22 November 2009

The reluctant fundamentalist

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer (2007)

I'm not surprised that Frank Schaeffer achieved success as a novelist; he has a knack for making characters come to life on the page. In this quasi-autobiography, the "characters" include most prominently his own parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

Frank (since three people to be mentioned share the same last name, I'll use first names for clarity) grew up in unusual circum-stances at L'Abri, a sort of colony of American fundamentalists in Switzerland presided over by his parents. Edith was completely dedicated to "the work", looking upon even Frank and her other children largely as future missionaries to reach the unsaved; she also had a curious obsession with social respectability and refinement, as if to serve as a one-woman refutation of the fundamentalist-as-crude-hick stereotype. Francis was clearly a very complex person whom, perhaps, no one truly knew; a man whose rigidly conservative theological beliefs eventually closed off other directions in which he could have developed.

Over time, Francis's ideas became an important influence on the formation of the Christian Right in the United States. Frank thus had an intimate view of the birth of one of the most powerful and frightening ideological movements in American history.

Despite his status as one of the founding fathers of modern-day fundamentalism, Francis was far from being the kind of bigot we associate with the movement today. He was accepting toward homosexuals (regarding them as sinful, but no more so than anyone else) and declared that he would have no objection if any of his children chose to marry someone of a different race -- and he expressed those views in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were not common even in secular American society. He supported the hippie movement, agreeing with its critique of the stultifying conformist culture of the day, though he thought that the hippies had no coherent ideas to put in its place and would end up turning to Jesus. He was even unenthusiastic about the anti-abortion movement until Frank (ironically) goaded him into taking a harder line. And he was sometimes tormented by deep doubts about the path he had chosen; Frank opines that he might eventually have abandoned fundamentalism, had he not painted himself into a corner by becoming one of its leaders. Later, as the movement became dominated by such hard-line totalitarians as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, Francis was actually horrified at the monster he had helped to create.

Francis died of cancer in 1984. Under Edith's direction, his funeral was staged as a horrifically vulgar fundamentalist "trade show", one more opportunity to advance "the work".

Frank himself eventually left the movement, unable to stomach its hypocrisy and intolerance. He tried to launch another career directing movies in the secular film industry, only to find that industry to be phony and superficial -- it was all about money and people's egos, not about making good movies. There's an obvious parallel there with the fanatical yet superficial culture of Christian fundamentalism.

Frank eventually found success as a novelist, and today he has become prominent on the political left, sounding warnings about the threats posed by the Christian Right whose character he knows so much better than those of us who have lived all our lives in the secular world -- I've linked to some of these warnings on this blog. He's not sympathetic to atheists and his most recent book (which I haven't seen) sounds like partly an attack on atheism. But Crazy for God is valuable as a very readable foray into the nature of the fundamentalist mind and, frankly, because it humanizes people of a kind we generally have every reason to fear and hate.

Crazy for God was quite difficult to find. I had to visit several boostores before I found a place which had it -- and even then, the sole copy was in storage in the back, not out on the shelves. I don't know what that signifies.

Frank Schaeffer's official website

Francis Schaeffer's Wikipedia article


Blogger Sue said...

great insight into the man and his story. I'll see if Linda will come by and read!

22 November, 2009 09:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'd hope she would read the actual book -- it's fascinating.

22 November, 2009 09:36  
Blogger Karen said...

As Sue said, great insight into the man and his story.

22 November, 2009 10:50  
Anonymous Leslie Parsley said...

You have an excellent blog and this is an outstanding post in all ways. I've actually seen this title and will get it from the library. Will also add you to My Favorite Blogs. Don't know how I've missed you.

24 November, 2009 05:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks for reading!

24 November, 2009 06:12  

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