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.