “Bronze Age myths” he professes to detest.
There are other things you likely should not ask Frank. You probably shouldn’t ask him about the fact that he has now published six volumes in which he profits off of the weaknesses of his parents. At what point does one feel a bit, well, hypocritical about dragging out ole mom and dad for another good thrashing and another good book advance? Or you probably shouldn’t ask Frank – because he likely would not answer – why it is that throughout the book he quotes surveys and statistics showing the support of the American people for this or that position with which he agrees, but strangely never discusses the fact that gay marriage referendums are resoundly struck down by the majority of Americans in given locales whenever they come up. After all, is it honest and good thinking to cherry-pick the stats that bolster your own assumptions while ignoring those that don’t? And due to the personal nature of it, you likely shouldn’t ask Frank if he really thinks his appeal to his mother’s thumb’s up to him writing this book holds a lot of weight and really gives him a pass from the charge of tackiness and creepiness when he goes on to say that his mother is so elderly that she is frequently confused and forgets the names of her grandchildren?
In truth, it’s probably best not to ask Frank too much of anything. The shock-haired, crazy-eyed Jeremiah on the corner wearing the sandwich sign and spitting into the bull-horn isn’t really one for questions, is he? His whole point is to be heard and to rage against the blindness of the passers-by. The street-corner prophet doesn’t do nuance, doesn’t do careful hermeneutics, doesn’t represent his opponent with care and accuracy. No, he screams…loudly…and then he moves on.
Frank Schaeffer is a tragedy, not the least because of what the fundamentalist Christian ghetto did to a mind that is clearly sharp and perceptive, if painfully misled and marred. Most of all, his tragedy is found in his equation of the whole with the part, of his (once again) tossing of the baby out with the bathwater.
Frank, it’s possible to think Rushdoony was really dangerous but that the gospel is true and has been preserved in the churches for two-millennia. It’s possible to agree that some Christians have indeed botched the whole subject of sex while still affirming that fornication and adultery are sins and that the sexual strictures of scripture were put there to protect us and not to hurt us. It’s possible, Frank, to hate the idea of an imposed theocracy but to see the blatant stripping of the public square (to use the terminology of Neuhaus) as a tragic and unnecessary crime. Regardless of what you say, Frank, yes it is possible to see homosexuality as a sin and to call gay people to repentance but not hate gay people and not wish to see gay people hung on the gallows. Frank, intelligent people can see God’s Word as trustworthy and true, the church as flawed but beautiful and the gospel as essential and life-giving, and many do.
Pray for Frank Schaeffer.