Frank Schaeffer gone off the deep end?

Sadly there are many people that have actually thought that Francis Schaeffer’s son Franky is really the same person as his father but nothing can be farther from the truth. 

I had several opportunities to hear Frank speak in Little Rock in the 1990’s but I always passed them up since it was so painful to read the hateful things he had said about his parents. The one thing that I don’t understand about Frank is what theologically made him move away from the evangelical view. It seems to me that maybe he left because of some of the conceited leaders of the religious right that he met.

I am sure you have heard of the book “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer. Dr. Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and in his review of “Crazy for God” said the following:

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Author of “Crazy” Escapes From Reason
Franky Plays Schaeffer Card, Again 

By Douglas Groothuis

Those of us deeply touched by the life and writings of Francis and Edith Schaeffer may be interested in Crazy for God, a memoir by their son and youngest child, Frank (formerly Franky), who is now in his mid-fifties. Given my interest in all things Schaeffer, I found the book in turn fascinating and infuriating. I first learned of it by reading a cynical and sneering review in The Nation, a secular leftwing publication. The reviewer took the book to be a repudiation of evangelical faith, the Christian Right, and an expose of the hypocrisy of many Christian leaders, most notably, Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

That review outraged me, but also piqued my curiosity. What had become of Franky Schaeffer, the producer of two significant film series featuring the ideas of his father — How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? — and a man whose own books I had read in the early 1980s? Could Frank offer some insights into the life of his family and about the evangelical world he left behind?

The answer is: yes and no, but mostly no. There is no need to recount the details of this overly long, self-indulgent, typically glib, and often distasteful book (filled with pointless profanity). Frank does not sugar-coat his own many failings, but neither is he discreet about anyone else’s. The mud flies fast in all directions. He does, however, give some room to the written comments of some family members and friends.

Lost in the Shuffle,
Obsessed With Sex
The short story of his life is that young Schaeffer was always a misfit. As the youngest child with three older sisters, who was raised at L’Abri (a kind of educational commune in Switzerland that afforded anything but a normal upbringing), Frank never fit it. His bout with polio at age two left him with a bad leg. He didn’t share the extroverted piety of his mother — and often resented it. He was not particularly close to his father, but does recount some meaningful experiences with him, such as a trip to Florence, Italy, where they both drank in its aesthetic wonders. Frank does, however, write of his dad’s admirable qualities, such as facing his own death with courage.

Frank claims to have been lost in the shuffle at L’Abri and barely received an education. He was eventually sent to boarding schools. Since he had dyslexia, he failed to achieve what was expected. He returned to L’Abri, lost his virginity, took up painting, and, at seventeen, impregnated a young woman whom he eventually married and to whom he remains married.

While Frank says nothing of extramarital affairs and seems quite devoted to his wife, the book’s descriptions of his earlier libidinal exploits, whether in solitaire or through liaisons, are anything but restrained (the book is rather obsessed with sexual themes). Although he initially found some success in showing his paintings, Frank put that aside to produce films promoting his father’s ideas about history, culture, ethics, and theology. Along the way, he became well known and in demand as a speaker and writer himself, commanding large audiences and large royalties for a time.

But something went radically wrong as Frank became popular and was exposed to many leaders in the evangelical world. In the wake of Francis Schaeffer’s final illness (he died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 72), Frank was expected to continue the legacy. He could not do this, though, because he had become disenchanted with the world of Christian celebrities and their followers. He was performing a role he could not own.

A few years after his father’s death, he went back to filmmaking, producing several movies that he deems less than stellar if not abysmal. His failures in film and his departure from the high-paying evangelical circuit left him in dire straights — even reducing him to shoplifting for food, shoving frozen pork chops into his pants. (He later reimbursed the store.)

Redemption, Writing,
Cruelty to Mom and Dad
Schaeffer’s redemption was found in his writing — not screenplays, but novels and nonfiction. His first novel, Portofino (1994) was a loosely autobiographical tale about a religious family’s holiday to a small and sumptuous Italian village. Its hero was young Calvin Becker (aka Frank), who luxuriated in the Mediterranean romanticism so far removed from the religious vocation of his family.

Portofino was well-received in the secular world, while generally panned or ignored by Christians. When I read a review of it, my first thought was, “How can Frank be so cruel to his parents? How could someone profit by spreading gossip like this?” Well, his formula worked, and he used it for two other novels. After these successes, Frank wrote several books about his son’s military experience and the experience of being in a military family.

In the early 1990s, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, although he seems to be something of an agnostic who simply appreciates the liturgy and traditions of the church. At one point, he even questions the existence of God (388). Apparently, for Frank, God need not exist in order to be richly celebrated through Orthodox forms. For him, religion is not a matter of knowledge: “We never have any real information about anything important. . . . The most ridiculous thing in the world is a Ph.D. in theology, an oxymoron if one ever existed” (102).

This grandiose claim is asserted rather than argued. If this claim is true, the idea that “We never have any real information about anything important” would itself fail to be “real information” (apparently he means knowledge), since the claim itself would be something quite important to know. While many holding doctorates in theology obfuscate more than they enlighten, the notion of developing systematically the doctrines of Scripture or of philosophically justifying theological claims is by no means oxymoronic. Or if it were somehow oxymoronic, Frank gives no reason to think so, outside of the idea that God and other biblical realities are invisible. Of course, thoughts and subatomic particles are invisible as well, but that doesn’t render psychology or physics “oxymoronic.”

Rather than assessing all of Frank’s main claims in detail, I will offer a few responses to some of the more salient issues he raises. Having read four of Frank’s books and having heard him lecture a few times, I never sensed in him the deep compassion or reflection that came from his father. Frank was angry: One of his books is called A Time for Anger.

I recently listened to some old tapes of his answers to questions during the tour of How Should We Then Live? (before I knew of Crazy for God) and sensed that he was bluffing to some extent, all the while taking himself very seriously. (He admits as much in the book.) But the book never makes very clear just why Frank rejected the evangelical faith of his parents. He certainly dishes out much dirt about his family’s foibles and sins, while also praising them in some respects, such as their genuine compassion for the many — and often difficult — visitors to L’Abri over the years. “Dad’s sensitivity was disarming,” he writes. “Bishop Pike, the famous self-proclaimed liberal minister and writer, told me that my father was one of the most compassionate men he ever debated. And after Timothy Leary had several long discussions with Dad, he said, ‘If I thought your father is typical of other Christians, I’d reconsider my position’ ” (78-79).

Bizarre Underbelly,
Evangelical Celebrity

Frank also reveals some of the bizarre underbelly of high-profile Christian personalities and his (and his father’s) disgust over this. (But despite the book’s promotion material, there is really very little given on this topic.) However, what is lacking is any cogent explanation for why he left the faith of his parents — beyond a few remarks about his various doubts along the way. He does rightly point out that evangelicals are too celebrity-oriented and lack a rich liturgical tradition. But that in itself is no reason to deny historic Christian claims, since one could abandon evangelical-dumb and become a high church Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican. Sustained glibness does not make for a compelling account of losing one’s faith.

Frank goes into great detail concerning the sometimes tempestuous marriage of his parents and the flaws of both parents individually. Francis was moody to the point of sometimes thinking and talking of suicide. He was “abusive” toward Edith on some occasions and once threw a vase at her. Frank does claim that during the last six years of his father’s life, when the elder Schaeffer was dealing with cancer, his father ceased to be abusive, never complained about this illness, and faced it with grace. Edith was so super-spiritual as to become impossible (even to Francis). She was domineering and resented not living in a higher-class setting. And so on.

I question the prudence of these revelations. What purpose do they serve besides selling copies of the book? Frank may not be interested in such questions, having tried to justify himself by his “honesty.” But, as Proverbs says, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues” (10:19). Being honest need not mean saying everything you know to be true, especially if it ends up being little more than gossip, which Paul identifies as a serious sin (2 Corinthians 12:20; see also Proverbs 11:13; 16:28). Frank does not honor his parents (Exodus 20:12) through these exposures. However, he is serving an audience he has built up through his three autobiographical novels, who have been wondering, “How much in these stories is true?”

Two Lessons
Nonetheless, and in spite of my skepticism that Frank is even reporting the truth, there are some lessons to be learned. First, while Francis and Edith Schaeffer never presented themselves as saints or L’Abri as perfect, some of us had a tendency to romanticize it all a bit. Frank shows some of the pain and struggles that went on behind the scenes. I am struck by how hard Francis and Edith worked and the toll it took on them, particularly Francis. Apparently, the man was an introvert who suffered greatly by not having enough time to himself, and so became depressed and angry much of the time. It seems that the Schaeffers overworked themselves, not adequately resting one day a week (something encouraged by the Reformed faith, given its high view of the fourth commandment). That should be a lesson to all of us.

Second, while I find historic Christianity to be true, rational, and pertinent to all of life (a conviction significantly shaped by reading and rereading the elder Schaeffer’s corpus), I agree with many of Frank’s complaints about evangelicalism. In fact, some of them were given in Francis Schaeffer’s last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984). Frank’s points have been made by others and made more cogently, but they are, nevertheless, true. Frank puts much of his complaint into one scorching paragraph:

I think my problem with remaining an evangelical centered on what the evangelical community became. It was the merging of the entertainment business with faith, the flippant lightweight kitsch ugliness of American Christianity, the sheer stupidity, the paranoia of the American right-wing enterprise, the platitudes    married to pop culture, all of it . . . that made me crazy. It was just too stupid for words (389).

On a bad day, I can sound much the same (as my wife and my students will attest). Yet one of the more salient mottos of the Reformation must be invoked: “a reformed church always reforming.” Evangelicalism — if that word retains any meaning — should reform, repent, and seek renewal. We should become more critical of popular culture, more reflective, more biblical, and more worshipful. There is no need to abandon historic, biblical Protestantism as a worldview in order to accomplish these things. This is a rich, deep, and rational tradition, rooted in divine revelation itself. As Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

Oz Guinness? 
While Frank can turn a good sentence and is generally a clear, sometimes humorous, and interesting writer, he is often intellectually petulant. For example, he refers to Os Guinness (whose first name is inexplicably spelled Oz, as in the Wizard of) as a “Schaeffer clone.” While Guinness began his ministry at L’Abri at the feet of Schaeffer, and the imprint of Schaeffer can be found in Guinness’s work, he is very much his own man and has transcended Schaeffer as a writer, scholar, and speaker. I have heard lectures by Guinness while he was a L’Abri worker, and they do not reveal anything of a “Schaeffer clone.” While Francis Schaeffer’s doctorate was honorary, Guinness earned his in social science from Oxford.

Frank’s glibness is further found in odd comments that amount to little more than non sequiturs. He inexplicably claims that belief in biblical inerrancy stifles Bible study. The opposite is true. If one is committed to Scripture as objectively true, one is inclined to pursue the proper interpretation and to reconcile apparent problems within a text, between texts, or between the claim of a text and what is known through science or history.

Although Frank claims that he influenced his reluctant father to embrace the pro-life cause, he now has second thoughts on the matter, believing that young fetuses are not sufficiently developed to have a legal right to life equal to adults or to more developed fetuses. This means he believes that some circumstance — apart from protecting the life of the mother — warrant abortions, although he does not support abortion on demand. Just as Frank was impetuous in his previous pro-life views (jolted into the position through his awed response to the birth of his first child), so his less consistent view is asserted without any genuine argument. Fetuses are every bit as human as anyone, and ranking human value by stage of development is both unbiblical and socially dangerous.

‘Maybe There Is a God …’
At the very end of the book, Frank recounts a touching moment of when his eldest daughter presented her own daughter to Frank. He writes, “Perhaps Mom and Dad were right. In an infinite universe, everything must have happened at least once, someplace, sometime. So maybe there is a God who forgives, who loves, who knows. I hope so.” This statement is so bizarre that it is hard to know where to begin.

Edith and Francis Schaeffer never taught that the universe is infinite, nor is this taught in the Bible or in any historic Christian creed or confession. Only God is infinite — that is, eternal and unlimited in goodness and power. Francis often referred to God in philosophical language as “infinite-personal” or “personal-infinite.” He would use both phrases equally, since both the personality and infinitude of God should be equally stressed.  

Furthermore, the idea of an infinite universe does not in itself give any genuine, objective meaning to life. Without God, all facts are brute facts, which are, in the words of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, “just there” without any forethought or destiny. Chance and necessity — no matter how much time given, no matter how much space allowed — cannot smelt meaning from a meaningless universe.

Or is Frank saying that an infinite universe somehow allows for a God? But that would be to confuse the Creator with the creation — the error of pantheism, or what Francis called pan-everything-ism in He Is There, and He Is Not Silent (1972). I could go on, but perhaps Frank is merely waxing poetic — or trying to do so. Even so, good poetry can be bad philosophy; and bad philosophy is good for nothing (Colossians 2:8).

This memoir is about the life of Frank Schaeffer, but the photograph on the cover shows a young Francis Schaeffer and his infant daughter, Priscilla. Frank is nowhere in view. It is hard to know what this means, but it seems likely that Frank is both playing on the fame of his father (and mother) and separating himself from them. One can only hope that in so doing, he has not separated himself from God himself, as well.

Related articles
What Can We Learn From Francis Schaeffer?, by Ranald Macaulay
Francis Schaeffer: A Student’s Appreciation of a Distinct Approach, by Rick Pearcey
Frank Schaeffer, Mother, and Monkey Blood, by Rick Pearcey
Groothuis Reviews “Crazy for God” at “The Pearcey Report,” by Rick Pearcey, at Pro-Existence, blog of The Pearcey Report

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is author of Truth Decay and several other titles. Copyright Douglas Groothuis, 2007.

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