I hope you won’t mind me posting this open letter to you, but as it’s about your new book, 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, and the very public statements you make in it, I figured you wouldn’t mind. You and I have actually had some very brief correspondence before. I emailed you shortly after readingDancing Alone and you responded with a few thoughts about the state of American Protestantism. But, you probably receive and answer countless emails every day, so you won’t remember that.
I’ve also met some of your family. My wife and I took your brother-in-law Ranald Macaulay’s Christian Heritage Tour around Cambridge. Also, to show you just how small the world is, your brother-in-law Udo Middleman comes occasionally to the home of some personal friends of his down here in Albany, Georgia, for dinner and conversation. I was invited two years in a row but could not make either occasion. I really regret it! My predecessor here at First Baptist Dawson also spent time at L’Abri and I was thrilled to find some old tapes of your dad lecturing down in our church library. I’ll tell you one more point of interest: a buddy of mine in college had an actual typed letter from your dad. I’ll never forget holding it and reading it in his little apartment in Columbia, SC. It was like holding the Turin Shroud at the time…but that was before I read your book.
Frank, I’ve got to admit that Crazy for God has absolutely shaken me. I could not put it down most of yesterday and a good bit of last night. I was prepared to hate it, and to be angry at you. I was prepared to see it as a blatant violation of the 5th commandment (which, alas, it is). I was not prepared, however, for just how devastating the book turned out to be.
I’m depressed today…because of you.
I guess I kind of knew what to expect. I read Portofino aloud to my wife some years back. We both guffawed…and my wife blushed at times…and then we felt sorry for your parents. I guess we felt sorry for you, but an acerbic wit and the dishonoring of one’s parents doesn’t easily engender sympathy, no?
I guess I’m part of that crew who still stands in awe of your father, though I hope not naively so. My dad gave me a copy of The God Who is There just before I went to college. I absolutely devoured that book. It rocked my world, Frank. My wife still jokingly responds to that time when I “was reading a lot of Schaeffer.” I was in about a two-year funk trying to bring your dad’s concepts into my little world.
The thing is, like many who grew up in fundamentalism but yearned to breathe outside the ghetto, your dad’s works were like light in the darkness. Heck, man, I was reading Jack Chick tracts in 8th grade and then Kierkegaard in college…because of Francis Schaeffer! Right now there’s a half-read biography of Albert Camus on the table by the sofa in my den. I would likely never have heard of Camus if not for your dad. But, you know the role your dad played and still plays. I don’t need to tell you.
I was never naive or fell into hero worship. You write about your dad’s temper, his depression, his anger. I guess it never occured to me that he would not struggle with these things. He was never, as Christianity Today creepily called him, “Our Saint Francis” to me. In fact, I pretty early on came to have real doubts about some of your dad’s assertions. I think, for instance, that he may have completely misread Kierkegaard. Also, when I re-read A Christian Manifesto a few years ago after having read it and written about it in seminary, I was shocked and I felt ill. I kept thinking, “No, no, no!” while reading it and wondered how I could have like it before.
But, I return time and again to many aspects of your dad’s work. I read a selection from The Mark of the Christian to our deacons the other night. Your father’s take on Christian engagement in culture is still dead on…and still being completely ignored by fundamentalists. So, I guess I’m saying that I always appreciated your dad for his strengths (as I saw them) and have tried to be honest about his mistakes (as I saw them). I guess that’s all we can ask of anybody when they think of us, no?
Your book, though, has troubled me…and, for some reason, I feel sad. You strike me as an angry person, Frank. You admit as much, I think. I first saw your anger when I read Dancing Alone. In Crazy for God you admit that in your initial days as a Greek Orthodox believer you acted towards others with that irritating and grating hubris that only a convert can deliver. I saw that in your book, as powerful as other sections were to me. I remember you constantly talking about the “devil god” of Calvinism and of Augustine. I kept thinking, “Sheesh, man! C’mon!” (Frank, I do have one theory about your anger. I pray you won’t take this as an ad hominem, but do you think that this might be the answer? Sorry…couldn’t resist!)
In this book you seem to have a little more introspection. I will admit up front to being caught hook-line-and-sinker in some of the more salacious details you provide, even when I was occasionally repulsed by them:
Harold Ockenga’s son taught you to smoke pot?
Your dad demanded sex from your mom every night…and your mom told you that fact?
Carl Henry was jealous of your dad?
You and Os Guinness scoped out girls together? (WHY did you keep spelling it “Oz” by the way?)
Billy Graham arranged a marriage between his seventeen-year-old daughter and the twenty-year-older son of a wealthy donor?
James Dobson is the most power-hungry man you’ve ever met?
The then-president of Gospel Films gave you profanity-laced advice on how to manipulate money from big-donors for the financing of the How Should We Then Live? films?
Your mom had to hide bruises on her arms from your dad?
Your dad walked in on you and your girlfriend having sex?
Your mom could be condescending towards your dad (“poor Fran”)?
Pat Robertson is insane?
Your dad threw a potted plant at your mom?
Gosh! It’s all so fascinating…and so wrong. And yet, I bought it, read it, have already recommended it, and now I’m putting it here on my blog. So what does that say about me?
Regardless, Frank, I kept thinking about Genesis 9 while reading your book. Remember?
20Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.24When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
There’s just something about uncovering your dad’s nakedness. I guess even Ham didn’t sell tickets for everybody to come in and take a look.
On the other hand, maybe this is confessional literature. You’re obviously not trying to make yourself look like a saint. Did you really steal porkchops and stuff them down your pants when times got tough? Did you really become infatuated with some young actress working on one of those ill-advised B-movies (even though you never did have an affair…because, as you say, “she had a boyfriend”)?
No, you can’t be accused of glossing over yourself. You emerge from this book as a little more understandable…but not much more likeable. But maybe none of us would seem very likeable if we bared warts and all to the universe.
Your book, though, does have its redeeming qualities. You are right on about the weirdness and creepiness of the fundamentalist sub-culture and the damage it can do to kids. You’ve shed some helpful light on the particular challenges of being the child of an evangelical superstar. You’ve provided a pretty devastating expose about the money and power that drives some of today’s evangelical stars. I, for one, was glad to see you do that.
You’ve certainly dealt a blow to the undeniable hagiography of recent evangelical history. Yeah, there can be no doubting that we romanticize our heros and worship a false image of those we adore. I think you’re right to warn us against this sort of naivite. You’ve humanized your dad and your mom, which is a good thing to an extent.
It’s not so much a question of sin as it is of propriety. I live down here in Georgia, Frank. As a rule, we don’t go talking about our parents’ sex lives.
Yet, you obviously love your folks. Your description of your walks with your dad and of who he really was when nobody else was around was very moving to me. I know that critiquing our parents does not necessarily mean dishonoring them. We’re all trying to deconstruct who we are. All of us. And so I understand the idea. But, really, your mom’s in her 90’s. Could you not have waited a bit on this?
I guess more than anything, Frank, I’m haunted by what you say about your own faith. You still attend the Greek Orthodox church, but you sound like an agnostic. Why did you put that little parenthesis in there. You remember? It said, “(If there is a God.)” It was heartbreaking, really. I mean, you keep telling us in this book that we’ve misunderstood your dad. I’m sure we have. But can I ask what your father would have thought of that parenthesis? By your own admission and even in your own painstaking description of his many phases, he would have thought that such a statement was tragic, no?
But even more than that, I’m trying to understand this: you say that you do not know what your children believe and that it’s none of your business. Then you speak of the inextricable bond between parents and children and note that when your son entered the Marines you practically went with him and, in fact, devoted seven years to writing about the military.
So help me understand how this works. That inviolable bond between parent and child caused you to dive into the military…but your bitterness at how your life turned out keeps you from diving into their souls? It’s your business that your son went to Parris Island…but it’s not your business to know whether or not he’s gone to Calvary?
Or am i just being one of those individualistic, arrogant, revivalistic, conversionist, dumb Evangelicals by asking such a question?
Maybe I am. Maybe the baby is more important to me than the bathwater. Like you, I’m always thinking about the bathwater. How did it get here? How has it tainted me? Did I ask for this? But I’ll tell you something Frank: I still love the baby and I won’t throw them both out just because the water needs to be cleaned from time to time.
And at the end of the day, Frank, there’s got to be a God there for us to be “crazy for.” Maybe all the craziness is an indirect proof of His wonder? I think Chesterton said something like that once.
Pax Vobiscum Frank.
Wyman L. Richardson