- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

“Crazy for God,” a new memoir by the son of one of modern evangelicalism’s intellectual godfathers, is a story about the dangers of inauthentic faith, in two parts.

The first part is a personal tale of how Frank Schaeffer is still angry at his parents. He is angry because they paid more attention to their work than to him. And he is angry at the way that his mother, in particular, assumed he had faith of his own and expected him to play the part. This made Christianity, as it has been for many other young boys and girls, a crushing weight rather than a source of life.

The second story is cultural, historical and political. Mr. Schaeffer recounts the part he and his father played in the abortion battles of the 1980s that led to the modern alliance of evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party.

It is an important book, for one, because Mr. Schaeffer’s father, Francis Schaeffer, who died in 1984, is important. His books have shaped the thinking of many evangelical Christians, some of them very influential ones. The book gives insight into the father’s private life.

The book is important politically because it shows how the abortion battles of the 1980s were key in allying evangelical voters with the Republican Party.

And it is also a cautionary tale about the damaging effects on children whose parents have an excess of spiritual pride.

Mr. Schaeffer grew up in a Switzerland retreat created by his parents in 1955 for their unique brand of Christian ministry. They called it L’Abri. It attracted all types of spiritual seekers, mostly young people.

Mr. Schaeffer issues many digs at his parents, but in the end he does portray them as good and sincere people. His parents’ biggest flaw, however, may have been their spiritual pride. This made them certain that they alone knew the best way to be a Christian.

“We all knew that anyone really hearing the Lord’s voice would never settle for a lesser calling than L’Abri,” Mr. Schaeffer writes.

It also infused the Schaeffers’ evangelicalism with a desperation born of the idea that if they did not convert — or save the souls — of all those with whom they came into contact, then they would be disappointing God.

Mr. Schaeffer uses the words “crushing” and “heavy load” to describe this “superpietistic grid,” which he attributes almost entirely to his mother.

Mr. Schaeffer’s relationship to his parents is complex and often confusing. He alternates criticism and praise so quickly that one is left to wonder what, exactly, Mr. Schaeffer thinks of Francis and Edith.

He seems angry at his mom for imposing her piety on him and angry at his dad for not paying him enough attention as a child. He says that “from the time I was about seven on, you could have asked my parents where I was and they would have no idea. They literally lost track of me,” because of their busyness with L’Abri.

Mr. Schaeffer’s portrait of his father is far more sympathetic than that of his mother, who is still alive. His anger at his father appears to have been replaced entirely by affection. Nonetheless, Mr. Schaeffer discloses that Francis Schaeffer at times physically abused his wife, and that his mother provoked his father by flirting with younger men.

All of this seems intended to poke a finger in the eye of those who revere his parents as Christian leaders. Mr. Schaeffer, having been a Christian leader in the 1980s, hates hypocrisy. But his outing of his parents comes off as a little unseemly, and the salacious details can overshadow passages that better represent what the Schaeffers truly stood for.

“Their idea of ministry was to extend a hand of kindness, and to truly practice the rule of treating others as you would be treated,” Mr. Schaeffer writes. “It was such a powerful demonstration that it gave me a lifelong picture of what Christian behavior and love can and should be.”

Mr. Schaeffer is still bitter at having been brought up in a home where faith was expected. And he is still disillusioned by his years as an evangelical celebrity, where he aped the language of faith to gain money, power and notoriety.

This double whammy — being expected as a child to fake faith for authority figures, and then as an adult for money — has made Mr. Schaeffer very suspicious of religious expression. It is hard to be unsympathetic. But it’s also true that the sooner one can stop reacting to the past, the better.

Jon Ward covers the White House for The Washington Times.

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