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Wow... Just Extraordinarily Disappointing

Via Rod Dreher, this John Whitehead interview with Frank Schaeffer. The entire interview is well worth reading, though this might not owe to its content so much as its text-for-the-times quality. Interested readers are invited to jump over to the interview, while I'll only offer a few observations here.

First, as one of Dreher's commenters remarks, Schaeffer's treatment of his father is startlingly unfilial. Things of the nature he discusses in his new book - the occasion for the interview - one might discuss with a confessor, confidant, or small circle of friends from whom one has sought counsel and prayer. To discuss them, however, in a book which will be read by tens of thousands, and to drop intimations of them in interviews which will, by the miracle of the internet, receive widespread attention - well, that strikes me as a failure to honour one's parents, and if that means that I've no real use for many memoirs, well, so much the worse for their authors.

There is also a spurious argument against the prohibition of abortion - abortion is a tragedy, and Roe established a terrible precedent, but abortion we have always had with us. Okaaayyy.

There is, additionally, much hand-wringing and finger-pointing over the stance of the Religious Right on homosexuality, some of which is apropos (Homosexuality need not be regarded as a special sin which exceeds in wickedness other, more comfortable sins, such as adultery and easy divorce.), some of which is deeply misguided (Perhaps the advocacy of the Religious Right is rooted in a perception that a defense of the ontology of marriage and sexual distinctions is now logically prior to what we do once we recognize those distinctions, and not in some irrational antipathy, as Schaeffer seems to want to have it. What, after all, is the point of attempting to shore up marriage if the institution no longer carries a public meaning?).

Finally, Schaeffer does recoil from the longing for apocalyptic vengeance that some strands of evangelicalism often manifest, not simply a magnetic attraction to the negative, but a presumptuous longing for judgment.

On the whole, however, I perceive a sort of trainwreck, where those things left unsaid in the memoir and interviews are the true keys to understanding. Something has been left out.

Comments (11)

I won't read the interview, because I already heard in some detail about an article in some lefty publication praising the book and giving details. (Was it _The Nation_?) It sounded to me as though Schaeffer had been emotionally arrested at adolescence. The things being revealed actually weren't much of an indictment of his parents when you stopped to think about them even for a moment but might sell books. Like what an unpleasant 13-year-old boy might think himself clever for knowing, but really no big deal. Ick. And also just childish stuff, like something to the effect that, "My mother was a very sweet woman who made us all feel inadequate." Big, fat, hairy deal.

And not a very good Orthodox guy, either, if he's against prohibiting abortion and thinks evangelicals make too big a deal about homosexuality. Those should be issues we're all on board with. In fact, that was one of the greatest achievements of his father--getting evangelicals on board with what the Catholics already knew.

All right, I read the interview. Thinks a lot of himself, doesn't he? And Rod Dreher _liked_ the interview? _Really liked_ the book? Sometimes I really have to wonder if a taste for evangelical-bashing biases people on issues that they themselves, by their own lights, should see the same way that evangelicals see them. I could give example after example. Probably you could, too. This seems to me to be one. Dreher doesn't see the unfilial nature of writing a stupid tell-all book about your father throwing a potted plant at your mother, a book mentioning your parents' sexual frequency (!), because Frankie is able to bill it as a knife-dig at, of all people, James Dobson and Pat Robertson. Well, in that case, we'll just overlook the sordid memoir nature of it, the downplaying of the importance of the homosexual agenda, the conservative-bashing, the childishness of it, the self-focus, and so forth.

As for the homosexuality issue, it seems to me that the interviewer could, if he hadn't been so busy throwing softballs ("What's your legacy?" forsooth!) have pointed out that one reason people like Francis Schaeffer, Sr., probably said little about the homosexual agenda is that during his lifetime and where he was living, there was nothing remotely like the aggression of the homosexual legal and social agenda that there is now--the push for recognition of homosexual "marriage," the attempt to criminalize "discrimination," driving Catholic charities out of business if they won't place babies with homosexual couples, and on and on and on. Schaeffer, Sr.'s, easy-goingness on the topic was in some ways typical of his generation. C.S. Lewis, too, has some quotations that can be taken in isolation as "hey, it's not such a big deal." But then it has to be recalled that Lewis referred quite directly to homosexual desires as unnatural, and he expressly (and rather foresightedly) in a letter rejected any attempt to treat them as normal through a simulacrum of marriage. He took all of _that_ for granted. It never would have occurred to him that the statement of such things might be criminalized or that children would be brainwashed otherwise in the schools. The whole thing has shifted to a different front, now, and it is actually anachronistic to point out Schaeffer's or Lewis's general lack of _worry_ over a homosexual agenda as somehow normative for our own time when there really is such a thing as a militant homosexual agenda. This all should be obvious from a purely sociological point of view. But Frankie obviously thinks he's being so profound by saying how little his father talked about the issue and *repeatedly* saying he would be so "upset" to have his name associated with (gasp!) James Dobson, because Dobson is "anti-gay."

Well, yes, that's precisely the point: Schaeffer is engaged in a sort of misguided nostalgia, an anachronistic invocation of an earlier era of evangelical history as a reproach to the current evangelical mainstream (at least as he perceives it to be). But beyond the bogosity of this refusal to reckon with the sociological and political shifts of the past generation lie the reasons for his specific arguments. I remain unconvinced that Schaeffer awoke one morning and concluded that the evangelical emphasis upon sustaining the ontology of marriage in the culture, and stymieing the intrusions of homosexual agitprop in the schools, was somehow a corruption of the primitive purity of the evangelical message, still less a distraction from the pro-life agenda. Rather, I believe that some other conviction or impetus lies behind that judgment, and that this is where the real action here is to be found.

The whole episode is reminiscent of the publication of Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a jeremiad which landed numerous trenchant critiques upon the flaccid flanks of unintellectual, even anti-intellectual evangelicalism, yet suffused the whole with a vague, atmospheric admonition to evangelicals to come to terms with modernity - by which Noll meant somewhat more than learning to comprehend modernity. Noll's advice to evangelicals was for them to assume the normative status of any number of modernist notions, inclusive of the positivist/utilitarian approaches of the social sciences and various scholarly guilds. For example, his criticisms of evangelical hostility towards anything smacking of evolution, however benign, were telling; yet one does not need to flirt with the positivism of the guild of scientists in order to understand the Bible aright - one could, you know, read the Fathers, or Aquinas, and learn how to interpret certain controverted biblical texts. For that matter, one needn't accept the modern political doctrines of liberal pluralism as normative; evangelical teaching on culture needn't be a Cliff's Notes version of Rawls or Berlin - which is where Noll's counsels will lead. Evangelicals could rediscover natural law instead. In both cases, the latter options amount to the decision for mere Christianity, whereas the former amount to something rather less, a sort of ongoing accommodation to secular trends that either have no relevance to Christian thought, or are actually inimical to Christian phronesis.

By way of illustration, for those familiar with the text, I'd cite the very first page of the infamous Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Guitierrez, which actually states that the nexus of theology and praxis does not entail finding out what Scripture, Tradition, and history have to say about Christian engagement with the world, and then developing practical plans in accordance with the deposit of faith, but that that nexus involves re-articulating theology, interrogating the received tradition, on the basis of ongoing involvement with a revolutionary practice. Noll's jeremiad had the tone of a cut-rate, dime-store version of this methodological modernism.

Schaeffer's revisionism seems a cheaper version even than Noll's; but what is obvious to me is that he is deriving his conclusions from something he's leaving unstated, or merely insinuating. His critique, such as it is, is more than negative, and understanding what he has done would entail finding the positive beliefs that he's affirming by his negations.

I was very mildly intrigued by his saying that he believes in God and believes that Jesus is God and then talking about "the teachings of Christianity" in some sort of vague way and, it sounded to me like, downplaying anything that might smack of "fundamentalism"--like maybe the Apostles' Creed? I would have thought he could have been a little clearer about which teachings of Christianity he accepts. It showed a kind of loose-mindedness. Now this may be partly a personality issue. The guy is an artsy type, it doesn't sound like his education was very rigorous, so okay, I guess we should be glad he's affirming very clearly that he believes Jesus is God. But still.

I think your comments about Mark Noll are very much in the right direction. I read some of Noll's articles for First Things but not his original book. The FT articles had a fairly snobbish sound to them, and one of them was quite clearly judging evangelical schools by whether they'd been accepted into the club of the secular schools. I mean, that really sounded like it was his _major_ criterion for their success at becoming academically better. It was as though he had no idea of the increasing problems, intellectually even, with the secular schools themselves. And to drive home the fact that acceptance and reputation were his whole concern, he seemed quite pleased to report that students at Wheaton were ridiculing Scalia, apparently from a leftward direction, in classes. It wasn't that Noll had his own disagreements with Scalia. Nothing so content-based as that. It was just a matter of, "Oh, good, at Wheaton they are teaching their kids to disagree with the usual evangelical perspective on things. What a relief! That will make Wheaton seem more respectable!"

Well, I was trying to finesse the issue a bit, in the vein of Noll's admonitions in the book themselves. I had, mercifully, forgotten those FT pieces, which let the cat out of the bag, so to speak: the acquisition of respect, credibility, and intellectual stature entails the adoption of the perspectives, on any given issue, of the dominant liberal intellectual and media culture.

To speak forthrightly, I suspect that Schaeffer is playing the same game. Furthermore, many of us in Orthodox circles think that there is just something "off" with some of the Greeks, including some of the hierarchy and wealthy laity. A healthy and vibrantly orthodox Christian body does not publish and endorse a book in which it is argued that the doctrine of the Incarnation in Christianity is merely the particular expression, for particular cultures and peoples, of a universal spiritual truth also present in other major world religions - a notion that, among many other consequences, would make an utter hash of the New Testament and the early history of the Church. And then, you've got Collins and Snowe, about whom one never hears that they have been rebuked for their ethical heterodoxy.

So, yes, respectability entails execrating the Religious Right, not solely for its numerous failings, but even for its virtues. I'll pass, thanks.

Schaeffer's treatment of his father is startlingly unfilial.

Not in the Whitehead interview. Did you have some specific passage from the book in mind?

I've not read the book; I'm merely working with the material from the interview and the article published in the The Nation. It is unfilial to expose the turmoils of one's parent's marriage, to discuss their sexual frequency, and so forth. Art is no justification, and it is a modernist conceit that it is a justification, all apologies to Rod Dreher.

Well, Frank is hardly a Pheidippides.

I'm not ready to dismiss Frank's criticism on account of yours, mostly because he treats a topic that is highly problematic for me. Leaving aside the fine line between what is public and private, wouldn't you say that Frank's complaint of having his upbringing sacrificed for the greater good of the gospel is legit? The zealous dedication of his parents that moved so many came at a price. It may indeed be the case that missionaries and bloggers should stay celibate lest they dishonor their children.

That his parents shortchanged his upbringing in order to pursue their conception of a 'calling' is a legitimate complaint. This has nothing to do with his father throwing potted plants at his mother, his mother's emotional abusiveness, or their sexual frequency. Nothing.

The entire question of a 'calling', and the sacrifices that those who feel it often require of those around them - something I've observed myself around certain types of Protestants - does not necessitate laying bare the sordid details of family life. A sensitive literary mind would discern the implicit lines which ought not be crossed, and respect them, while still conveying the essentials of an upbringing typical of ministry families.

Preach it, Jeff. I completely agree. Right on.

Methinks you do assist the storm.

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