Crazy for God is Frank Schaeffer’s memoir about growing up as the son of famous evangelical teacher and writers Francis and Edith Schaeffer. In the 1950s, when Franky was young, their family lived in a Swiss mission called L’Abri. There, they created a unique blend of conservative fundamentalism fused with a love of art, music and culture. Francis Schaeffer’s thinking about Christianity and culture profoundly impacted an entire generation, but also created a strangely dissonant world for his children, particularly his only son, to grow up in.
This dissonance is evident throughout the book, especially in young Frank’s relationship with his parents. There’s obviously a lot of love there, but a lot of resentment too, not so much against them as people (though his father’s erratic and harsh temper, so at odds with his public image as a gentle saint, comes in for much condemnation) as of the religious beliefs that drove their parenting.
Clearly, there are things about his parents and their religion that Frank Schaeffer admires, as well as many things he hates. As a reader who was aware of Francis Schaeffer and his influence on evangelical Christianity, but had not read his books or had much invested in the image of Schaeffer as a paragon of Christianity, I found this memoir sad in some places and intriguing as others, but I can see how it might be devastating to someone who idolized the Schaeffers.
The story continues on beyond Franks’ early years into his troubled adult life when, despite apparently not having any deep personal faith (or at least none that comes through in his writing as he describes that period of his life) he becomes deeply involved in the growing Christian Right in the United States. Here his view of evangelical faith – or rather, the “business” side of evangelical faith, marketing the next hot Christian speaker, seminar or book – is openly cynical; Schaeffer appears to despise not just the Christian marketing machine but pretty much every individual he met who was involved in it, including some of the best-known names of conservative American Christianity in the 1980s: Dobson, Falwell, Robertson and many others.
As he spoke to huge evangelical crowds as a much-in-demand speaker, Frank was already plotting his escape from this world. But the oddities of his background and his own limitations meant that his dream of making it big as a Hollywood filmmaker never really happened, and he didn’t experience much in the way of success, or of personal fulfillment, until he started to write novels and have them published. The portrait of his own adult life is worth reading as a balance to the first part of the memoir because Schaeffer is just as frank (sorry for the pun) about his own shortcomings as a husband and a parent as he was about his father’s.
One thing I found lacking in a book that dealt so much with religion was much focus on Frank’s own spiritual life – at any given time in the story the reader knows what kind of religion Frank was exposed to and what he found to criticize but not what, if anything, he personally believed or felt about his beliefs. I was happy near the end to find a chapter describing how he joined the Eastern Orthodox church as an adult and why that kind of worship works for him – happy because I was interested in that aspect of him as a person, and also because in any memoir of spiritual struggle (and you know I read a lot of those), I am glad if it ends with the person having found a form of faith that brings them some genuine peace and happiness.
By the end of the book the main impression left is of a deeply flawed man who has found some innner peace after a tumultuous life, and who is both angry at, and grateful to, the equally flawed parents who launched him into that life, as well as deeply critical of the belief system that molded his early years.