Down The Line Interview with Frank Schaffer

posted in: Articles, January 2018 | 0

Frank Schaffer is a name I grew up with. I knew of his reputation mostly from being Francis Schaeffer’s zealous son, who carried on the evangelical tradition with books and  films such as “How Should We Then Live?” Even from my teen years, I recall reading about Frank and his mudslinging at the evangelical church as a conservative i.e. Wittenburg Door magazine. Well, fast-forward that thirty-some years later and Frank is still slinging mud at the evangelical church, only as a social progressive. I picked up on the fact that he was not the same person as he was back in the 80s when I read Portofino and Saving Grandma, two books that offer a fun insider’s perspective of what it is like growing up in an evangelical home.

Frank is not one for soft diplomacy and feel-good sentiments. And he doesn’t back down from a fight. He says it how he sees it. His lens is a unique one, given he grew up with many of the cats he publicly chastises. Our world needs more people like Frank Schaffer, who is firmly committed to voicing concerns and taking hypocrisy and intolerance to task. He also does it with style and sometimes humor. Without further adeau…..Frank Schaeffer!

I read Crazy For God with much intrigue. The dismantling of your evangelical posturing came around the time of your father passing away. You mentioned your father becoming more fiery about inerrancy of scripture, even at the cost of tearing apart family. When you began your journey towards re-examining your theology and politics, what was that like for you? And secondly, did you feel “jumping ship” was a betrayal to the people who influenced or supported you while you were fervently evangelical?

It started with art. In this case my first novel Portofino. After I wrote that work of humor, it occurred to me that the humor was at the expense of the evangelical religion I’d grown up on. I never set out to write a satire. It isn’t one but many evangelicals that took it as such. So in a way I was divorced from the community without setting out to leave at first. My head was already in another place. And my art, through writing, took on a life of its own before I had put together any sort of coherent alternative plan. One sister of mine broke contact after the novel was published. We’re talking again these days. Later, she said she over reacted. As for the rest of the community the NY Times got it right when they said evangelical leaders regarded me as a “traitorous prince” fleeing and then renouncing so-called evangelical royalty.  The truth is, this is so long ago now for me that I have very little emotion about it these days. And Post-Trump and the white evangelical vote for Trump I am just so grateful that I made another life for myself. These folks are truly alien to me now. To not be liked by the likes of a Franklin Graham or a Jerry Falwell Jr. these days hurts about as much (and for the same reasons) as not being liked by the neo-Nazis.

You wrote Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway. This title is revealing about your agony over the entrapments of fundamentalist faith. In this book you describe the inerrancy of Scripture as: “…everything it says is true, historically, geologically, scientifically, sociologically, scientifically, and every other way — then you have signed onto a Bronze Age myth. And one of the primary tenets of that myth is a misogynistic view of women, and also a view of gay people, which puts them outside of the mainstream of just human existence.” Not a lot of evangelicals were ready to hear that in 2011 and not many can hear this now. Could you expand on how you feel about inerrancy of the text?

It is a question that is moot once one decides, as I did long ago, that the Bible is not only not in any sense the “Word of God” but in fact denies basic common sense about any or all creators. The God-of-the-Bible is a lot less kind than I am, and I’m a jerk sometimes. What I mean is that in 65 years I’ve gone from being a harsh teen father to a pretty good grandfather. I learned that I’d never burn a child forever for getting some idea about me wrong (theology) or demand that they “believe” in me. Sorry, but the Bible is interesting but backwards. When I look at the universe and the evolution of empathy within us, the idea that this little dumb Middle-Eastern “god” is just silly. So inherency is moot for me. Besides, there is no such thing as a “book” called the Bible as American Protestants think of it. There is just a collection of texts that the authors had no idea at all would ever be read as a whole, as if it’s a novel with a story arc.

Also in Sex, Mom & God you write, “The history of theology (Christian or otherwise) is the history of people desperately trying to fit the way things actually are into the way their holy books say they should be.” This is a more humble approach at coming to understand the tradition with all the follies and atrocities committed. Where is the hope for holding onto a faith stemmed from a sacred text?

None. What “sacred” texts? If faith exists it is because of the witness of our own empathy, the sacred text of our hearts, and the wonder and beauty of the universe.  The books are interesting literature but tell us nothing about God. For instance I love the way preachers say things like “As Jesus says in…” What??? You mean the guy who wrote down what he says Jesus said…” Right? Not the same thing at all. All hearsay. If you want to read God’s book, look up and out and in. You are the book. So is all of creation.

When Michele Bachman, a Reconstructionist, was running as a Republican Candidate in 2011, you said in an on-air interview, “The religious right that I was part of is fundamentally anti-American. They hate this country. They wrap themselves in the flag, but they hate America as it is: the America that embraces gay people, is multicultural, is a homogeneous society that seeks to incorporate all races and ethnic creeds into its culture. The America they love is the, quote, “Christian America” that they keep harping back to, that people like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, etc., all want to take us back to. But it’s an America that never existed and certainly doesn’t now.”

So… here we are now, years later, and we have Reconstructionists in the White House. I have heard some people express that, in time, the gap between other people rooted in faith and the evangelicals will widen, and evangelicals will be seen as those who bought out to a party line. Could you comment? 

Yes. Trump is the end of the line. The myth is exploding. Let’s just take all the old time claims people like Dad made for the Reformed tradition. The person of Christ et al. Well, now the mask is off. 83 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who clearly hates everything Jesus is said to have said. And he’s in bed with the type of Christians—say Ralph Reed—that my father and most other evangelicals even a generation ago would have called opportunistic flakes and con artists. So even by the old standard of what the gospel is now,  we have an Ayn Rand gospel of prosperity not only in the White House but in J. Osteen’s fake Jesus-wants-you-rich version of “Take up your cross and follow me” gospel… Well the charade is over!

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who still relates to Jesus as his biggest inspiration in his life, and it emanates through him quite authentically.  He mentioned watching one of your latest video blogs where you speak about Evangelicals who support Trump. In his perspective you lumped white Evangelicals in with card-carrying Republicans, which is not altogether the case. I might be an exception, but most of the Evangelicals I know are educated, salt-of-the-earth people who think through the issues, and some are actually more progressive in their praxis than the liberals I know. Is there some way that a more clear distinction can be made than to lump white Evangelicals as those that voted in Trump and have a literalist view of scriptures, which is not altogether true?

I often say I am NOT lumping all evangelicals together as Trump supporters. Just check out both my videos on FB and also my TV News comments on MSNBC etc. That said, evangelicals who are worried about their image should start a movement to question and challenge people like Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed et al. Their problem is that it is “these guys not me.” When only 19 percent of one’s group didn’t vote for Trump according to the polls, it’s not a generalization to speak of “evangelicals voting for Trump.”  So sure there’s a wide array of believers. But if I were still in the evangelical movement I’d be speaking even more loudly about the traitors to Jesus who now lead the political wing of that movement. They didn’t just vote for Trump, they—unlike, say, many Wall Street  leaders–are the last people to still defend his most cruel and evil actions.

Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisers, on Sunday defended the president’s remarks that “many sides” were to blame for the violence at a white nationalist rally in Virginia, saying “he has inside information that I don’t have. I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes. But he had inside information that I didn’t have,” said Falwell, the president of Liberty University in Virginia, on ABC’s This Week.

Franklin Graham defended Donald Trump from critics blaming him for the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia riots that occurred over the weekend. Graham, instead, said that the blame is on Satan. With leaders like this, evangelicals need no enemies.

I assume you have some familiarity with the political writer Chris Hedges, who identifies as an anarchist and a Presbyterian minister. If you and Chris Hedges were to meet over coffee or a couple drinks, what would you find some agreement on and where would you lock horns?

Chris and I have exchanged friendly emails. I admire him. We agree on a lot. I guess I regard his view of the evils of all things American these days as too farfetched. I’d ask what the alternatives are. I regard America as a mixed bag and am more of the mind that the good can sometimes prevail. I’m less worried about evil on Wall Street for instance. I think there is a HUGE difference between the Democratic Party and the Republicans. Republicans in Congress back Trump’s meanness, not just on immigration but the entire social safety net. Compassion is out! Codling white privilege is in!

Republicans hate the social safety net. They believe that a society without economic incentives–in other words a society where if you need help you’re on your own–leads to economic stagnation. They equate what they call “freebees” — medical care for all and the entire safety net from Medicare to Social Security, let alone paying off student loans — with the removal of important “incentives.” Yet the success of some of the wealthiest and happiest countries in the world, from Germany to Denmark, has proven that decency, compassion and fairness work. And Republicans aren’t consistent either. It’s “To hell with the needy!” … until the Republicans need something. Both of the major American parties are NOT “the same.” One wants to destroy the Earth, the other doesn’t. One cares about ordinary people, the other doesn’t. One is striving for the common good, the other party is striving to make the rich richer and the Earth be damned.

The Democratic Party is no more the “same” as the Trump/Republican Party than were the Allied coalition that defeated the Nazis, the “same” as the Nazis and their Axis allies!

In one of your God trilogy books you wrote about how your father would stop his sermon mid-stream and take you down to the furnace room of the church to give you a spanking if you misbehaved. I also went through that experience growing up. To this day I still cringe when I smell an old church basement like the one I got whacked in.

Actually this was true, but not for me. As I recall I recounted how Dad did this with one of my sisters. But the point remains: the entire “way” of so many evangelical child “care” methods reeks of violence and threat.

This experience may be irrelevant to most readers. But I think the fact we can look back at an event from decades ago (such as spanking) and thank our lucky stars that we are mostly no longer there is an indication that we are getting a bit more mature in retrospect. What do you think we are doing today that hopefully in 20 years from now, we will just shake our heads over and say, “How did we ever think that was ok?”

The whole sale of turning kids over to screens, to a mediated relationship with nature via the Internet. This is going to have huge unintended consequences.

Amongst more conservative Christians, there is a strong current of the end of the world and the rapture. In more historically rooted faith traditions, there is an adherence to God bringing the world to a place of being healed, which envisions God’s restorative work. Can you speak about this?

Well of course, from my perspective, something like the inerrancy question… to put it mildly these issues aren’t keeping me up at night! Bluntly it’s all nonsense. If any creator’s actions depend on us getting our ideas about that creator right, then he, she, or it is an idiot. I care for 3 of my 5 grandchildren every day. My relationship with them is unconditional. It has to do with love. And I’m just this guy…

In Patience With God you bring up a fascinating response to Western Christianity’s need for certainty with your disclosure of apothatic theology, or the theology of not knowing. In the Evangelical and even most Catholic settings, we tend to shy away from the mystical approach. Can you elaborate a bit on the apothatic  approach and how it might be healthier in our understanding of how God might operate amongst creation?

I learned something about this on a visit to Mt. Athos. The monastic tradition at Mount Athos dates back to AD 800 and perhaps even earlier. The Holy Mountain is not a mountain at all but actually one of three rocky peninsulas that (on a map) look like a three-fingered hand sticking into the sea. All coming and going by land to the Athonite “finger” of this “hand” is prohibited. Only boats service the peninsula, and traffic is highly controlled. No one enters without written permission. No one just drops by.

The monks’ traditions are rooted in the monastic movements that evolved along with the very beginnings of Christianity, and most especially with St. Anthony the Great and the other desert fathers. Saint Anthony (c. 251 – 356) is known as the “Father of All Monks.” In fact, “The Holy Mountain” is the last surviving outpost of the Byzantine Empire that is still ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul) by the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. In that sense Athos is not part of modern Greece or even part of the modern world. In that sense it is the last outpost of the old Eastern Roman Empire (something I’ll explain more fully in another chapter). Be that as it may, St. Anthony would feel at home there. The rest of us— perhaps not so much.

What surprised me about some of the monks I talked to was they approached theology more like agnostics. I found this confusing. Wasn’t the monks’ liturgical form of religion very old-fashioned? Didn’t the old ways always equal fundamentalism? Wasn’t the history of our faith a steady decline from old-time religion to modern liberalism? How could a rule of life so strict that when a bell rang you had to stop eating as if your food had suddenly become poisonous, be open minded as well? Nevertheless—a hefty dose of Athonite misogyny, ancient liturgical trappings and strict diet aside—some of the monks I talked to accelerated a thought process in me that affects the daily life I share with my grandchildren today. And this thought process is the opposite of most versions of religious (or for that matter, secular) fundamentalisms.

The monks seemed to offer another way, a way where there are no so-called right beliefs per se, because there is no ultimate confidence in one’s own ability to draw perfect conclusions. Who we are, not what we say we believe, is what counted to them. At best, what we hold to be most true is never more than a hunch. This sense of our limits isn’t rooted in some sort of false humility but rests on a belief that we are not only imperfect but evolving. In other words, I was encountering the open and searching approach to spirituality loosely labeled apophatic theology.

Apophatic theology holds that the divine is ineffable and recognized only when it is felt and then lived. It’s not about “Truth” because truth is fickle and depends on perception. The emphasis is on experiencing what are called the “energies of God,” not on trying to describe a real or imagined God (or gods) or His, Her, or Its character. Theology is downgraded and the direct experience of beauty is upgraded. Something of this is captured by Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Church when he writes: “In order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit.” This way of seeing spirituality as a life rather than as a belief has other applications. For instance, whatever the facts of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology are, we tend to feel how we feel about our own personhood. We feel like there is a “me” in there looking out and brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology that debunks personhood be damned. In other words an apophatic perspective gives proper regard to actual life, not just to words about life. It opens the door to embracing often conflicted paradoxes as the best description of our actual experience of life. It opens the door to seeing that sometimes poetry and art, music and movies can tell the truth about reality as convincingly as science, albeit with a different voice.

order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit.” This way of seeing spirituality as a life rather than as a belief has other applications. For instance, whatever the facts of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology are, we tend to feel how we feel about our own personhood. We feel like there is a “me” in there looking out and brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology that debunks personhood be damned. In other words an apophatic perspective gives proper regard to actual life, not just to words about life. It opens the door to embracing often conflicted paradoxes as the best description of our actual experience of life. It opens the door to seeing that sometimes poetry and art, music and movies can tell the truth about reality as convincingly as science, albeit with a different voice.

This apophatic worldview directly influences the way I relate to those I love. Bluntly: my conflicted and inexpert embrace of apophatic perspectives on life and the art of living has helped me transition from being a certainty addict (who tended to believe he was always right) to embracing imperfection and thus relaxing (a bit). And the apophatic approach—where actual experience outweighs theory—is also where most of us as parents, teachers, or grandparents find truth. We experience actual life and actual children and soon revise our ideas. We even change our minds.

What are three books and three musical albums that have meant a lot to you in the last decade?

Books:

  • John Adams Paperback by David McCullough
  • We Go to the Gallery (Dung Beetle Reading Scheme 1a) Hardcover by Miriam Elia
  • The Last Empress: A Novel Paperback by Anchee Min

Music:

  • Loves Me…Loves Me Not… Hybrid SACD – DSD by Camilla/Gluck & Mozart Tilling (Artist), Ranieri Calzabigi (Composer), Lorenzo Da Ponte (Composer)
  • Culcha Vulcha by Snarky Puppy
  •  21st Century Breakdown by Green Day

You have a reputation for stirring up stuff online. You blog about issues that gets under your skin. That must take an absorbent of time and energy. What do you do to unwind or decompress?

Before I write or blog, I paint. Check out my art site. But after my morning work—I start at 3AM—I knock off at about 10 and spend the rest of the day caring for Lucy, 9, Jack 7, Nora, 3. I’m with a child all day. Talk about pets lowering blood pressure! I’m not a 65-year-old old fart, I’m a very relaxed young mom most of the day.

I think it is mostly true, though there are certainly a lot of people for whom this is not, that we tend to learn from our younger zeal and inexperienced scope of life. If you could time-travel back to revisit yourself in your twenties, what kind of conversation would your older self now have with the young Frankie Schaeffer? What would you say to the “younger you?’

I’d only try to say one thing because I know that it is the key to wisdom: Frank, know this: You’ll change your mind. Everything that seems so sure now will change. You’ll grow. So don’t think that the person you’ll be is the one in your head now. I won’t predict how you’ll change but I know you will. What younger people don’t get is the journey aspect of life. That’s why some younger couples get divorced too fast for instance. They don’t know that everything takes far longer to work out than they imagined. It is a long, LONG path!

This concludes the interview. You may check out Frank’s blog archives or the latest blog from Frank.

Finally, if you like what you have read here, go get some of his books, either at the library or Amazon. I’ve read a few of them and I have learned a lot.

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