Takeaway: Christians need to allow their heroes to be real people. Putting people up on a pedestal not only harms those looking, but those on the pedestal.
But otherwise, I have stereotyped Francis Schaeffer as a bit of a kook, even though many hold him as one of the greatest Evangelical thinkers of the last century.
So I was not really all that interested in this book. I had heard it was a screed against Evangelicals and a book by a child tearing down his parents.
But eventually I worked my way around to it. And I am very glad that I did. It is one of the best memoirs I have read in a while. Frank (son of Francis and Edith) is clear at the beginning of the book that he is writing a memoir. These are his memoires. He is not focused primarily on telling the story of his parents or writing a biography, but telling his own story as he remembers it.
And what a story he tells. I know enough pastors and missionary kids (and I am one myself, although my life has nothing to do with a life like Frank’s) to know that there are many pastors and missionary kids that have a life like Frank’s. He was dragged around ‘doing the Lord’s work’ whether he was interested in it or not.
But this is not the tell all book that I had feared. Frank Schaeffer loves his parents and family and the church as a whole. But he has enough integrity to tell the truth (as he remembers it) about his life.
His parents were great people. But being great does not mean you are great at everything (as Steve Jobs’ daughter reminded us in the Isaacson’s biography). And as much as the Schaeffer children seem to have been loved, they were trapped in the ‘family work’ of L’Abri. Francis Schaeffer, in spite of being a great thinker, was abusive and belligerent with his wife and children. Edith, in spite of being a extrovert that made the home a primary focus of women’s work in the Evangelical world, seems to have craved a different life for herself.
I might dismiss this book as the rantings of a child that was upset with his parents, if the primary criticism did not seem to be Frank himself. Because as often as his parents, or the Evangelical world, or America, or Hollywood or the many other targets that Frank has, it is himself that he is most vulnerable about. He was far from a perfect child, or adult, or husband or father. Frank also includes a number of other voices at important parts of the story. He asked friends and family to include their memories and especially when they contradict his own, he includes them in the book.
This is a complicated story. In addition to the many issues growing up, Frank, as a young man really was the one that moved his parents from known but foreign Christians to the center of the Evangelical movement. Frank, behind the scenes and behind the camera, created a series of movies starring Francis that helped moved Evangelicals toward culture and toward political involvement, especially around abortion. It is not well remembered, but Evangelicals were not at the forefront of the fight against abortion. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that abortion was a significant political issue for the Evangelical church.
Frank’s chapter on his reflections on the issues around abortion (he is still very much pro-life, even though he regrets the politicization of abortion) is one of the most reasonable and heartfelt calls to actually seek out a place where abortions are reduced, legal abortions are restricted and US law moves toward a more middle ground that I have ever read. And most important to me, is that at the end of this very moving chapter, he says, “But this is just what I think. I might be wrong, I have been wrong before.”
This style of writing, self-effacing and open to challenge is not because he lacks an understanding of ‘truth’ or lacks conviction, but because he knows that conviction is not enough. We have a real world, we have the ever present tension between Grace and Truth. He knows that his experience of events was not the only experience of those events.
Frank is not easily pinned down on the political or theological spectrum. He has converted to Orthodoxy. He has written several books about his son’s choice to join the military in a post-9/11 world and how he (as a near pacifist) came to understand and embrace that choice. He is pro-life, but against a politicized Christianity.
I will not tell his story here. But if you can live with a number of curse words, details of a real (and imperfect life) that is told not to shock or titillate, but to bring understanding, I highly recommend this book. I have already added all the rest of his books to my wish list. He is an incredible writer. I also have added a biography of Francis that was written by someone else for some independence and contrast.