Local News: From Thursday, April 5 through Saturday, April 7, First United Methodist Church of Kosciusko (70 miles north of Jackson) will be performing its annual Passion Play, “His Last Days.” The one-hour, outdoor drama is free to the public and will begin each night at 8:00 p.m. For more information, go to www.breezynews.com.
In Frank Schaeffer’s 2007 memoir, Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back (Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York), the son of the late evangelist Francis Schaeffer grapples with what it was like to grow up in the famous L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. If one had to summarize his memoir with one word, reactionary is probably the best. What, specifically, is Schaeffer reacting against?
I. Disillusionment with evangelicalism
The Schaeffers’ youngest son, born in 1952, once a darling of American evangelicalism, has with time, as his memoir shows, become increasingly disillusioned with his parents’ faith. In the Prologue, Schaeffer offers the disclaimer that his book is not “objective history”, saying, “What I’ve written comes from a memory deformed by time, prejudice, flawed memory, and emotion.” Such a disclaimer helps put some of Schaeffer’s hyperbole in persepctive. In this scathing critique of conservative Protestantism in America, Schaeffer holds nothing back. Not only does he level biting criticisms against his father, and his mother, Edith, he calls Billy Graham “just plain bizarre” (p.100), “a very weird man”’; he calls James Dobson “the most power-hungry and ambitious man I have every met,” (p.315) “a power-crazed political manipulator cynically abusing his followers” (p.391).
Schaeffer recalls encountering three basic types of evangelical leaders: “The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed—sort of—but knew that the evangelical world was sh**, but who couldn’t figure out a way to earn a good living anywhere else.” (p.328) Schaeffer, though not blaming his father or mother for the fact, also complains of how evangelicals “worshipped” his parents.
It would be easy to be reactionary and take offense at Schaeffer’s critique, but we should be willing to let it resonate. The sad thing is that there is a grain of truth in Schaeffer’s assessment of evangelical leadership. Our Christian celebrity culture is antithetical to the New Testament. The health-and-wealth gospel, which has become more and more popular since Francis Schaeffer died in 1984, has turned many well-intentioned preachers into religious peddlers. The Republican establishment has used evangelicals to get votes for decades now (often by making promises that aren’t kept), and this has sapped the vitality out of some ministries. The posturing, the pretense, the “plastic culture” of American evangelicalism—to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase—shouldn’t be denied, but rather admitted and then turned from.
Though critical of his parents, Schaeffer contrasts his father with what he calls the “new breed of evangelical leadership” arising in the late 70s and early 80s (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Kennedy, etc.): “Dad had a unique reputation for an intellectual approach to faith… frugal ethical living, for not financially profiting from his ministry, for compassion, openness, and intellectual integrity.” (p.297) The late Francis Schaeffer believed it was possible to oppose sin while loving sinful people—a distinction sometimes lost on other evangelical leaders. Schaeffer recalls Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell once maliciously saying that if his dogs engaged in homosexual behavior, he would shoot them. Schaeffer remembers how his father, taken aback by Falwell’s hatred, afterwards described him as a “disgusting man.” (p.315)
Coral Ridge Ministries, rather than presenting the simple gospel, has in recent years often sounded indistinguishable from conservative talk radio. American Family Radio (AFR) often spends as much time promoting a conservative political agenda as it does promoting Jesus Christ. In the midst of all the politicizing, it’s easy to forget that the biggest threat to the Body of Christ is not threats from without (the ACLU, secular humanism, etc…), but rather from within: pride. Brennan Manning rightly said in Ragamuffin Gospel that he could more easily imagine joining a group called the Forgiven Majority than the Moral Majority. If we believe “there is none righteous, no not one” (including ourselves), then how can we go about trumpeting how moral we are?