What Next for Frank Schaeffer?

I was a research assistant for Barry Hankins at Baylor University while he worked on his forthcoming biography of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer had an astonishing career in which he emerged from a standard fundamentalist pastor’s existence to being discovered by Time Magazine while running a Christian retreat center in the mountains of Switzerland.

Schaeffer took in all kinds of hippies and teenagers and entertained ALL their questions. He was a master of synthesizing information and introducing Christians to the world of intellectual engagement. He ran from nothing. Listened to the disharmonic music of John Cage. Saw the films of Ingemar Bergman. Contemplated nihilistic art and philosophy. Schaeffer wasn’t right about everything, but he shattered limitations many fundamentalists and evangelicals placed on the activity of the mind.

His son, formerly called Franky Schaeffer and now called Frank, had a very active role in his ministry and once was a well-known Christian author/filmmaker. After many years, he wrote novels about his childhood viewed as unflattering to his family and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Last year he showed up on Oprah and wrote articles for USA Today about being the father of a military man. One imagines they had no clue about his near-radical pro-life activities of younger days and his status as son of an evangelical celebrity.

David Mills of Touchstone now reports that the younger Schaeffer recently disparaged the new pope as a fundamentalist. Sometimes, it’s hard for the son of a great man to find his own way in the world. Unfortunately for those of us who would have liked to see an alternate life for Frank Schaeffer, he’s chosen one of the less attractive options. Perhaps he’ll soon come out and clarify himself.

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4 thoughts on “What Next for Frank Schaeffer?

  1. “He ran from nothing.”

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    But I’ll bet that he ran from things more than once. And, if FAS’ principles, which included the WCF, were right, I’ll win. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, we sin daily “in thought, word and deed”. (Q82) I’m betting FAS would acknowledge himself among the “we” envisioned by the SC’s authors.

    I first read Escape from Reason in 1969 or 70, heard FAS in 1971 and became a Christian at L’Abri in 1973, so my debt is great. But to whom do I owe the debt?

    FAS or Christ?

    Like many who went to L’Abri in that era, my questions were only partly of the “Is it true?” ilk. More fundamentally, they were, “Yes, but does it really work?”

    In all honesty, some of the hypocrisy, class arrogance, and downright silliness of Presbyterian fundamentalism from that time period were what I thought I was escaping at L’Abri, and had I known then some of the things Franky did, God might have had to save me some other way.

    Still, I’m very uneasy with the whole evangelical tradition of lying and whitewashing in order to preserve the illusion of God’s effective work here and now. I just can’t find much to like about the idea of lying for God. Franky’s jokes about ‘gospel walnuts’ and the PCCCUSA fell on fertile ground, with me, because I grew among all evangelistic excesses of fundamental Southern churches, and among the machinations and battles that were fought in the later wars in the Southern Presbyterian Church. And, I was free to enjoy Franky’s tales, because I’d become pretty sure by then that it wasn’t God’s idea that we should ‘glorify Him’ by pretending that the nice half-truths about his people were the only truths about them!

    Now, I know that Franky is a jerk: I speak as a pot, recognizing the kettle. I trust that both he and I are God’s jerks, but still jerks for all that.

    So, on the one hand, I can recognize that Franky made a potload of money treating his family quite disrepectfully. I myself am constrained to be less open than I’d like about my own struggles as a Christian, because to do so would expose not only my own sins and failings, but also those of my parents, and some of those with whom I speak also know them.

    On the other hand, after I left L’Abri, I became uneasy with the persistent triumphalism of Edith’s family letters, and finally let an address change extinguish my subscription. I knew enough, even before I read Portofino, to know that Edith’s letters were not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’ve struggled, over many years, with the repeated discovery of clay well-hidden inside many evangelical leader’s shiny wingtips. And, as time’s passed, I’ve even seen some clay in believers’ Birkenstocks or Tevas.

    Yet, the reason for my struggle was not that God had failed, nor that His grace was absent from these men’s and women’s lives, but rather that the implicit evangelical doctrine of the practical perfection of its leaders was, and is, a lie not found in Scripture. In Scripture we have David who is BOTH a “man after God’s heart” AND an adulterer and a murderer; we have Solomon, wisest of all men, trapped in lust and idolatry, by his ‘little head’; we have Abraham, the father of the faithful, faithlessly abandoning his wife to the Egyptian king, to protect his own skin.

    I’ve known some missionaries well enough to know that the glorious gospel adventures, untained by sin, as told in the biographies published by Moody and others are only half-truths. And anyone who’s been around evangelical churches long enough knows MKs and PKs who can tell alternate versions of many of these stories — versions often tainted by bitterness and resentment, but versions not lacking in substance for all that.

    So, which version is God’s version? The triumphal ones, like the one in Edith’s books? Or the bitter, cynical, or weary ones, like the one in Franky’s books?

    If I’m reading my Bible right, the answer is that they BOTH are, so far as they are accurate. The Biblical version of David’s life records not only the breathless accounts in Kings, accounts I suppose were written by the official scribes, but also the horrific version told by Nathan!

    It may be too much, I suppose, for one author to tell both sides. But they need to be told. Paul tells us that we are to be ‘cracked pots leaking light’ (IICor, esp 4:7), and this, I think is what we see in David’s life and in FAS’s . . . and, hopefully, in Franky’s and mine. The whole story about FAS and LAbri is not only the light Edith describes, but also the cracked pot Franky paints.

    My own grandfather was in many ways the ideal American man — immensely strong in body and will, he had been supremely self-confident. My mother and my aunts regarded him with some reason, as a near-mythical creation with whom their own husbands sometimes compared unfavorably. Yet the two stories of his life which are for me most iconic, are the two which are least ‘respectful’ to him. In this case, at least, I’m free to tell the ‘whole truth version’, even though some still object, for I have them directly from him. It was he, known by then for his circumspect speech, who told me that he’d been known for years before as “Profanity Ed”. And it was he who told me that he had found salvation, not by ‘listening and hearing the Word’, but only after he lost his legs and his ability to care for his family through his own careless stupidity in handling a shotgun — a carelessness made all the more incomprehensible by his long experience with guns. By God’s grace, he was humbled, and by God’s grace, he was saved.

    It seems to me that God’s truth about L’Abri is found not only in the overwrought and sanitized version found in ES’s “LAbri” and “The Tapestry”, but also in Franky’s funny but also cynical and bitter stories. For the real glory of L’Abri is not found in FAS’s greatness, but rather in God’s greatness in working through and among men and women who were and are sinners ’till we meet again’.

    I do hope and pray that Franky will be able to work past the wrongs he suffered* and see his parents as God’s sinners, caught in their own sins and their own times, as are both he and I are also. But, if not here and now, then then and there. Meanwhile, I hope some see light leaking out of both of us cracked pots!

    Ben

    *And the ones he’s inflicted: Franky, you owe me $100 in 1973 bucks for that bum steer away from Dr. ____ and to the Villars’ ski doctor who left stitches in my head for me to pick out later with a borrowed mirror and my Swiss knife! I saw Dr. ____ a few weeks later, when a roomate demonstrated a throw by dislocating my shoulder, and found he’d waited 3 hours for me to come in and be stitched up! However, after after reading “Zermatt” I can guess why you might have done it! Still if you read this, pony up — you can give the money to some charity helping Xians in the Marines. I’m sure Gen. Mastin can suggest something appropriate.

  2. Great post, Ben. I shouldn’t be so hard on Franky, but it just galls me to see him be so hard on the old man after he’s gone.

    No question that you are right in your examination of the dual nature of things. Thanks for writing. It was well worth my time to read your comments.

  3. Ben, of all the comments I’ve read in reaction to Frank’s book yours are the most insightful I’ve heard yet.

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