fragments of an attempted writing.

spanky franky

I don't know that I have ever read any author more obviously addicted to catharsis than Frank Schaeffer.  And given that number of pixels I devoted to attacking catharsis as the driving force behind cinema in a previous blog life, one might think this would lead me to a distaste for Schaeffer.  But, as it turns out, I can't get enough of his work.

For a person who has any past history with what some folks might call religious crackpotery or religious addiction or religious abuse and so forth, Franky's novels (the Calvin Becker Trilogy) and his subsequent memoirs attacking his famous Evangelical parents are going to strike a chord, though depending on where one "is at" with that former/current religion the chord struck may vary considerably.

I sometimes ask myself- "why on earth, dear self, do you like to read Franky Schaeffer?"  The guy is a colossal whiner.  He has more axes to grind than a machinist working for a logging company.  His level of resentment toward his family and his family's old allies is astounding to behold, especially as he has maintained it with such intensity for well over a decade now.  Schaeffer is colossally juvenile in his self-promotion, even when crudely framed in a cartoonish self-deprecation, like when he starts talking about how he more than anyone else is responsible for the creation of the religious right by way of his pressuring his father to do work his father did not initially want to do, all with this feigned tale between his legs sort of tone.  There is not a page of Schaeffer's non-fiction which does not contain a cringe causing line of bragging.  The guy is obsessed with sex, and in a weird way (this new memoir apparently contains a story from his youth about the time he had sex with an ice sculpture).  The guy's "mother issues" are far and away more explicit and outrageous than anyone else's I have ever read, and who the hell wants to read a 59 year old man go on about his mother issues for many hundreds of pages over several books?

On the other hand, there is something to be said for Schaeffer's ability to find ever new mediums of self-destruction and burning bridges - I can't help but admire and respect that.  He is a damn good writer, especially his trilogy of novels - at least I think he has real talent writing comedy, especially dark comedy.  His writing doesn't provide much in the way of gravitas and is not an example of finely tuned craft or anything like that, but I should hope nobody is reading Schaeffer for that.  Both his fiction and non-fiction have a respectable narrative cadence and decent enough structure and have the perfect mix of the hysterical and the disturbing - the man can do dark comedy, and is especially suited to do religious dark comedy.  

Each of his novels starts out with relatively "light" themes and becomes darker as the novel goes on.  This is especially true of Portofino, which has two halves, the first a light comedy, the second a dark one.  In the next two books the shift from light to dark is progressively quicker but less seamless.  But the manner in which Schaeffer captures the narrative transition from light to darkness, from the merely quirky and amusing to the destructive and sadistic is a theme that many of us have lived through as we have made our way in a niche religious subculture like the one Schaeffer is parsing.

I think just about every spiritual "leader-pastor-teacher-adviser" I have ever known as well as just about every psychologist I have ever known would state that Schaeffer's obsession with pounding his parents, especially his mother, for grudges that are half a century old is, take your pick: unhealthy, sinful, neurotic, cruel, self-defeating, counter-productive, etc.  There certainly is an element to reading Schaeffer that is not unlike watching a car accident take place (an Orthodox priest once said the same thing about reading my blog - ha!, fair enough).  So the story goes "giving people what they deserve" in the sense of revenge usually brings about even more havoc for the giver, but at the same time, sometimes your given asshole really begged for it, and if 1/4th of what Schaeffer says of his parents in his non-fiction is true, especially that concerning his mother, well, the woman had it coming.  I suppose one could get worked up about whether or not it is a good thing to support a man enacting revenge via writing by buying and reading that writing, but hell, how prudish is that?   The Count of Monte Cristo was once listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum because it was said to have glorified revenge.   Personally, I think that The Count is a great book, and I really can't muster any moral qualms with regard to the Count's actions as Dumas records them.  Of course, the Count's fictional acts of revenge are quite a different thing from words written in a spirit of revenge seeking.  The result is fairly obvious - The Count of Monte Cristo came to an end but Schaeffer's desire to hit his target seems insatiable and even seems to be growing.  I wonder if the fact that his father died before Schaeffer started his anti-Schaeffer legacy project bothers Schaeffer.

But, at the end of the day, where else is one going to read about all the knob-headed, slap-stick, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me, and sordid history of the religious right?  Where else does one learn that Billy Graham forced his oldest daughter into what was essentially an arranged marriage, as Franky explains in Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back?  Where else does one get the story of all the big name founders of the moral majority sitting around a table expressing their horror that high school students might be exposed to the nudity displayed in Italian Renaissance art as Franky's father Francis Schaeffer watches and listens in disgust, wondering who the hell he just got in bed with?

So I look forward to 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, not for any positive arguments Schaeffer will make in the book - even when I agree with his current political arguments (not so often; rich liberals are worthless), I find his argumentation as a new convert to pop liberalism as stupid as I found his old arguments for religious rightism.  Rather, I'll appreciate it for the great stories and the marvel that is his sustained vehemence and disgust.  Some reviews state that this memoir is more gentle than the last one, but a friend noted to me that this "take" on the new book is mostly from a secular perspective - the Evangelicals reading this book still see Franky as going after his mother and the whole L'Abri paradigm, though perhaps in a more subtle way this time so as to sustain the broadest possible readership in the mocking at hand.  In any event, I'll appreciate the revenge fest because, at the end of the day, the religious subcultural tradition (and the type of fervently niche religious subculture one might say it represents) is eminently worthy of ridicule and rejection.  Edith Schaeffer was a peddler of lies, pathologies, and one of the most exorbitant of hypocrites as she traveled around the world (for long periods of time) teaching young Christian women that they should be submissive stay-at-home moms, even as she left her ill son in the care of others and had outrageous and frequent quarrels with her husband.  Franky's attacks may not be the best thing for Franky, but Edith made her bed, and I'll enjoy reading her son lay her in it just as I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo's marvelous achievements in the art of fanciful revenge.  


  1. I can't seem to figure out how to get rid of the highlighting. Oh well.

  2. Franky Schaeffer. When still an Evangelical Frank was known as Franky.

  3. I occasionally take a look at Schaeffer's Huffington blog posts to see what lunacy he is spouting at the moment. I have kept up with his writings since his Christian Activist newspaper days when he was on the conversion trail to Orthodoxy.

    What can one say; the man is an enigma to anyone capable of critical thinking and logical discourse. He is the king of the fallacious argument.

    I know of no other author that makes a living by whining and berating his mother and father's life work and exposing their all too human imperfections. The man definitely suffers from some serious psychotic disorder. Carl Jung could have devoted his entire life to diagnosing and treating this sick individual and never finished.

  4. It's interesting how an army of Franky wannabes has flooded the pages of the Huffington Post. Just the other day a friend posted a link to a piece on there in which the author started out saying that he was going to show why people shouldn't "take the Bible literally," then proceeded to launch into a fault-ridden argument against the inerrancy of Scripture. For the the ex-Fundie vibes the piece gave me, I had a hard time believing that this guy was ever the real thing given how flawed the argument was. With Franky, at least we know where he came from, even if it's sometimes hard to believe.

  5. Fr. B,

    Eh, "all too human imperfections," sure, but when you parade yourself around the world teaching people about how to order a Christian family life and it turns out you are a grade A screw up, well, it sort of changes the ballgame with regard to future kids' memoirs. You kind of got the ball rolling when you started writing books about family life. If your kid carries on that tradition in a matter that sets the record straight, well...

    Schaeffer's political writing is such that I sometimes wonder if he has dissociative identity disorder, and I'm not talking about his big changes of mind, I am talking about positions he has put forth just in the last couple of years. He is a pro-military, anti-"religious extremism" talk, pro-Obama, pro-life except when he is pro-choice, anti-Krugman, pro-Wall Street, anti-Kosovar intervention, pro-Reagan, anti-McCain, sometimes he seems like a rich liberal very much concerned with the interests of rich liberals, other times he seems like a rich conservative very much concerned with the interests of rich, uh, liberals. And all this gets advanced with very little that rises above the level of the scatological. If Schaeffer would have just focused on telling the stories of his youth, and avoided his addiction to his nonsensical "arguments" he could have been one hell of a damning writer. As it stands, one has to plod through so much hubristic muck to get to the stories no doubt many don't bother wading through it. But I do gosh darn it, because the narratives he provides are priceless.

  6. I read Sex, Mom & God this past weekend. I haven't read any of his other books but plan to read Crazy for God next.

    In this book he speaks warmly of Edith, for the most part, and praises the "humane hypocrisy" of his parents. Most of his dissing is focused on Rushdoony, Reconstructionism, etc. He dishes a lot of dirt and it was fun to read.

    He touches on his Christian Activist publication back in the 1990s but otherwise glosses over his years as a fundamentalist Orthodox and makes it sound like he was a liberal Greek Orthodox from the get go, so that is disappointing. Perhaps he figures it would require a separate book to go into more detail about that, or that it's simply not interesting enough.

  7. I read the tell-all about his folks and thought it shameful. I read his rants agin the Philistines in the evangelical world, just before he made a couple of B movies, and I read his anti-Catholic rants in the Agitator (apt name), my first taste of obnoxious Orthodoxy, which, with the messes in the churches, jurisdictional and otherwise, has kept me Catholic, albeit on the Orthodox end of the Byzantine spectrum.
    Franky has always struck me as a particularly pathetic character, so obsessed by whatever is currently obsessing him that he is blind to what a fool he is making of himself.
    Yeah, some value for the insider's look at the Religious Right, but I wonder how many of us would fare should our children grow up with a grudge and an urge to write.

  8. Honestly he seems like any other bourgeois liberal that comes to the bar and tells their same story every few days. I feel bad for him, but he's still way too comfortable.

  9. I read Portofino years ago. Loved it. Had never heard of the Gospel Walnut before. Or Bible Sword Drill. Gosh, what I missed growing up Catholic rather than fundy.

    I think Franky's completely off his rocker, and like Daniel, I did not appreciate his anti-Catholic tirades. But, as Owen says, if his parents were even one-tenth as wacked as they're portrayed in Portofino, then it's no wonder poor Franky's got more issues than a periodical circulating library.


  10. Andrew,

    But with Franky we get the same old story in multiple mediums - he has the trilogy of novels, what will likely be the trilogy of memoirs before it's all done, the movie version of Portofino has been in development for ages, and for all we know Franky will return to painting (I once read him laud himself as a top tier contemporary painter when referencing his painting days - from what I've heard his work was 5th rate spinoffs of Rouault) and paint a picture of his father sitting in an easy chair wearing those ridiculous knee pants Francis used to wear and holding a gay porn magazine.

  11. Owen, No doubt the gay porn magazine belonged to Franky and was discovered by his mother who turned it over to his father for disciplinary action.

  12. I still remember the Gospel Walnut-I was laughing like crazy.

  13. Fr. Blues,

    I remember in an interview once I heard Franky telling the interviewer that his trilogy of novels was obviously fiction because his father would never have spent vacation time at a sea-side resort but rather would have gone to art museums. I thought to myself, of all the things to single out as something dad didn't do to prove the works were meant to be fiction, that was a rather mundane choice. In one of the novels the father of the protagonist turns out to have a stash of gay porn.

  14. Gospel Walnut? WTF. I am familiar with the Bible Sword Drills but the walnut is a new one on me. Maybe Franky does have a legitimate reason to be the way he is.

  15. Owen,

    The father had a stash of gay porn...obviously a precursor to Ted Haggard. That reminds me of a Lutheran pastor I was close to before he passed away. During his first year of seminary one of his professors told the class there were only two reasons any of them were there. Either they were homosexual or neurotic. My pastor friend threw up his hand and the professor asked him what he needed. His reply was "just for the record prof, I'm neurotic!"

  16. If your friend was really neurotic he would have worried that he was gay.

  17. Owen, you actually remind me a lot of Franky. You know, the fall from grace and all

  18. From recent things Franky has posted on HuffPo, I'm not sure if he actually still believes in the Nicene Creed. Why does he still call himself Orthodox? Search me...

    I'm not all that interested in his gossip...


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