Frank Schaeffer Goes Crazy for God

Frank Schaeffer Goes Crazy for God

The original poster child for the religious right describes how he came to terms with religion and an odd upbringing.


In the spring of 1973, I was hitchhiking through Europe with my Marxist husband, and we stopped in Switzerland to visit a friend who was staying at a place called L’Abri. I had never heard of L’Abri (except through my friend), but the setting of the community’s chalets–an Alpine hamlet overlooking the Rhone Valley–was beautiful, as was the weather, and as soon as I arrived I noticed an invigorating rejection of all forms of asceticism. Everyone–teachers, students, helpers–was good-looking and well dressed, and the food was delicious. They put us up for two nights and engaged us in conversation for three days. I felt only mildly uncomfortable at first, but then I happened upon an earnest conversation between some quite normal-looking young men about “Satan,” in which “Satan” was a being or a person actively attempting to undermine the best efforts of these guys to live a “godly” life. I admit I was shaken. I think I said something on the order of “You’ve got to be kidding,” and when they professed their sincerity, I began to wonder what sort of place I had stumbled into.

On the second night, we attended a lecture given by a man named Os Guinness. He was tall, with a British way about him, respectable looking. He talked for an hour in a reasonable way, much like a college professor. The message of his lecture was simple–he convinced me that I was going to die and that it could happen at any moment. In the last five minutes of the lecture, when he was sure he had us staring aghast into the abyss, he offered conversion to a Calvinist sort of Christianity, based not on works but on grace. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief–just being at L’Abri showed to one and all that they were saved. Not me, though–I was caught up in the mythological speculations of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. And not my husband, either–that religion was the opiate of the masses was second nature for him. We left the next day, unconverted. But it took me a long time to forget that I could die at any moment.

Though I saw Francis Schaeffer and Edith Schaeffer from across the room, and spoke at length to both Debby and Udo Middelmann (a Schaeffer daughter and son-in-law), one person I did not meet was Frank Schaeffer. If I had, I might have recognized a kindred spirit.

Frank Schaeffer was about 20 or 21 at that point, married, living at the commune and painting pictures. He was in a lull between an antic and obstreperous boyhood and an anarchic, irreverent and confused adulthood. He has now written his memoir, 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. It offers considerable insight into several issues that have bedeviled American life in the past thirty years, and while it isn’t scholarly, when taken in conjunction with his other works (notably the Calvin Becker Trilogy), it gives us not only a handle on the mess we are in but also quite a few laughs (if you can believe that).

Portofino, Saving Grandma and Zermatt were published between 1992 and 2003, and readers familiar with the trilogy know the outlines of Frank’s story, and of his life. The youngest child and only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Frank grew up at L’Abri, reaching adolescence just as Francis Schaeffer was beginning to make a name for himself as a strict Calvinist theologian with pretensions to art and culture. The Schaeffers had lived as missionaries in Switzerland since the late 1940s, and in 1955 they established L’Abri, which was, at first, very strict and not very successful. Money was short; the Schaeffers’ marriage was stormy. The family’s two vacations per year (to Italy and a ski resort) were the only relief from everlasting praying, theologizing and fundraising. Frank required medical care because he had contracted polio at age 2, and he was also severely dyslexic. When he was in his early teens, it was discovered that after years of casual homeschooling, he could do little more than read. In the late ’60s, Francis Schaeffer began having some success with slender analytic volumes published by InterVarsity Press, such as Escape From Reason (1968), and L’Abri became a resort for more intellectually self-conscious believers as well as for certain religious leaders, Billy Graham among them. Given its setting and the sense of luxury that even I noticed (tablecloths and fine china at every dinner), L’Abri was the perfect place to develop a high-class cult, and the Schaeffers were certainly not remiss in doing so. In fact, according to Frank, being a Schaeffer and growing up at L’Abri were torments of the highest order.

From the beginning, Francis and Edith were a mismatched pair. Edith was from evangelical aristocracy–her parents were missionaries to China, who raised her in luxury during her earliest years. The education and refinement of her father was her ideal, and one that Francis, a child of working-class Philadelphia, would never meet. In both the Calvin Becker Trilogy and Crazy for God, Edith is portrayed, plausibly, as a monster, to her husband and to her children. If a person can be instrinsically abusive without lifting a finger (Francis administered the beatings, at least in the novels), then Edith was: Not the least of her sins was that she relentlessly policed Frank’s masturbatory practices while keeping him informed of all the anatomical changes his older sisters were undergoing as they grew up. She never forgot to remind him that the reason she couldn’t stay home while Francis traveled about, lecturing, was “Dad’s need for nightly sexual intercourse.” In addition, Edith spoke so habitually in pure evangelical boilerplate (“the Things of The Lord,” “the battle-in-the-heavenlies”) that all family discourse became propaganda directed at the children and at outsiders (one of Edith’s favorite pastimes was praying loudly and at length in front of strangers and, of course, witnessing whenever she got the chance).

Francis hid in his room, turning his favorite classical music records up to the highest volume, writing and, it appears, having doubts. At the height of L’Abri’s cachet, full of anger and passions, he could go in the space of a minute or two from throwing a lamp at Edith or thrashing a child upstairs to giving a sermon on the mercy of Jesus downstairs. Frank asserts without qualification that his parents “were happiest when farthest away from their missionary work.” The very Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures that Francis denigrated (in comparison to Northern European Reformation works) in Escape From Reason were the ones, according to Frank, that he loved the most and could not stop visiting. In short, L’Abri and the Schaeffer family, according to Frank’s testimony, seem to have constituted a true microcosm of established religion in action, with Edith always shilling for money and serving as a kind of public relations arm while Francis worked out the doctrine, whether he actually believed in it or not. Sure enough, when the three daughters married and the sons-in-law were enlisted as second-generation L’Abri promoters, heresy was discovered and punished–one of the sons-in-law, the kindest one with the most practical knowledge of how to run the place, appeared to be teaching not pure “inerrancy” of the Scriptures but something more metaphorical. He was stripped of his teaching privileges (he stayed around to keep things running, though). As the Schaeffers got more famous (and portrayed themselves more and more as an exemplary Christian family), Frank notes, their annual family reunions were beset by strife, with constant fights between the sons-in-law about fine points of doctrine.

And remember, all of this doctrine was about who is elect and who is not, because Francis Schaeffer adhered to strict Calvinist views and seems to have found himself in the classic Calvinist box–if people are all fallen sinners and God is truly omnipotent, then people can only be saved by the grace of God, who, in his omniscience, has to know before a person is even born whether he is saved or not. A person might be among the elect but is otherwise powerless to save himself. Everything about the Schaeffers, from their self-perception to their livelihood, depended upon their feeling themselves to be, and looking as though they were, among the elect. This Calvinist box is easy to understand, because in all of his writings about L’Abri, Frank portrays himself from his earliest years as an eager theologian, never hesitating to put his parents and sisters on the spot concerning inconsistencies of doctrine, not only because he sees the inconsistencies but also because he is a snot-nosed, ornery kid.

By the late ’60s, according to Frank, L’Abri had loosened up. Edith enjoyed her newfound social status, and Francis sympathized with the American youth movement and countercultural search for meaning. Timothy Leary stopped by, and so did one of Joan Baez’s best friends. Mick and Keith planned to come but never made it. Francis was in favor of the environmental movement, and L’Abri welcomed gays and unwed mothers without prejudice. While often cruel to one another, the Schaeffers seem to have been kind to outsiders. At the point when I visited my friend, L’Abri was more or less harmless–the L’Abri of that time was keen on cultural critique and addressing the issues raised by French existentialism. Frank and Francis together made a film titled How Should We Then Live?, which came out in 1976 and was originally meant to reinterpret Western culture from the Renaissance as a human-based philosophical failure that had given rise to twentieth-century feelings of meaninglessness and anomie.

But Frank, who was no slacker in the sex department (masturbation and lust are the major themes of the Calvin Becker Trilogy), had gotten his teenage girlfriend pregnant while she was visiting L’Abri and had to get married. The birth of their daughter was so dramatic to Frank that he was instantly compelled to try to outlaw abortion for everyone. Francis was reluctant because he saw abortion as a Catholic issue, but Frank persuaded him, and the two of them changed the final two sections of How Should We Then Live? to be about abortion. The film (and accompanying book) set up Francis and Edith as evangelical saints. Fundraising boomed. The Schaeffers were longtime friends of C. Everett Koop, the chief surgeon at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of The Right to Live: The Right to Die (1976); Koop and Frank pushed Francis to make a second film, more explicitly antiabortion, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which appeared in 1978. (The novelist in me can’t refrain from seeing these titles as reflecting Francis’s own doubts and uneasiness.) At first the new film was a bust, and the evangelicals stayed away from it–Frank’s biggest fan was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. According to Frank, it touched a popular chord, though, and when men like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell saw the crowds it was drawing, they recognized the possibilities. Frank, who had never lived in the United States and had only the haziest notion of American life, was soon on the road, sponsored by and empowering the new, powerful religious right of the 1980s, giving eloquent speeches on subjects he hardly knew anything about. He was in his early 30s and making a lot of money. He maintains in Crazy for God that Francis considered his new “cobelligerents” loonies but was soon fighting cancer and had neither the energy nor the ability to figure out a way to withdraw from them.

Frank Schaeffer quickly lost all respect for the religious leaders he was meeting, and for himself as the hard-driving, America-hating preacher’s son that had become his public persona. As he points out, it’s no good to be a member of the elect if the rest of the nation is doing just fine, so of course the religious right must root against America, must hope and pray for the End Times slaughter of most of their fellow citizens. The best title for a movie about the past twenty-five years in religious America would be Elmer Gantry Returns, and Frank is here to tell you its cast of holy rollers is worse than you think: “In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement.”

L’Abri, though intense and strange, had not prepared Frank for the open money-grubbing cynicism of Big Religion in America, for the outright contempt many of the big pastors felt toward their followers and the commercialization of everything Jesus. For Francis, possibly most shocking was the hatred felt by the Schaeffers’ new allies toward everything he most loved. At one point, Pat Robertson bragged to Francis and Frank about “burning a reproduction of a nude by Modigliani that he used to have over his fireplace. He said that as soon as he got saved, he’d taken it down…. My father loved Modigliani.” Schaeffer’s chapters on the likes of Falwell and Dobson are eloquent but too short. Some of us would like more.

As any feminist might have informed the Schaeffers, the political is always personal, and vice versa. One lesson of all of Frank Schaeffer’s work is that the inherent contradictions and terrors of Calvinist doctrine have been intolerable to the very family most famous in our day for spreading them. Another is that however the Schaeffers tried to mitigate those cruelties with personal kindness, their allies and associates have gone wholesale for the divisive, the inhumane and the mercenary. Francis Schaeffer’s failure was that he didn’t learn, from the very cultural history that he loved, the simple historical truth that tribalism and damnation are what organized religion does best.

But the real subject of Crazy for God is Frank–it is his memoir, after all. Frank has modified his position on abortion somewhat even as he has acted on his religious doubts and joined the Greek Orthodox Church, attracted, it seems, to the primacy of ritual over doctrine. Francis Schaeffer died in 1984, age 72. Edith is still alive, age 92. One of the last chilling things that Frank writes about his mother is that she is primarily in the care of his sister Debby, who is portrayed in the Calvin Becker Trilogy as the kindest of the sisters (and whom I remember also as being a remarkably generous and gentle person). Debby “struggles with a feeling of rage when she’s with Mom.” I can sympathize.

In 1973, when I was reading The White Goddess and my husband was reading The Making of the English Working Class, we recoiled from the cult of L’Abri, but we also laughed at it. Even while we were visiting, it felt as remote from modern life as Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692. Little did we know.

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