Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the ugly side of evangelicalism

recently someone in my church told me about this book, and i was interested so she told me she's let me borrow it when she was done. she gave it to me on sunday night. i finished it last night (tuesday night). i couldn't put it down. now, don't confuse that for a shining review, because it isn't. it is only to say that, for one reason or another, it captured my attention and would not let me go, until the last 75 pages or so.
here's the deal. any of you who grew up in evangelical circles might remember a theologian/philosopher by the name of francis schaeffer. i personally didn't know much about schaeffer until i went to grove city college where he was venerated as a saint of reformed theology. i have a distinct memory of sitting in a friends apartment at the kitchen table reading a small book by francis schaeffer in between bites of cereal. this was reading for 'pleasure.' in college, when i could have been reading any number of things.
well this book is not by francis schaeffer. its by his son, frank. it is his memoir of growing up in switzerland and his involvement in evangelical america and the origins of the political religious right. i don't know if you can see it in the picture above but the subtitle to the book is "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."
schaeffer is clearly a gifted writer, and so the book reads well. for someone like me who has some historic connections to the evangelical subculture, the book was a bit odd in that at times it felt like frank knew me. he was growing up in switzerland, i grew up in kentucky. he grew up in a family with famous, almost worshipped, parents; i had no such attention. and yet at times it felt like frank was describing me. when he would detail the kind of theological language and reasoning that was common in his upbringing, i could instantly identify. when he talked about a kind of moralistic evangelical christianity, i could strongly identify. it just all felt oddly familiar.
the cliff's notes version is that frank grew up as a bit of a rebel, or at least as a normal kid doing things his parents wouldn't really have condoned. he was becoming an artist. but one thing led to another and he was soon working with his father in the pro-life campaign and was one of the main voices in that struggle. he made films about it and went on major speaking tours. he became one of the better known evangelicals along the lines of dobson, robertson, falwell et al. and then he rejected it all. he left the evangelical subculture and tried a variety of things that he mostly failed at until he became an author. now he writes. he has converted to greek orthodoxy.
there is a great deal that interests me in all of this; not the least of which is the reaction that conservative christian 'evangelical' america has had to frank's honesty about his upbringing, his own discomfort with evangelicalism, and his own faith (and sometimes lack thereof). just a cursory search of frank schaeffer online will result in different poisonous reviews of his work, as well as some blogs where you can find the basic evangelical opinion about him. like this comment found on tim challies' blog, "what is surprising is that he has forsaken his parents' faith and has converted to greek orthodoxy. he has directed several films, three of which were rated 'r' for their violent content. i guess it shows that even the most biblically-sound parents can still 'lose' their children." what is fascinating to me is the ugly underbelly of american christianity that is so wrapped up in either one or two issues (abortion, inerrancy, homosexuality, etc.) or so moralistically minded that it believes it is judge and jury for eternity. i mean people are actually convinced that frank schaeffer is going to hell because he made 'r' rated movies or left his parents' faith or converted to greek orthodoxy. or he curses. and drinks wine. the book is full of examples of the dirty underbelly of american evangelicalism, and it is disheartening to say the least.
i am discovering that when this is the christianity that many americans know, or at least it is the christianity that they have come in contact with, it is no wonder that they have decided that the church is not relevant for them. ultimately, frank ends up his book pointing out that what has made the most impact from his 'nearly-saint-status' parents was quite simply their love. not their teachings. not their morality. just love. reminds me of somebody....
anyway, i don't highly recommend this book, unless you are particularly interested in either the schaeffers or the religious right.
thanks for your comments on heaven yesterday. should be an interesting conversation tonight.
grace and peace,


Erin said...

Sounds like an interesting read. You know, before I came to GCC, i really thought only "Baptist's" were going to heaven. :)

greg. said...

its funny how we all become judge and jury in our minds about who is "in" and "out." if i'm honest with myself, i know i have to repent of this from time to time.