When I was 12 years old I experience a dramatic spiritual awakening, but within a year it became clear that as an intellectual kid, my spiritual path would be more complicated than the simple fundamentalist faith of my upbringing. One day I was digging through a box of my parent’s dusty old books and fumbled upon a yellowed copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There. In those pages Schaeffer talked about Jesus and the Bible, but also epistemology, metaphysics, continental philosophers, art history, French new wave film and the Beatles. His reasoned and urbane explanation of historic Christian faith helped me reconcile my primal faith experience with an above average intelligence and artistic tendencies. I went on to read all 22 of Francis Schaeffer’s books before turning seventeen. The story of L’Abri, the Schaeffer’s learning center in Switzerland became the model in my imagination for the kind of work I might do someday. My dad actually spent an afternoon at L’Abri before I was born, around the table with Francis Schaeffer while his wife Edith and their teenage son, Franky, served tea.
Schaeffer was dying of cancer in the Mayo Clinic hospital two hours from my house around the time that I first discovered his writings. I noticed that his last several books were more blatantly negative and political, in contrast to earlier philosophical writings, but his reconstructionist A Christian Manifesto gave support to my inherited allegiance to the Moral Majority. It’s what motivated me to protest a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic when I was sixteen and to nominate myself for precinct chairman of the Republican party when I was twenty-three. After Francis Schaeffer died, I read and followed the work of his son, Franky, who was as articulate as his father, but more feisty and artistic. My two favorite books by Franky Schaeffer were Addicted to Mediocrity and Sham Pearls for Real Swine. In the early 90’s I heard that Franky had “gone off the deep end, ” became a hollywood film-maker, converted to Orthodox Christianity and “lost his faith.” This struck me as a weird and disconcerting turn of events for someone I deeply admired from afar.
Little did I know that my own understanding of Christian spirituality would soon change dramatically. By the time I was 26, having the right god words and being certain of “the truth” no longer satisfied the starved cravings of my soul for an earthen experience of the divine. I went off my own “deep end” and plunged into the rich and complex mysteries of a searching faith, which, like Franky, even included hanging out in Greek Orthodox monasteries.
In 2008 when I was on a 32 city book tour/ circa 1908 revival with my friends Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones I started reading Franky, now Frank’s “tell all” about coming of age during the height the religious right. Reading this book was like reading my own story or the history of my extended faith family. I paid particular attention to how Frank sought to both transcend and include all the elements that had shaped his life narrative. It gave me a chance to look back at where I’d come from and forward towards where the path ahead might lead. I believe Frank Schaeffer went through a spiritual shift towards emerging consciousness similar to what many of us have– but Frank Schaeffer was 15 years ahead of most of us. Doug, Tony and I talked a lot about Crazy for God as we bumped along the freeways of America in our friend Michael’s RV.
So, it was with great pleasure that I got to meet Frank Schaeffer at the first Wild Goose Festival. We quickly became friends. It was like meeting a distant relative for the first time. I’m sure it didn’t hurt, and probably flattered Frank, that I’d read almost all of the fiction and non-fiction he’d ever written. Frank was very kind to my son Isaiah, whom he gave some peculiar advice with a wink: “get your girl friend pregnant and quit high school. I did and look how I turned out–Painter, Hollywood Film maker, and New York Times best selling author!”
Last year at Wild Goose Festival Frank handed me the manuscript for a new novel he’d been working on called And God said “Billy!” I came to the festival with a terrible flu and spent the first two days in my tent sweating with explosive diarrhea, giving me a chance to read through most of And God said “Billy!”, which I finished on the plane ride home.
It is one thing to write good non-fiction, to “tell it straight, ” but quite another to “tell it slant, ” conveying ideas through narrative. Frank Schaeffer is a good non-fiction writer and a great novelist. Billy, the protagonist, is an intriguing character, a humorous embodiment of schizophrenic religious America. He is a walking contradiction of motives and conflicting inner voices. Through astute cultural observation and by mining his own life experiences Schaeffer has created a character and narrative arch that personifies the spiritual development needs and crisis of western culture. If Schaeffer excels at anything in his writing, it is in keeping the reader interested with various twists and turns, salacious details, and surprisingly tender moments. The scene in the Apartheid South African morgue is truly unforgettable. The conclusion of the novel is arresting, as Billy is knocked into a white light sanity that is veiled in mystery and secrecy. Towards the conclusion, Billy nearly becomes caricature as the narrative veers towards the polemic, in similar fashion to an Upton Sinclair novel– though I understand this exaggeration fits with the genre and may be an homage to Schaeffer’s literary mentor, Hunter S. Thompson. It is a well told tale that will leave you torn with longing for a similar transformation of character.
Some people are good writers who put the best of themselves onto the page. Frank Schaeffer is a good writer and a great human being. Much like this novel Frank Schaeffer is the embodiment of his personal philosophy and way of seeing, full of contrasts, surprising tenderness and reckless love.