Evangelical royalty's game of thrones

Frank Schaeffer has, as The Economist once put it, "made a career out of criticising his evangelical parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer." While I and my people were not influenced by the Schaeffers, they've had a tremendous influence upon some of my favorite people (including GetReligion's Douglas LeBlanc). They founded a Christian retreat center in Switzerland where many people transferred from fundamentalism to evangelicalism or to greater engagement with the culture, including secular culture. They are known for their apologetics and influence on a wide swath of people including everyone from Jesus People organizer Jack Sparks to musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard. To say those parents were very well regarded among evangelicals, even by their evangelical critics, is an understatement. Late in his ministry, Francis began to be greatly influenced by his son Frank (according to Frank and others), who got him more involved in political engagement. Frank became known for his demonization of political opponents. At that time, those opponents were political liberals. Now they're political conservatives. He's written extensively about his break with the Christian right and wrote a memoir about his parents just three years ago. Author and social critic Os Guinness reviewed it in Christianity Today Books & Culture, refuting its central claims, but also saying that "Frank's portrayal of his mother is cruel and deeply dishonoring, monstrously ungrateful."

I have a rather intractable bias against children of famous people writing tell-alls so I wouldn't be the target audience of that type of memoir. But he's out with another, titled "Sex, Mom, & God." New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer uses this latest memoir as a hook for "Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale." Here's how it begins:

In every line of work, there are family businesses. But no business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching. Lyman Beecher, Bob Jones, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Robert H. Schuller, Jim Bakker: all had sons who became ministers.

Interesting. I don't actually regard the office of ministry as a business. But apart from that, is this really true? No line of work is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preaching? I mean, yes, we've named six really well known dudes but as a percentage of preachers, I'm not sure it's that impressive. When I think dynasties and nepotism, I think of the auto industry. Oil. Journalism. On the other hand, Guinness' review of that previous memoir suggested nepotism was Schaeffer's downfall and a major problem with many other evangelicals. It goes on:

It is never easy stepping into Dad’s shoes, of course. But when the family business is religion, it is especially perilous. That is one of the central laments, anyway, of “Sex, Mom, & God,” a new memoir by Frank Schaeffer. To secular Americans, the name Frank Schaeffer means nothing. But to millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives.

I'm not entirely sure. I mean, every time I read someone talking about the younger Schaeffer's "crime," they'd say it's neither financial profligacy nor turning his back on political Christianity. They might even oppose those things themselves. What they tend to say is that he's an ungrateful son or that his work is "cruel, distorted, and self-serving," that he manipulated his father, stuff like that.

I think an article that mentions the actual complaints of his critics and had Schaeffer respond to them would have been much more interesting.

Oppenheimer's piece explains that this memoir focuses on how Schaeffer was disillusioned with his faith but faked it for financial gain. And that's all very interesting. For instance:

“I had been home-schooled,” Mr. Schaeffer told me. “I had no education, no qualifications, and I was groomed to do this stuff. What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”

Two questions. In his previous memoir, he claimed his tutor had given him a "'great books' British university-level literature course." Guinness, who had been the elder younger Schaeffer's best man, had pointed out in his review that the younger Schaeffer had been a boarding school drop out and that his tutor would have been surprised by that characterization. But what changed in the last four years to result in such a drastic change in how that education was characterized?

But the other question I'd ask is whether there are still two lines forming, one with a $10,000 honorarium (to go to a different conference, of course) and one that requires you not to speak. Has something changed? What changed? Or are we seeing the same decision making? Schaeffer is getting quite a high profile -- including multiple book deals, profiles in the New York Times, speaking opportunities and new recognition and what not -- from his new religion. Is that relevant to the discussion? Why not ask?

I love Oppenheimer's columns in part because they are so darned friendly. But sometimes that friendliness to one subject is unfriendly to another. If you're profiling someone who's speaking ill of folks not in a position to defend themselves, is friendliness the best or only posture? Maybe even just a couple of tougher questions?

Also, for a religion column, the profiled subject isn't given a chance to tell us much about his religion. The article tells us that Schaeffer "opted out of evangelicalism" but we don't learn what he now believes or adheres to. That's what I'd be most interested in. That Economist piece tells us that Schaeffer is now conflicted about abortion but was speaking at a conference on alternative Christianity. He rather famously converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Is that where he remains?

Please respect our Commenting Policy