A preacher's-kid story, writ large

FrequentlyAvoidedChristopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times has told the pathos-laden story of conflicts between pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and his namesake son, pastor of Capo Beach Calvary. Goffard's story touches on a theme that deserves long-form treatment somewhere: The often awkward role of young people -- sons, usually -- who inherit the weighty mantle of a celebrity preacher.

The two Chuck Smiths embody so many of the conflicts in contemporary church life, including:

• traditional vs. emergent congregations (emergent guru Brian McLaren endorsed Smith's wittily titled Frequently Avoided Questions);

• doctrinal watchdogs vs. a man's loyalty to his son (the younger Smith's church still appears under the calvarychapel.com domain);

• decades of preaching and waiting for an imminent Rapture of the church vs. a sense that "the Gospels' core message was real-world compassion, not preparation for the afterlife";

• the minefield of sexuality debates, which bring so many smiles and hugs and feelings of unity, whether at a church convention or around the family dinner table.

Unlike the story of Billy and Franklin Graham, the account of the Smiths follows the more familiar script of the uptight old man versus the nuanced son who acknowledges murky reality:

From his pulpit in Santa Ana, Chuck Smith's voice thunders with certainty. He denounces homosexuality as a "perverted lifestyle," finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.

If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the ruddy good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known a day's doubt or despair.

From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father's church, Chuck Smith Jr.'s voice trembles with vulnerability and grapples with ambiguity. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a "conversation" rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as "The Simpsons" for messages, and aims to reach "generations of the post-modern age" that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.

But Goffard also shows that father and son express affection for one another:

Reminded of the memo he issued cracking down on his son's views, the father replies, calmly and amiably, that he and his son are just aiming for different audiences, and he doesn't want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.

"I don't feel that he's an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned."

. . . His relationship with his father, he agrees, is tighter than ever. He will even write his dad's biography some day. His challenge, he says, is extricating himself from his dad's fundamentalist evangelical community without traumatizing his parents.

"It's like the parents whose child comes out to them and says, 'I'm gay,'" Smith said. "Hopefully they come around and say, 'You are our son and we will always love you.' My parents are no less loving than that."

Goffard closes his story by referring to a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, who helped the elder Smith welcome hippies into his congregation in the 1970s and died of complications from AIDS in 1993. I've been eager to see Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher since OC Weekly placed it on my radar in April 2005.

Happy news for anyone else who is waiting: Director David Di Sabatino wrote in a recent email that his film will appear on KQED on Nov. 19. On the same day, Di Sabatino will begin selling DVDs of the documentary and The Making of Frisbee through lonniefrisbee.com.

Please respect our Commenting Policy