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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

Saved or Not?

Surviving a fundamentalist childhood

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I once crossed a protest line manned by Protestant fundamentalists to hear Frank Schaeffer. A novelist, essayist and movie director, Schaeffer had also been a luminary in the rise of the Christian right. By the time of his speaking engagement, he had renounced the faith in which he had been raised, embracing Eastern Orthodoxy and cautiously tacking leftward politically. No wonder the fundamentalists were mad.

Crazy for God (Carrol & Graf) will turn those same people red with rage. It’s largely an account of his 1960s childhood in Switzerland where his parents, the Calvinist theologians Francis and Edith Schaeffer, ran a community based on their interpretation of Christian ideals. L’Abri was an odd place. Timothy Leary popped by for a visit and Jimmy Page told the author that he found his father’s signature book, Escape From Reason, “very cool.” The Schaeffers were cultured and widely read in art, literature and music. By itself, this made them colorful fish in the gray sea of the evangelicals.

According to Schaeffer, the conflict between their cultural interests and religious beliefs sometimes made them neurotic as fruit bats. The portrait Schaeffer paints of his parents, who eventually provided intellectual comfort to the religious right and positioned him as a poster boy for engaged youth, is drawn with many nuances and much shading. The Schaeffers were actually rather liberal in contrast to most of their brethren. They were not homophobic and spoke against racism, listened to Bob Dylan and generally tried to work out the gospel of unselfish love in the running of L’Abri. On the other hand his parents were infected with the self-righteousness endemic to fundamentalism. The line between saved and unsaved was sharply drawn. The author’s parents proudly displayed their self-professed salvation like a shiny merit badge and were willing to condemn all those who didn’t wear the same medal.

That Schaeffer eventually broke with his parents’ faith is less remarkable than the sense of humor he sharpened against the hard stone of their theology. Crazy for God is a funny book, plainspoken and lively as a barroom debate. Schaeffer’s conversational, humorous tone conveys the hope for an expansion of the middle ground between shallow materialism and shallow religiosity.

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