September 29, 2020

A Time To Run Away and Look Back: Frank Schaeffer’s Calvin Becker Trilogy Considered

UPDATE: Here’s my review of Crazy For God.

I’ve been reading quite a few novels and autobiographies. Some of you need to shut off the theology and read something else. Maybe read Calvin’s Institutes for a year or something.

That was joke. Anyway…

I just finished Frank Schaeffer’s Calvin Becker Trilogy. (I talked about them a bit on the last podcast.) This includes Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma. All are available cheaply in used copies.

I won’t rehash the books for you beyond this: Schaeffer turned his adolescent life into three novels about a teenager boy being brought up by Presbyterian missionaries in Switzerland. The whole family is there, and so are all the typical issues of a 13, 14 and 15 year old boy. If you are looking for a mixture of absurdity, comedy and honesty about growing up fundamentalist, these are your books. Calvin Becker is as good a narrator as Huck Finn. If you’re an evangelical with roots in the last 40 years of evangelicalism, you are going to laugh, cry, get angry, throw the books, be amazed, pray, applaud and generally have a good time.

If you are a great fan of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s ministry and need them to be treated as icons, or if you don’t think a person should write novels with thinly veiled references to the family (all confirmed in Schaefer’s later autobiography, Crazy for God,) you may get very angry and really, you probably should avoid these books. If generous descriptions of teenage sexual behavior and fantasies offend you, stay far, far, far away. (The books do contain some bad language in the third book, but most of what’s here is simply bawdy, in a humorously fundamentalist kind of way.)

If you grew up in the craziness of fundamentalism and it’s only recently you’ve realized that segment of your life was not normal, was more than a little twisted and somewhat cultic at times, then you will read these books with great profit. That was my experience. I need to be reminded of what it was like for others growing up inside the hothouse of fundamentalist evangelical thinking, behavior, rhetoric and relationships. I need to laugh so that I don’t get too angry or start crying, and Schaeffer is very helpful on that count.

If you want to hate your fundamentalist roots, then avoid these books. Schaeffer loves his family. There’s no venom here, and not any simpering pity either. If you can admit that we are all broken and we’re a rather amazing show when we act like we’re not, then you’ll be struck with a lot of poignancy and real beauty in these pages. if you want to know that you can live through it all, somehow triumph over it, retain your faith and even resolve the craziness into some kind of meaning, then by all means, read these novels.

There are two moments in these stories that really touched me. The first is Ralph Becker’s loss of faith near the end of the second book. For a few days, Calvin’s dad questions everything and tries out another way of looking at life; one without the dogmatism, the superiority, the arrogance and the self-hatred. For a few days he’s a happy person. He relaxes, makes friends, tells his son that he loves him and is determined to live a normal life. He is a human being, and not a programmed, driven robot.

Of course, it doesn’t last long, and before long Ralph is back to himself, and more filled with anger, arrogance, division, frustration and self-loathing than ever.

Quite sad.

Then, in the third book, Ralph’s angry, abusive, and extremely profane mother comes to live with the family. At first, Calvin wants nothing to do with her, but through a bizarre series of events, he finds within himself the ability to love her in a way no one else in the family can. At one point, he pleads with her to go through the motions of accepting Jesus so his family will treat her better and take care of her health problems. There is a moment of connection as this old woman and this confused teenager agree that to live with some Christians, you just have to go along with their delusions of what real love is.

Again, powerfully true and sad.

Many IM readers have already spoken up for their dislike of Schaeffer. Some find his choice to tell his own stories in the context of his family’s story to be unforgivable. I understand that feeling, and I cannot picture myself writing in the same way as Schaeffer.

But it is easy for me to admit that my own story would have found resolution much, much sooner if I could have seen the whole truth, the broken truth, the laughable truth, the sad truth about my fundamentalist upbringing. There were things I could not think or feel without incredible guilt. There still lurks in my mind and heart a whole fundamentalist world where I have been told all the answers. I have been told who I am and what I must do to be a good person. I have been made a preacher and only if I preach in that world am I of value.

Calvin Becker eventually runs away from that world, and while he misses it, he finds freedom when he says to his frend Gino “I don’t believe in predestination anymore.” We all know he will go home, but we also know that he has claimed his identity in another world and he will not be utterly determined by his family.

No matter what you think of Schaeffer, I admire him for doing what a writer must sometimes do for himself- run away, look back, laugh, cry and say “I don’t believe all that anymore.”

Comments

  1. IMonk, thanks so much for this post. I’ve recently read the 1st half of Crazy for God via Google Book Search and was truly amazed to see that my own perceptions of Swiss L’Abri (and many people who were there) were actually pretty much on-target. (I was there in the late 70s.)

    I’m waiting for my copies of these novels + CFG to arrive in the mail. At 1st, Frank’s honesty shocked me in some ways (in CFG), but after seeing how he strives to present a well-rounded, thoughtful portrait of his family, my opinion (of him and of his writing) has changed considerably.

    I wasn’t raised in fundamentalist circles, but I definitely did get involved in several churches that were part of that world… and find it a huge relief to see someone putting it into perspective. (Though I never dreamed that Frank would be the person to do it! ;))

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll put these on my list of “to read” in 2009.

    And to Chris Lee, this blog rocks, please lighten up.

    Sidenote: I like the idea of ‘putting into perspective’ as a way of describing Franky’s take on things.

  3. I loved these books. Though my family, thankfully, was not like the family Frank described, I recognized people I knew from our church. Frank had them dead on. I also read Crazy For God. Like all of Frank’s work, I felt conflicted. I wrote a tough, “not so sure I liked it” review on my blog. Imagine my amazement when I received an email FROM FRANK, thanking me for reading his books and my review.

    There you go, Frank/Franky, catching me off guard once again.

  4. In 1986, when I was just 13, I was given the book edited by Franky Schaeffer, “Is Capitalism Christian”.

    According to reviewer James Huff:

    This book was written in response to the “rising tide of evangelical Christian radicalism” during the decade leading up to its publication. Such radicalism was demonstrated by
    Sojourners, The Other Side, and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This radicalism argues that America is fundamentally unjust, that the West is responsible for Third World poverty, that forced redistribution of money, goods, and services will bring about increased equality, and that socialism is more compassionate than capitalism.

    The premise of the book is that
    “democratic capitalism… allows man more freedom to achieve his rightful place in the universe as a creature of dignity made in the image of God than any other socio-economic system.

    Knowing that Frank(y) has turned his back on Fundamentalism, I wonder how he now feels about capitalism, a system he once so strongly supported.

  5. I can’t speak for Schaeffer, but it is important to know that Frank underwent a major political shift in his life and that is the subject of his recent autobiography.

  6. Frank was on Terri Gross’ “Fresh Air” less than a month ago. Click here for a direct link to the audio.

  7. I know very little about Schaeffer (Frank or Francis) outside of the “God Who is There.” He definitely doesn’t seem fundamentalist in that book, but very willing to confront and face culture head-on (which is very anti-fundamentalist). Did something change that caused him to be fundamentalist? Or did he leave fundamentalism before writing that book?

  8. Frank is the son. Francis was the author of the famous books. Frank’s autobiography can answer your question, but Francis Schaeffer was convinced by Frank to become mmuch more of a fundamentalist culture warrior than he was by temperament. He also strongly suggests his mother was the spiritual leader of the family.

  9. I’ve not read the books discussed but have been inspired by many other books. I’m a ‘thrift’ store nut. I find great books by Christian authors at places like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and others. The best places though are the smaller stores owned by some churches…proceeds go to the churches’ local missions. I get great books for $1.00.

    Main reason for the comment is to say, “Heartfelt wishes to all of you…and your families…during the upcoming year. And the sincere desire of my heart for you..is that the Father’s ‘will be done’ on your behalf.

  10. I’ve read the trilogy twice – my observations:

    1. The father is physically, even criminally abusive to Calvin, but the real hate is reserved for the mother. Calvin comes to understand and forgive his father, but never his mother. She is the monster of the novels.

    2. The books were published out of order. Saving Grandma (1997) is the last of the 3, but Zermatt (2003) takes place before Saving Grandma. However, the end of Zermatt shows the scorched earth of the Becker family life, and I’m not sure if you can return to the fun of Saving Grandma. Read Zermatt last.

    3. In Zermatt the father writes a paper called “A Holiday from God.” This writing sounds so much like Francis Schaeffer and not like Frank Schaeffer that I have always wondered who really wrote it.

    4. I grew up in a fundamentalist home. My father is a minister. I attended a fundamentalist university. I am longer a believer. The Calvin Becker trilogy is in no way a picture of my upbringing and home life. My parents, though flawed, were not abusive and were not hypocrites. They tired as hard as they could every day to live what they believed. My leaving the faith broke their hearts.

    The Becker trilogy on one hand is like reading juicy gossip about a family we all thought we knew and even admired. On the other hand, it is clearly the therapy Frank Schaeffer used to move past his gastly upbringing. I enjoyed 2 of the 3 books (Zermatt is cruel and difficult to read). I object to the idea that the books are a picture of life in a fundamentalist home. That trilogy remains to be written.

  11. You pushed my buttons with that post, so much I wish I could say if I had the time.

    First of all Francis (senior) is still an iconic figure for me, and I have nothing but the deepest of respect for him. I had read all his books back when I was an Evangelical. But it was when I had my own crisis of faith that the ministry of LAbri came home to me.

    I was living in Egypt and attempted to get into the Swiss branch (but they were not accepting students at the time).

    I came home to the states, and visited their US headquarters (in Rochester, MN). There . . . the key thing that bought me sanity and a hope of knowing God again . . . was being introduced to Francis’ tape catalog. I must have listened to 200 of his lectures, plus re-read all his books. I have to say that (unless God had found another avenue of Grace) I would not be a Christian today if it had not been for the fresh air, which I only found at LAbri.

    I eventually moved to Rochester and got involved with that branch for 6 years (Edith was living there, but Francis had already passed).

    I got to know Franky through his first Post-Evangelical book, “Sham Pearls before Real Swine.” It is a must read (but hard to find). I actually was lucky enough to get my hands on one of his first publisher’s copies . . . the copy that he had given to his mom. She was not that fond of it and gave it to me.

    I lost track of Franky (now known as Frank) until his “Crazy for God” came to the market. I devoured the book and then (because they were mentioned in it) the Becker Trilogy. I loved them! I already knew the personality quirks of Francis and Edith, so noting in the books shocked me but further convinced me that they were human just like me. I like mortal heroes.

    I must close with a caveat. If Frank were here he would tell you personally that while The Becker Trilogy is certainly autobiographical, there is embellishment of the characters. Francis had a temper, he struggled with serious depression, but I’m doubtful that his anger was ever that extreme as portrayed in the book. Edith had an unhealthy piety, but she was gracious as well. Frank still respects them greatly.

    The second point is that Francis and Edith evolved in their faith over the years. While they clearly started in the fundamentalist camp, they moved in the direction of liberty in Grace to the point, that they eventually were completely out of step with American Evangelicalism.

    If you ever attended a LAbri conference (like the one in Rochester in Feb) you would find the same type of openness and honest questioning that you find here in imonk.

  12. I have counseled hundreds of young people from fundamentalist homes where they were suffering various forms of abuse, not the least religious abuse.

    The Beckers are quite familiar to me. I have met them many, many, many times.

    I don’t see much difference between the Ralph Becker mood and temper in the novels and the Francis Schaeffer mood and temper in the autobiography. Standard depression symptoms in millions of mid-life males.

  13. j. Michael,
    Thanks for your comments. I saw Frank on Cspan a few months back promoting a book and didn’t quite know what to make of him. He was somewhat evasive answering questions about his faith and came across oddly to me. I too really enjoyed Francis’ works and own a hardback and softcover set of his complete works.
    Thanks also iMonk for the recommendation. When I get a break again from my heavy reading load for school I will look for the books and give them a read. I am not sure if I can relate since my close family wasn’t as gung-ho with church growing up, but it sounds like a good read.

  14. Frank is Orthodox, but has wisely stopped being a spokesperson for any version of Christianity. He is NOT in any way the person he was a young zealot. His faith journey is not what he’s selling in any of his books.

    BTW, Frank has become known by another entire audience for his books about the experience of military families.

  15. Was there an equivalent in Crazy to Rev. Becker throwing the dishes off the table in a public restaurant, and yanking so hard on a toilet that he pulls it off the wall, hitting himself in the head? I honestly can’t remember. I think Frank added that with creative liberties to make the fictional book a better read. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  16. There were things thrown, but in private. I honestly don’t think there was an effort to tell every incident.

  17. Francis Schaeffer and Franky were both huge influences on my early Christian life. I traced Fracis’s backround to Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, went there, and discovered a startup church of their denomination (then The Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod) was beginning in our city. We joined it as soon as we got back home.

    Three years ago my wife and I were in Cambridge, England and wandered into a little round church. It dated to 900ad and was modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Looking about, I came upon a small bookshelf with books by C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Philip Yancey. We had visited several Anglican cathedrals that seemed to us lacking in any degree of vital life and so in surprise at this little church having books by these authors, turned to my wife and commented that perhaps there was something going on at this church. I found a man working at its bookstore and began asking questions. It turned out the fellow was Ranald McCaulay, a son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer. He told us that Edith Schaeffer was visiting with them, and invited us to his home to meet both her and his wife. We were unable to do this as we had a previous commitment. But I went on to ask about Franky as I was curious about his conversion to Orthodoxy. He answered, “Yes. We are very disappointed in Franky.” So I didn’t pursue asking anything more about him.

  18. There were things thrown, but in private. I honestly don’t think there was an effort to tell every incident.

    I’m not sure that this is all that “private,” because it’s mentioned in at least one of the Schaeffers’ own books from the 70s. (I don’t have them all here with me at the moment, but my money is on Edith being the one who wrote about it.) The anecdote in question actually mentions purchases of old, cheap dishes at yard sales (or maybe auctions?) for the express purpose of throwing/smashing.

    As for your comment here, iMonk: I don’t see much difference between the Ralph Becker mood and temper in the novels and the Francis Schaeffer mood and temper in the autobiography. Standard depression symptoms in millions of mid-life males.

    Rings very true to me – “untreated depression” is one of the 1st things that jumped off the page for me in CFG. (And that’s in no way intended as a slam on my part.) It sounds like various family members have gone through the mill with this kind of thing, back in the day before the SSRIs (like Paxil) were invented. That’s hard, and I really feel for them.

  19. Just found this site through a friend. My fundie boarding school (I refer to it as The Gulag) required us to read “The God Who Is There” and its followup in the late ’60’s. I’ve had some interest in the Scheaffers for some time now.

    As a former Missionary Kid, I consider the Becker novels that I have read so far to be excellent and accurate portrayals of missionary life from a child’s POV. My folks weren’t as around the bend as the Beckers, nevertheless they had their quirks and professional strains. Calvin and I had some similar experiences, though I had no Gino and no wonderfully innocently wise love interest. OTOH, daily life was a combination of Calvin’s life in Switzerland and Portofino as we were in the Caribbean. I could have used a Gino though for perspective.

    All in all, these novels are the novels I wish that I had written. I still believe much of what I learned as a child, although I’m definitely no longer fundie. Frank’s catharsis is mine to some extent, now that I’ve discovered the books.

  20. As an older teenager returned to the faith, I was asociated with a congregation that had ties to L’Abri. I read all of the Francis Schaeffer books, anxiously waiting for the next one to come out. His books introduced me to the discipline of philosophy. Eventually, I went on to earn an M.Phil. at a secular state university.

    I saw the changes in his books and movies as he went towards more political activism. His most shocking book was on the possibility of another American revolution, and he did not mean simply an intellectual revolution. However, I trusted him and kept on. I became a good right-wing culture warrior, until . . .

    As an aside, let me mention that there are many right-wing culture warriors outside of fundamentalism. You might be surprised to find out that some of the strongest of them are found within the Catholics [and Orthodox] who are part of the Right to Life movement.

    The “until” moment for me was when God blessed me by having me assigned to a place where I ended up having to do inner city ministry. And, on top of that, I was based out of an Orthodox parish that had a mainly first-generation Arab constituency (as in born over there, emigrated to the USA). And, all of a sudden I encountered folk who were not being addressed by the culture war. In fact, many of them were the not-so-subtle targets of the culture war.

    Some of the Arab ones had gone through the agony of having their young men called in after 2001, while the stories flowed out of those who were here legally, yet were detained based on a paperwork error. [Look back at those days, the most common error was the failure to report a change of domicile within 30 days, not exactly a heavy-duty crime.] Some of the Puerto Ricans [natural born USA citizens, every one, but allowed to speak Spanish as part of the treaty that makes Puerto Rico a commonwealth] spoke of being harassed for their accent or their looks as a result of the border disputes. And, I began to see the not-quite-as-hidden-anymore nastiness in the culture war. There really is a nativist movement that is very strong precisely because most do not realize how much they parrot the phrases and opinions of that movement.

    Finally, I realized that there were even people seriously arguing that if people like myself [I am a naturalized citizen.] complained, then we should lose our citizenship. And, then, I further realized that our good “Christian” culture warriors were focused on only a few subjects, i.e., abortion, the Ten Commandments and prayer in schools, affirmative action, etc. Any concerns that I brought up about other issues [as an inner-city priest] were simply “liberal” viewpoints and I was told that I needed to “return” to a sound view on these issues. At best, I was told that those were issues but that “abortion” overshadowed everything, even the life of those who were still alive and living with us.

    And, so, I am no longer a right-wing culture warrior. While nowhere near as strongly as Frank, who also became Orthodox, I also look back with some regrets.

  21. Bob Sacamento says

    We really need honesty. But we need accuracy too, without which honesty is . The thing that gives me pause with Frank Schaeffer is the flare up his “Crazy for God” caused with Os Guinness, who said, pretty much, that Frank was full of crap. (Os was, of course, much more eloquent and British in his actual wording.) Not being in on what went on at L’Abri, I don’t know how to judge between them, except to say that I have really admired Os Guinness over the years and don’t really know that much about Frank Schaeffer. Any insights from anyone who knows more than me about this?

  22. Bob Sacamento says

    We really need honesty. But we need accuracy too, without which honesty is …

    hmm, kind of lost the trail there.

    how about

    … of much lesser value.

  23. Thank you so much for doing my books the honor of reading and writing about them. One writes to be heard, but more than that enjoyed. Thank you.

    Thank you too for your generosity. I’m glad you liked my novels. Reading this review was a nice way to begin the New Year! I hope it is an omen.

    With gratitude,
    Frank Schaeffer

  24. “Maybe read Calvin’s Institutes for a year or something.

    That was joke. Anyway…”

    2009 the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth… a great time to read his institutes…. no joke!

    check out Princeton: http://www2.ptsem.edu/ConEd/Calvin/

    [Mod edited]

  25. Frank,

    Thanks for the note and for putting your life out there.

    peace and blessings to you and your family this year and beyond.

    (BTW- did you ever break your sister’s nose or did you just want to?)

    🙂

    Michael Spencer

  26. Michael: Never did break anyone’s nose, but wanting to… well, that’s another question! Best, Frank

  27. If you had siblings growing up and say you never thought about breaking anyone’s nose, I don’t know if I think you’re being truthful.

  28. Just read the review and the posts. What can I say? I have spent quite a bit of time at L’Abri. I think it is really amusing that people get all riled up about fundamentalism. I would never have placed Schaffer in that camp at least not the way described here or by his son Franky. I was raised Roman Catholic. Can you show me a family that is not dysfunctional? You won’t be able to. It is called sinful human nature. I learned more about humility and the theology of the fall at L’abri than any other place I have visited or attended. My life was changed there forever. I am grateful beyond words for the work of L’Abri. It was never perfect and never will be. Who is perfect?

  29. I haven’t read any criticisms of the work of L’abri in any of the books. TMI about those doing the work? That’s for the reader to decide.

    But look, I had a defining experience in my home church and I’ll tell you right now I don’t want to know this level of information about the people who discipled me. And I work at a ministry that has helped thousands of students, and I doubt that they want to know all my problems. (That’s why this blog has gotten me in trouble this year.)

    But is that part of the whole truth? Does it come alongside those experiences and people the spirit used? Yes, and often for greater good than we imagine.

    The Becker’s don’t come to grips with their humanity easily. Calvin’s “growing pains” are the means by which they come to see many of their own issues that evangelical culture wouldn’t allow to be voiced.

    I praise the Lord for all those good experiences at L’abri, and I haven’t read a page that made me feel Frank had any disrespect for what God did there. But his views of the humanity of his family are part of the human story- his story- that I believe it’s his right and place to tell. I know many disagree, but that’s my two cents on it.

    peace

    ms

  30. Frank was on Terri Gross’ “Fresh Air” less than a month ago.

    Frank was also on Steve Brown, Etc a few months ago, it’s easily found in SBE’s archives. I had first heard him on SBE and then later on Fresh Air. While I absolutely love that show and Terri Gross’ interviews, I really got the impression (not the first time) that she doesn’t really “get” people of faith. She asked Frank why his rejection of Fundamentalism didn’t lead to atheism. I loved Frank’s response. It was something to the effect of “If I were to consider atheism I’d have to pray about it first.” Really made me laugh (in a good way).

  31. … I haven’t read a page that made me feel Frank had any disrespect for what God did there.

    Nor will you, I think. Though I have to say that many of my personal impressions of L’Abri (and of some of the people who were there when i was) have – perhaps not surprisingly – been (for me) validated by Frank’s own recollections of the place. That doesn’t mean that I’m somehow “against” L’Abri – far from it, in fact.

    Frank, just in case you drop in here again, I’d like to say “thanks” for your perspective, and (not coincidentally) for helping me realize that I got a lot right after all. 😉

  32. I have not read the books but it seems to be a nice and kind review. Can you please tell me where I can read a part of Crazy for God on Goggle books, since I dont see any limited offer of this book there. Thanks
    Happy New Year!

  33. Leonard, just try Google Book Search. There’s a good deal of text there.

  34. Thanks but I dont know, it may have been removed because when I put Crazy for God there (GB) there is no limited preview

  35. I just tried it again, and the book is definitely there. Is it possible that you’ve got some kind of software problem going on? (malware, etc.)

    Fwiw, I’m 2/3ds of the way through Portofino and have been laughing myself silly! 😉

  36. OK, it seems useless to continue in this long exchange just about this one topic, but I went to another compiuter, in a Public Internet Coffee and the same thing. I dont know, is strange and though in other cases I have seen that many such sites offerings does not work in Albania, this seems strange to be the case with GB. Anyway thanks. I can read many limited or Full previews like those of the Canon Press but for this it says No limited preview avaluable.

  37. It seems like more and more of these kinds of fictions are finding a big mainstream audience. I recently finished three very good books of this sort. The first was Home Remedies by Angela Pneuman. Much of it is set in Kentucky. The second was The End of the Striaght and Narrow by David Mcglynn. They are more ambitious than the stories in Home Remedies and very satisfying. The third and probably best is In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor. Those stories are long and very heartbreaking.

    I think that Frank Schaeffer ushered in the possibility that these kinds of writers could be taken seriously even though there is no place for them among the people who read “Christian” books. The Catholics have always had their artists, but now the evangelicals have them too. Be afraid.

  38. I finished the final book in the trilogy earlier this afternoon. What Frank writes about isn’t cathartic for him alone, or for people from a fundamentalist/evangelical background alone. I’ve encountered a lot of the things he writes about in “nonreligious” circles – because he’s writing about human beings, period.

    Overall, I spent a lot of time in LOLZ-land. But the heart of all of these books is quite serious… He addresses the perfectionism that’s dogged much of American Christianity in a way that I’ve seen nobody else do – probably because they’re afraid to make waves.

    My guess is that Frank’s portrayals of the Beckers cut so close to the bone that many of us just shut him off. That’s sad.

    Can I understand why many people would be upset by these books (and Crazy for God)? Absolutely. Is he lacking in compassion? From my POV, not at all. If you’ve been through a few shipwrecks and lived to tell the tale, you’ll appreciate what he’s done here. Is there TMI at times? yeah, but I’m not gonna hold it against him. 😉

    iMonk’s comment on what can happen when we pretend that we’re “not broken” is right on the money. There aren’t any caricatures here, though it might seem that way at first. (Can’t say more without significant spoilers, so I’ll stop now.)

    @ Nate H: You got it! (On “confessional” writers.)