Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Lost Boy

"I'd rather be arrested for shoplifting than ever be an evangelical leader again. There was a certain basic and decent honesty about stealing pork chops that selling God had lacked."

Frank Schaeffer


These days, it is not uncommon for evangelical parents to be in a near constant state of mourning for the spiritual loss of their children. The faith of the next generation, when there is one at all, bears little resemblance to the faith of our fathers. There is no more telling illustration of this situation than Frank (aka Frankie) Schaeffer. Schaeffer's father Francis was literally the spiritual father of the modern evangelical movement and its leading intellectual figure for decades. Frank Schaeffer's bitterness toward the evangelical movement and consistent movement away from traditional Christianity should serve as a cautionary tale for us all.

Evangelicalism has a strong tendency to discount everything said by those who disagree with it, especially those who have left the faith. This refusal to face facts is like coming upon a critically injured person on the freeway and then refusing to listen to their dying declaration about how the accident happened.

Frank Schaeffer is saying a lot these days much of it not very flattering toward evangelicals. A lot of it appears to be motivated by bitterness, anger and self absorption. But, the Frank Schaeffer who is now calling his father an abuser and his mother "controlling" is the same "Frankie" Schaeffer who decades ago warned us what was to come in the culture. His ideas deserve to be heard if not universally accepted.

Schaeffer alleges that the social movement his father founded has been co-opted first by evangelical personality cults and then by political opportunists. There can be no doubt that Francis Schaeffer was the leading intellectual figure in the evangelical movement of the last generation. He and John Whitehead (another story unto himself) are personally responsible for much of what is called the "religious right." By virtue of his proximity, Schaeffer should have knowledge that the rest of us do not. Schaeffer is largely correct in stating that the major evangelical organizations tend to be personality cults and completely correct in stating that the movement has been taken over (and I would add mis-managed into insignificance) by partisan political forces.

Schaeffer has always been scathing in his criticism of so-called Christian art and music and was correct in doing so. Comparing the warmed over pop that most churches now offer as "worship music" to Bach and Beethoven is simply ridiculous. Modern "worship" music with its simplistic melodies and repetitive phrasing, far from elevating the soul and challenging the intellect, tends to anesthetize them the same way that chanting a mantra does in Eastern religions. Placing a Michaelangelo alongside a Thomas Kincaid should end most of the argument concerning the visual arts. Schaeffer is right. The Christian art of our generation is a disgrace.

But above all, Schaeffer is criticized for abandoning the evangelical faith in favor of the Greek Orthodox church. While I cannot condone his action, I can certainly understand and even empathize with his problem. The modern evangelical church really has no place for intellectuals. It has replaced the vibrancy of Christian thought with platitudes and a polyester clad orthodoxy that is at least as constricting as the theological orthodoxy it claims to denounce. In his groundbreaking book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" Mark Knoll quipped: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

This lack of an evangelical mind is perhaps the underlying reason for the loss of Frank Schaeffer and those like him. I once had a conversation with a charming, incredibly bright lady that illustrates this situation well. Her husband was successful and well respected in their community. She had been a faithful church woman her entire life. She lived what appeared to be the American dream until her youngest child was horribly injured in a freak accident. The child lived for months afterward and she and her husband lived by the bedside as their precious child slipped away.

She told me that during the depths of her depression, both before and after her child's death, that she simply had no energy for "playing the church game" and the faith that should have been her greatest comfort was in fact just another burden to bear. She was in a place far beyond keeping up appearances to bolster the weaker faith of curious onlookers. During this time, she took solace in what amounted to an evangelical liturgy that allowed her, in her state of physical and mental desperation, to still come before God in a meaningful way.

It is in these moments of extremity that modern evangelicalism with its pop culture worship and self centered theology frequently loses its best and brightest. In any congregation there are people suffering through life situations that will not change and bearing burdens that the person next to them could not possibly understand. And, there are people whose souls have suffered such deep hurt that they will never completely heal .... in this life at least. These are often the people with the most to offer their community of faith. But, platitudes from the pulpit don't work with these folks and what passes for worship is likely to annoy them. They need a faith theologically complex enough to embrace the inexplicability of difficult life circumstances and smart enough to engage them. They usually don't find it.

Fortunately for the evangelical pastors, these folks usually go away. Modern evangelicalism is woefully unequipped to deal with the intellectual complexities of modern life and the dark night of the soul that its best and brightest often endure. And so, they slip away, some quietly, but some with a bang like Frank aka Frankie Schaeffer.

I cannot condone Frank Schaeffer's verbal uncovering of his father's nakedness. It displays an appalling and unattractive lack of respect for a man of his father's stature. And I cannot condone his departure from the faith. But, the tale of Frank Schaeffer should serve as final warning to the evangelical establishment. Something is terribly wrong in the evangelical culture and you had better go about righting it before the faith itself is lost to future generations.


A very good discussion of the "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" can be found HERE.


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