Crazy for God: Frank and Francis Schaeffer

We never have any real information about anything important. It takes a lifetime for the ramifications to be worked out.
Frank Schaeffer

When I was eighteen or nineteen years old I stopped going to church. Prior to that, from the age of nine, I had been an active, passionate participant in the Baptist and later the Nazarene churches my family went to. I participated in choir, sang solos, was the president of my Sunday school class, gave “testimony”, led prayers, witnessed and led people to Christ. These were fundamentalist Christian churches (embracing the “inerrancy doctrine”—the belief that every word of the Bible is literally true, written by God through men), and up to the age of seventeen I was a true believer. What happened, in short, was that I lost my faith. It’s a long story, but when I was only ten God told me one night in prayer that He would no longer speak to me after that night. From then on faith alone carried me and by the time I reached seventeen it was not enough.

I was growing up. My brain was expanding. I discovered art. I could no longer hold the contradictions and illogicalities and above all the intolerances of the fundamentalists. One of the final straws came when our church conducted a book burning in the parking lot. There I watched as my friends and elders threw Tolkien and Bradbury into the flames, along with records—everything from Paul Simon to the Doobie Brothers. If it was secular it was not of God, and if it was not of God it was of the Devil. I was emerging in consciousness as an artist and a clear line had been drawn. I was on the wrong side of it.

I became a huge disappointment to my church and to my mother and older sister. They let me know—regularly—that I was condemned to Hell. They tried to save me primarily through disapproval, disappointment and scare tactics. Above all, if my art did not overtly glorify God according to the strict parameters of the church, then it was merely a sign of the path to Hell that I was going down. The very thing that I felt was saving me, that was expanding my mind and opening up innumerable possibilities with history and the wider contemporary world was the thing that, in their view, was corrupting me. There was no middle ground and no room for debate. They were right, I was wrong. One day I asked my mother what had happened between us and she admitted that I had become too smart for her. She no longer knew how to talk to me. But the language of love had always been enough before. Apparently, without God in my life I was unlovable too. I don’t remember trying to be obnoxious, but perhaps in her view I was insufferable. The more she pushed the more I resisted.

Concerned members of the church lent books to me through my mother, books by bigots and hate-mongers like Tim LaHaye, who defined the term “secular humanism” for my mother’s church and books like Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. But pounding away on the point that reading people like Nietzsche will send you straight to Hell was hardly the way to reach me. Allowing me to sing one of Bob Dylan’s Christian songs in church, like I had wanted to and was forbidden to, might have helped. Religious fundamentalism is aggressively anti-intellectual and antagonistic to the spirit of art, not to mention xenophobic, homophobic and fascist. My mother had occasionally gone into my room and confiscated books. One time it was a science fiction novel that showed a scantily clad woman on its cover. Another time it was a book by the theologian Karl Barth. To this day I haven’t gotten around to reading Barth. If I had been encouraged to read Barth would I be a Christian today? I don’t know, but it’s possible.

One of the books my mother gave to me was How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was considered the answer to converting those who were infatuated with worldly culture. He was, in the view of the fundamentalists, an intellectual, an expert on history and the world’s visual art, music and literature. Perhaps he was my mother’s last hope for me. But he became the nail in the coffin. No one I had read up to that point insulted my intelligence more than Schaeffer. By the time I threw his book away in disgust I was through with religion.

The notion that Francis Schaeffer is in any sense of the word a scholar, intellectual or thinker is laughable. The film series based on How Should We Then Live? is available on YouTube. You can watch the man himself draw entire cultures and societies into tiny cartoon boxes depicting what they tried and failed to do. His pattern: the Romans—they failed; the Post-Impressionists—they failed; the existentialist philosophers—they failed. They all failed to achieve a life of substance and meaning because they did not have Schaeffer’s slant on the Christian God at their foundation. A word strong enough for this kind of narrow-mindedness does not exist; I am forced to rely on the word stupidity.

Stupidity might be forgivable, but dishonesty is not. In Episode 8 the filmmakers have constructed an apparatus from which cans of paint are suspended. The cans have holes pieced into them and swing over a sheet of paper. This, Schaeffer tells us, is how Pollock created his paintings. Pollock, like John Cage, he tells us, embraced pure chance. But every first year art student knows this is not true. Pollock poured the paint and dripped it with sticks and brushes in a dance with paint and gravity over the canvases. He did not give way to chance; he “denied the accident”. Pollock had more in common with Bartok and El Greco than Cage. Scheaffer seems to have been afflicted with a curious inability to perceive metaphors, let alone think in metaphors. His literal view of the Bible extended to all cultural phenomena. Pollock’s dripped paintings looked random to him, therefore they had to be random (and don’t get me started on Schaeffer’s view of chance in art; suffice to say he saw it as evil). He makes this mistake repeatedly. Cezanne and the painters he influenced, such as Picasso, seemed to have “fragmented” humanity, therefore they in fact expressed fragmentation and offered fragmentation as a view. It never occurred to Schaeffer that they were developing a new way to explore the picture plane, in response to photography and other developments, and that this new aesthetic was itself a rich expression of humanity. No, he decides they failed to be deeply humane because the people in their paintings did not look realistic in the manner of the classical painters.

I have lingered over Schaeffer’s stupidities and lies because his son, Frank, who had directed the film series based on his father’s book, attempts in his book Crazy for God to allow his father’s status among the fundamentalists as an intellectual to stand. But since he (Frank) has parted ways with the Religious Right, this means that he wants his father to be seen outside that sect as an intellectual, and this attempt is simply not justified by his father’s writings.

Unfortunately this obscures a larger point that needs exposure. In Crazy for God Frank Schaeffer explains that one of the ways the Religious Right was able to become so powerful was that the mainstream media ignored their books and films. He suggests that had the New York Times bothered to review How Should We Then Live? then maybe the culture at large would not have been blindsided by the Religious Right. But one could not reasonably expect the New York Times to consider a book like How Should We Then Live? to be worth reviewing. The book should indeed be discussed, but in a forum that does not lend it intellectual legitimacy.

Frank Schaeffer’s larger point—that historically mainstream society ignores religious fundamentalism and is therefore blind to its dangers—is certainly true and well worth emphasizing. When George W. Bush first announced his run for the presidency I took a look at him and instantly recognized him as a fundamentalist. I had grown up with them and knew one when I saw one. I told everyone I knew that he was a fundamentalist and no one—not one person—believed me. But what’s even sadder is that to this very day I continue to talk to people who still cannot recognize Bush as a fundamentalist. This is because people refuse to educate themselves on what religious fundamentalism is—particularly how destructive it is. It destroys families and starts wars.

I am very puzzled by this wanton ignorance. After all, we were attacked on 9/11 by religious fundamentalists, Bush’s response—to invade Iraq—was motivated in large part by his us vs. them, good vs. evil mentality. Our whole world has been shaped for the past dozen years by religious fundamentalism, for even longer it has infiltrated the highest level of government, and yet Americans still don’t care to know anything about it. Frank Schaeffer’s book is an excellent way to begin learning about it. I did not know, before reading this book, how instrumental he was in the rise of the Religious Right. Throughout the memoir, Frank Schaeffer repeats phrases such as, “much to my shame”. He should, he’s got a lot to answer for. But I applaud him for his work, and encourage everyone to read Crazy for God.

Going back to when I was in my late teens: one day I brought in the mail and muttered some disparaging comment about the Falwell Ministies flyer. Hearing me, my mother physically backed me up against the wall and demanded to know what I had against Jerry Falwell. Startled by her uncharacteristic aggressiveness, I told her. I spewed the words out, about what a hate-monger and arrogant, evil anti-intellectual he was, the kind of person that quashes creativity in the bud. A person like you, I said. My mother instantly withered, seemed to actually crumple up and shrank away from me. I saw in an instant how weak she was, how easily I could wound her, and saw that her religion was the life raft she clung to. She, and thousands of others like her, were the kind of people preyed upon by the leaders of the Religious Right. I also knew that as long as she was under their spell there was no hope of communication between us. To this day I know of nothing more tragic than that.

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17 Responses to Crazy for God: Frank and Francis Schaeffer

  1. angela says:

    I’m a bit aghast that people do not see how G.W. Bush is a fundamentalist. Did he not proclaim that God told him to run for office?? I do believe that his wife was a huge influence on his conversion, but even more, he was probably motivated (brainwashed) by the 12 steps. Please hear me out, I champion anyone who tries to beat his or her addiction, but I know too many peeps who came out of a 12 step treatment temporarily clean, but without their original personality. I only go on about this because your last paragraph sings it home – your mother, like so many fundamentalist, sadly are spiritually weak. As you well know, question the pulpit and you are considered a heathen by the fundamental regime. It is so sad for part of faith is to question. How can anyone be spiritually strong if they cannot practice what Kant preached…Sapere Aude!
    I’m very sorry that you have experienced such division with your mom – you are correct, religion can destroy families.

    • The people I’ve spoken to can’t believe he really believes in God.

      Spiritually weak, yes, and motivated by profound fear.

      I don’t get the 12 steps, precisely because of the whole god connection. I don’t know if you’re a fan of the poet John Berryman, but his novel ‘Recovery’ is a fascinating chronicle of a man’s attempt to go through the 12 step program. It’s really weird seeing someone as linguistically sophisticated as Berryman trying to twist his mind into accepting the 12 steps and tragically, he was unable (in real life) to lick it.

      • angela says:

        Profound fear — is that not the power behind fundamentalism? Writers like La Haye, who have made millions propagating this fear via fictionally recreating the bible, until even I, who had not even thought on hell began to wonder after having to listen to people wax on about book #__ (hazards of working in libraryland with a highly Christian patronage). I digress..

        Shall have to check on Berryman – thanks. As for 12 step – to me it is taking an addictive personality and refocusing the addiction on a less harmful one – God…thou, if you ask me, misdirected faith can be just as lethal as any drug.

        • The addictive personality does substitute one addiction for another. There are some good, in depth reviews of ‘Crazy for God’ on the Amazon page. In one of them a retired Marine correctly (imo) points out that Frank Schaeffer substitutes blind acceptance of Evangelicalism for blind acceptance of the Marine Corps (his son serves and he wrote several books about it). You get a taste of this in ‘Crazy for God’.

  2. hedgewitch says:

    A very lucid post on the terrifying(to me) shadow world of True Believers. I’ve seen Frank Schaefer on lefty TV, and it’s obvious he is a rational being, yet to imagine any rational being living in that ethos for any portion of their adult life is mystifying. I am not of a religious bent–it’s not something that draws or interests me, except as a powerful set of psychic symbols, but I do see how it can inhabit people and cast out their demons–which to me seem that part of their free will that they cannot understand or master–and so provide some sort of shield from a soul-destroying fear–but part of the weakness of fear is the perception of threats and dangers in everything that is not, as you note so succinctly, the defense that is so desperately adhered to; its destructive side, to me, its socially deconstructing, intolerant, book-burning side, invalidates the good that it may do some people. Not taking issues with obvious lies is bad enough–*passionately, mindlessly* believing in them something else, something darker and sicker, indeed.

    • Frank was born into it. His parents were dynamic, influential leaders of their sect. By the time Frank was in his late teens rich and powerful people were coming to the family mission offering to fund projects that Frank was encouraged to work on. It’s not hard to understand that he got sucked in. I had intended to write a review of his book, but as often happens I ended up writing something else.

  3. Michael says:

    This is my second entry in your blog, the first being the article on Babbitt. I live in a European Catholic country where most declare themselves believers. When I was about nine, I stopped attending the Church because I was unable to accommodate in my mind the miraculous and the scientific at the same time. It is probably not a big failure for a nine year old boy, considering the Church itself have been at a loss, at least since the introduction of Holy Inquisition in the 12th century, to identify or agree upon what is to be learned and what is to be believed. We all know the fatal consequences.

    A few years ago I revisited the maters religious in quest of how a myth, as an element of culture, is created. I have came across many books of sheer analytical brilliance. One such an example is a study where the authors recreated a very convincing world of the Apprising in Jerusalem in 65-70 based on vary scanty sources, predominantly on such an erroneous and biased source as Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, a man himself engaged in the rebellion.

    I would like to recommend works by Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, specifically “Misquoting Jesus”. In the book he presents his background very extensively, as an ardently believing teenager starts his search of the Divine truth in the New Testament, discovering in the course of study less divine aspects of its creation. As a result of his long journey he looses his faith. The book is an account of how much we can learn of an ancient text with very potent analytical tools that are currently available; “textual criticism” being here the prime one. We witness a myth in its creation. Once we read it, we no longer find the fictional in Dan Brown’s stories so fictitious.

    I have it as an ebook. if anyone is interested I will send it.

    Michael Filosek

  4. Mark, very clear analysis of the problems with any sort of fundamentalism. This morning while I was walking the dogs I was reflecting on how my very (long) and religious upbringing discouraged questioning, independent thinking, or even basic exploration of truth. While I have always leaned toward interpreting things my way, it’s only in the last decade or so that I am becoming more comfortable with letting go of long-held beliefs. I still believe in God but not in a narrowly defined, “this-is-the only- way” manner. Look at the damage fundamentalism has wrecked upon our world throughout the ages.

  5. Mark, hi…. first I want to tell you that I have missed you incredibly. I recently returned to dverse and missed you there also…. Anyway, this is a powerful story of spirituality. (And family.) I never tell anyone that the faith of their parents and childhood is wrong, only because I believe that God – the same God fundamentalists believe is inerrant in His writngs and teachings through the hands of men – gives to each man, woman and child his/her own measure of faith. I believe your sister and mother were acting in the faith given to them, which I think is in no way lesser than anyone elses. With that said, though, there are many actions fundamentalist take that I disagree with. Starting with their willingness to so easily believe your faith is less than that required for your salvation. I know the pain you experienced with that Mark. I wish that I didn’t.

    All I want to say, Mark, is that your heart is – and should – lead you. It leads your charitable sense – the love you have for your sister and Mother, and absorbs the pain you feel from other’s misunderstanding of what love is. Baptists and other fundamentalists have built their entire belief system around Christianity and things that other men have believed, yet they completely ignored what Christ Himself said: “Love the lord, your God, the Father, and love one another. Do these things and you will reach eternal salvation.” Could it be simpler than that?

    The only thing we need to do is to love. And forgive me if I seem overly sentimental, but I think you have accomplished that very well……..

  6. friko says:

    Fundamentalism is primarily a bad idea because it closes the mind. If you are convinced that you’re right then it follows that everyone else is wrong, and if you are willing to fight for your conviction nothing will stop you. We are told about the huge percentage of fundamentalists in the US population. Christian fundamentalism v Islam = Armageddon.

    I can only pray that common sense will prevail (and I am no adherent of any religion).

    • Your equation is correct. In fact the fundamentalists welcome Armageddon because it takes them closer to the culmination of their belief system. It should be frighteningly clear that a fundamentalist American president is disastrous for the world.

  7. Susan Scheid says:

    I agree with your analysis, and second Friko’s comment, along with Angela’s parallel to the 12-step program. One branch of my family is fundamentalist, so I’ve had occasion to brush with it, but fortunately not to be directly subject to it. Encountering fundamentalism, I come upon the paradox any person who prizes tolerance faces: that it is not incumbent on the tolerant to tolerate the intolerant, in the end. In fact, we should not do so. (It seems simple, now, but it took me a long time to come to it.)

    • “it is not incumbent on the tolerant to tolerate the intolerant”
      -Thanks for that succinct expression, which I will surely remember. I’ve struggled with this apparent paradox for many years.

  8. wolfsrosebud says:

    hey Mark, thanks for stopping by wolfsrosebud… have missed your poetry, but can see you are taking a new direction with your blog… regarding this post… so sad that the church has messed things up for you… remember it is a personal relationship with Christ… not the church… not a pastor… not any man… who has the true answers… and there is always room for creativity… look what the Maker has created… have a great week

    • “it is….”

      The “it” of this post is not spirituality or even Christianity but a particular sect of the organized Christian church, and two people who were leaders of it. Organized religion, especially the regions of it that are influential in politics, is a subject that, in my opinion, should be discussed. I’m aware that you are a believer (if I did not respect you and your poetry, I would not visit your blog). But the issues of this post go far beyond personal beliefs.

      P.S. I have not changed direction. In the 3 or so years I’ve been blogging I’ve always done a mix of prose and poetry, and I have written about fundamentalism before.

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