Someone must have arranged this. It’s as if Frank Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God was designed to come out in tandem with Jody Bottum’s essay “The Judgment of Memory” in the March issue of First Things . It’s as if Crazy for God was published merely to illustrate all the pitfalls pointed out in Bottum’s essay. (Have the two been conspiring?) Bottum writes that “the last thing we need from writers is another simple and sincere account of their own lives,” but Crazy for God gives us one more. Bottum tells us that there remains a place in the genre of memoir “for reticence, and secrets swallowed,” but Crazy for God just spits it all up. Bottum writes:

The death of parents leaves their honor in their children’s hands, and the cruel accuracies we might fling in anger against them while they are alive seem even more wrong to use against them once they are gone.

And lo, Frank Schaeffer gives us a dishonoring portrait of his nonagenarian mother, Edith, the “high-powered nut,” nor does he spare his now deceased father Francis. Os Guinness¯who lived with the Schaeffers for three years and was Frank’s best man at his wedding¯sees no point in indulging the book as have so many critics. Writing in Books & Culture , Guinness is frank about Frank’s portrait of dad: “No critic or enemy of Francis Schaeffer has done more damage to his life’s work than his son.”

For a review of Crazy for God , one would best go to Guinness, who ends on a gracious note to an old friend. I can, however, testify to Frank Schaeffer’s speech at Princeton on February 26, where he got the chance to play to the more secular audience to whom, I imagine, the book is intended to appeal. I suppose every evangelical defector has in mind something like the Princeton audience as a reward, the roomful of enlightened, liberal minds ready to welcome any ex-fundamentalist as an adopted child. The introduction tantalized the audience with the “spiritual secrets” that Frank’s book reveals. These “secrets” were Billy Graham’s fear of death and Francis Schaeffer’s struggle with depression. As with Mother Teresa, it becomes a news item when normative aspects of a healthy spiritual life (see the ninth rule of discernment in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises ) run their course.

But the room was not as receptive as one might imagine. Frank began by reading aloud from the preface of his book, relating how he rode the nepotism that he decries to the crest of the evangelical movement. He describes how he looked over a sea of blue polyester to speak at a major preacher’s conference. He had been introduced at that conference as “the best speaker in America, even better than his father.” “Impossible,” muttered the woman next to me, in one of those whispers intended to be overheard. She had related to a friend before the talk how the ministry of Frank’s parents at L’Abri had transformed her life.

Frank saw fit to read directly from the graphically explicit string of hate mail he had received from “the right” when he defected. He thought it humorous to connect one profanity-laced hate-mail letter with the next letter that disapproved of profanity. After some tips on how to write your own memoir (don’t be put off by those who say it’s self-indulgent), Frank laid out his faith/politics dichotomy. “It’s like fiction/nonfiction, you see.” Schaeffer was quick to attach a weak disclaimer¯it’s not that he’s saying faith isn’t true, it’s just in a different realm. The “faith” realm, we learned, is the realm of artists and writers and the Met museum. The realm of politics is for policy people, law, and folks who don’t care about the Met Museum. Then came the first of nearly ten Obama panegyrics.

Following what seems like a nationwide procession of sophisticated evangelicals into the Church of the Holy Question Mark, Frank tells us that, in a nutshell, the shift from his fundamentalist days is that he now knows how to say “I could be wrong” after everything. No doubt there is much Frank is wrong about; but, just to be safe, Frank¯who has now converted to Eastern Orthodoxy¯might consider petitioning Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to append “I could be wrong” to the end of the Nicene Creed.

The first audience question involved someone accusing Frank of being contemptuous of the movement and his parents, of lambasting them in the same kind of fundamentalist tone that Frank deplored. Frank responded that his tone is justified by the “criminal element” of evangelicalism. Pressed, he reasserts. “The literal criminal element because they claim to be nonprofits. They’re as nonprofit as Exxon is.” As if we didn’t get the point, he adds that the movement he has forsaken is “hard-core pornography for faith.” The only smart ones, we learn, were C.S. Lewis and Frank’s father, who, if Frank is to be believed, wasn’t as smart as he was driven “crazy for God.”

For the untruths of Frank’s account, again, one best go to Os Guinness. But I’d like to illustrate the sadness of Frank Schaeffer’s current posture by fighting fire with fire¯that is, by writing a self-indulgent memoir. Mine, however, will be much briefer, and will regard not my childhood, but last weekend.

It was an academic conference in Dallas, a first trip to Texas for myself, a native northeasterner. As I zoomed from the airport in my rented Chevy, the colossal lone-star flags, highways named after George Bush, and the chintzy yet imperial whitewashed megachurches invited me, as if into an exotic, forbidden land. As I neared Dallas, an aura of urbanity took over, and I was more at home. But on the way back to the airport¯just outside the Dallas sophistication circumference¯there it all was again. Though I had a flight to catch, I couldn’t resist the urge to pull off the highway, my aim being to capture a photo of the megachurch¯a fitting illustration of bad architecture. I glided off the exit ramp into the acres of asphalt parking lot, empty at the time, and a lone man gave me a friendly wave. I passed him and looked closer at the church sign. In a flash I realized my good fortune. I had come across nothing less than the studio and worship center of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. My heart leapt with ironic delight.

This was possibly the gaudiest example of American Christianity in existence, and I was here to see it. As TBN piped into the free cable in the dorms of Princeton Theological Seminary, I had spent years mocking it, as had most of the students. TBN was everything we were learning not to be. I actually called a seminary friend to tell him where I was, and we cackled with laughter. This was the domain of the legendary television preacher’s wife, that woman with the pile of purple hair.

Next to the TBN church was a prototype of the “Family Christian” store chain, a store on which I had once, years ago, seen a sign reading, “Bible Man appearance cancelled due to injury.” On the other side was a prefab neo-classical building with “Happy Birthday Jesus” still (it was nearly March) strung up in lights. A “virtual reality” tour of the television studio was advertised in front of an inexcusably awful statue. It was a photographic jackpot; like a shark circling its prey, I ringed the lot for the right angle. Then I saw it. The perfect shot would be one that showed the Toys ’R’ Us sign across the highway just under the Trinity Broadcasting Network Sign. How deliciously subversive. I was so excited about this picture that, exiting my car and running to get the right angle, I slipped and fell. I got up to take the shot, but my camera batteries had run out. I panicked. I leapt into the car to rush to a convenience store (I still had the flight to catch), but I had left my cell phone on the roof. I remembered just before it fell off.

At a stoplight on the way to the store that I never found, I looked up to a congress of ravens, so thick they seemed to blanket the telephone poles, and there the realization came. I had literally fallen over myself to make fun of a branch of Christianity that¯I knew from personal experience¯could transform lives. Yes, only an insider can know the ugly secrets of American evangelicalism. But what’s more, and what made mine more of betrayal, is that only an insider can know how much of it is undeniably good, sometimes even mystically so. I was such an insider, and rather than cherish and protect my memory of evangelicalism, I was willing to portray it in the worst possible light for some laughs.

I thought about how I must have looked to the cars passing on the highway, or to the lone man who¯not realizing I was here to mock his church¯gave me that wave. Some guy from New Jersey, after erratically circling a parking lot, leapt out of his car, scampered, slipped, fell, got up, and then drove off with his cell phone on the roof of a compact Chevy. Others came there to serve God, but I was serving my generation’s idol: irony. A pile of purple hair was a respectable alternative to the sight of me.

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com .

References:

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

“The Judgment of Memory” by Joseph Bottum (subscription required)

Os Guinness on Crazy for God

Ignatius’ Ninth Rule of Spiritual Discernment

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