By Ben Wright
I promise that if you keep reading, we’ll get to Let Me Be Frank, an amazing new documentary that exposes the American Religious Right as fraudulent and cynical. But first, indulge me in a preface.
In August 2003 I moved from London, England to El Paso, Texas (from grey to beige) in order to take a gap-year job as a Youth Minister. A month in, I’d met the love of my life (she still is) and got to work evangelising a group of troubled teenagers. This was supposed to be the rich part of town, but many of the kids had been physically or sexually assaulted, came from broken homes, or dealt with substance abuse. How had they ended up in the youth group? Usually, they had an aunt or a grandparent associated with the church. My remit was to get these kids on the straight and narrow, and to grow the group.
We grew for sure, but we didn’t get any better – least of all me. They were loud in church. They wore T-shirts with rude slogans and spoke disparagingly of George Bush. (Gosh, don’t you miss that guy?) A couple were vocal atheists. According to the Deacon (who had been in charge of the youth group before me) her “legacy” was being undermined by my leadership. Meanwhile, that girl I met: she was the youth minister down the road. We’ve been married for 12 years now, but that didn’t stop people grumbling and gossiping at the time about our private life. (I’ll leave it at that.)
All this came to a head the following summer. (By then, I’d dropped my return ticket and bought a ring.) It was the last day of the church’s Vacation Bible School. I remember being so very proud of my misfit youth group, who all week had ran a camp for under-fives across town along the border. They were proud too. They’d become a church. Later, we got back to the church building in the middle of the afternoon. The youth opened some sodas, did a conga around the sanctuary and threw me in the memorial fountain. (I didn’t mind, I had played club rugby and knew the drill – earlier in the year I’d taught them what a “moony” was. Big mistake.) I remember climbing out of the fountain and then encountering 30 minutes of sheer life-changing irony. The head pastor walked out into the courtyard and asked me to meet him in his office.
I trudged off soaking wet, walked in, and apologised for my appearance. But it wasn’t just him in the room. Half of the church council had been gathered for an impromptu performance review of the youth ministry. I sat there and listened to their various concerns, criticisms and complaints – all the while, a puddle formed beneath my chair. But this wasn’t really a review. What was being created on the fly was the legal framework needed in order to fire me and send me back to England. (My visa was tied to my church job.) At the end of the meeting, I was handed a list of things that needed to change within 30 days, and told in no uncertain terms that this was not a guarantee of employment for those 30 days. Rather than face the kids, I just walked home. It was a two-mile hike in desert sun. By the time I’d trudged back, everything was dry – except for my cheeks and eyes. I would be a Youth Minister at two more churches over the next couple of years. But I was done. Auto-pilot beckoned.
* * *
Let Me Be Frank, The Traitorous Turnabout Of An Evangelical Heir Apparent tells the story of Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, missionaries-come-movement-Christians who unwittingly helped found the American Religious Right. Their son Frank was a rising star of the movement in the 1980s, until he burned out and bailed. In the film, Schaeffer is candid about the moral schizophrenia he endured, his degeneration into an angry patriarch, and how the sheer volume of cash – not to mention the private jets and presidential hotel suites that go along with it – keep folks in the game long after the lights have gone out spiritually.
I met Schaeffer recently at the Wild Goose Festival, which takes places in the forested campgrounds of Hot Springs, 30 minutes outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Frank was there to share his story, and to shout about the two things that preoccupy him the most these days – his love for his grandchildren and his animosity toward Donald Trump. For Schaeffer, the two aren’t mutually exclusive: the prejudice, ignorance and greed that Trump (and indeed the American political system in general) exemplifies can only be defeated by and for the sake of beauty. In other words, being the best grandparent he can be is a pretty effective middle fingered salute to the 45th (and who knows, at this rate maybe last) American president.
Born in 1952, Schaeffer grew up in Switzerland, where his parents founded the evangelical “L’Abri” collective dedicated not simply to the gospel, but also to communal living with a focus on philosophy, the arts and humanities. They were not your typical fundamentalists. While ascribing to a strict and narrow interpretation of the Bible (and believing the separation of church and state to be “stupid”) they were also well-read, cultured people who embraced interracial marriage and welcomed gay people as well as drug users to L’Abri. Schaeffer sees his father’s forays into the embryonic religious right as a mistake, but as one he would have got wise to had he not died of cancer in 1984. Several years on, Francis Jr. did get wise but it came at a heavy price. “I used to preach at the Southern Baptist convention,” he joked at Wild Goose, “23,000 guys in white polyester shirts; and here I am now with a bunch of old hippies in the rain!”
Today, Shaeffer is a grateful outcast of the nascent religious alt-right. Staffed by his former playmates – second generation hucksters such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., who are busy inheriting sprawling empires and forming a new priestly brat pack – Schaeffer has a thing or two to say about how to defeat it all. Mic in hand, Schaeffer speaks loudly and doesn’t mince his words. But he’s a builder as well as a pit bull. He’s keen to preach a gospel about the beauty of art, music, culture and human relationships – not as means to an end, but as ends themselves and the only things that really matter. These aren’t just empty words. Every morning he gets up at 3:30am to write and paint. At 8:00 am his grandkids come over for a day of art, music and fellowship – his own little L’Abri. A successful novelist (many of his book parody his upbringing) Schaeffer is currently working on an interactive app/book titled Letters To Lucy. There are actually two Lucys he’s writing to: his nine-year-old granddaughter and “Lucy” the nickname of “AL 28801” a 3.2 million year old collection of skeletal remains from one of humanity’s early ancestors. Schaeffer wants to explain to ancestral Lucy how humanity got where it is, and offer some advice to his granddaughter about a way forward – which hopefully includes a saner, less shady America.
Schaeffer describes himself as a “Christian atheist” who insists one cannot “be both an evangelical Christian and a reasonable human being.” But he also rejects the militancy of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For him, they are just another bunch of busybody over-believers with a fetish for supremacy. After his talk, I walk up and thank him. “Where are you heading?” he asks me. “Nowhere in particular,” I reply. “Well I’m heading this way. Walk with me and we’ll talk.” I dutifully follow along, keen to glean some further wisdom and hopefully impress him with some of mine. I wanted to pour my heart out about my own story of church hurt, how his take on evangelicalism resonates in a way that both liberates and desecrates the believes I still cling to. But we just walk and chat. Frank’s a good guy.
Our encounter makes me think of lots of things. I find that despite my attempts at atheism, I’m not very good at it. Even worse, the older I get, the more the “big verses” – the John 3:16s and Galatians 3:28s – stick with me. But they also become more rooted, which means they both thicken and bend more easily in the wind rather than breaking off and having to be grafted back in. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near” is one such verse. It’s a scary verse. It sounds defeatist. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. From my vantage point, Frank’s “traitorous turn” looks more and more like a form of repentance – both from something gross and toward something lovely. Maybe “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near” isn’t as scary or as guilt-ridden as I used to think. What if it’s really just a form of divine pantomime? As if someone on behalf of beauty and love and authenticity is saying to our hearts “Hey! Turn around! All the fine things! They’re behind you!” Maybe I should stop being so hung-up on my own experiences in the church, and just do some repenting.
Directed by Scott Griessel, Let Me Be Frank creates a space where people can find their own story, where unsaid things can be vocalised, where pimples can be popped, and where a way forward can be offered that is neither a “don’t ask don’t tell” return to former ways or a “live and let die” inertia to things spiritual. Frank’s story isn’t new – many former ministry professionals have endured Wizard Of Oz-like experiences working for churches – finding out that behind the fearsome, holy façade is just another middle-aged humbug. But Frank has both been behind the rood screen and been offered the Wizard’s seat. One may disagree with his candid, blunt observations about evangelicalism, but it’s folly to argue they aren’t informed. Frank has journeyed to the heart of the evangelical machine and lived to tell the tale.
And yet, in the end my bet is that neither the machine nor the façade are what power’s Frank’s repugnance of evangelicalism. In his memoir Crazy For God, he talks about the constant anxiety one feels in ministry, the responsibility it conjures over people’s souls: that every day relentless slog, the thought that every interaction could lead to eternal bliss or punishment for yourself or someone else, and that it is YOU at the center of it all, YOU who have the power to influence eternity… It’s as maddening as it is deadening. And it’s bollocks. It’s what caused me to burn out. It’s probably what made my boss in El Paso capable of such callous disregard for a young guy simply trying his heart out. And it’s what I’ve rejected. Practically, that’s meant dumping the concept of hell. If that makes me a Christian atheist then fine. Unlike the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, I refuse to be prudent about hell. (He said it was smart to bet on it’s existence rather than not to.) Instead, I’ll take my chances on a creator who somehow works it all out for good, whose grace is always bigger and stranger than the over-believers think it can be, and who does the saving herself. If I’m wrong, well, I guess it’s hell for me. At least Frank will be there.