I am one of thousands (millions?) who became a devotee of Francis Schaeffer in the 1970’s. Escape from Reason, The God Who is There, He is There and He is Not Silent, True Spirituality, Pollution and the Death of Man … I devoured everything he wrote. For a generation of young fundamentalists like me, Schaeffer was our gateway into the world of philosophy and art. He told us we could use our brains, that we could take art, literature, and film seriously, that the counter-culture had some things right …
I remember feeling … dismayed, I suppose is the word for it … when Schaeffer became an apologist for the Religious Right. Had he been co-opted, or had he sold out … or was he really in league with Robertson, Falwell, and their fellow culture warriors?
I think it was in Francis’ book A Christian Manifesto where I felt especially alarmed. As I recall, he held up Oliver Cromwell (!) as a spiritual hero of sorts, and there were intimations of armed rebellion against the government, wrapped in talk of “lex rex” versus “rex lex.” (In fact, I remember in the early 80’s hearing about “Christian Militia” in the deep south who were training in weaponry, inspired by Schaeffer to prepare for war.)
I also was a fan of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s son, Frank. His A Time for Anger made me laugh out loud and introduced me to a master of the art of rant. Years later, I read Frank’s Calvin Becker trilogy (Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma) and (this is an old English major speaking) I still feel they are three of the most delightful and insightful novels I’ve ever read. His “And God said, ‘Billy!‘” was also quite powerful, reminiscent of the great Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, but even more God-haunted.
Frank and I became friends through Wild Goose Festival, where we’re two of the resident grandpas walking around, thrilled to see honest young people passionate about justice and an authentic spirituality in an era of so much crass religious crap. (Frank would have used much more vivid diction in the preceding sentence.)
When Letter to Lucy became available, I was one of the first to download it … which suggests one of many unique things about the book. It’s best read on an IPad or other digital device, the bigger the screen and the higher the resolution, the better, because this book isn’t simply a feast of words … it’s a visual and musical feast as well.
This is Frank’s ode to beauty, his theology of beauty if you will, because like many of us, Frank has let go of so much that he inherited from fundamentalism, but he hasn’t let go of the pearl of great price … a deep reverence and passionate love for beauty, which for Frank, is the best and most trustworthy signature or trace of the divine that we have.
One feels Frank’s grandchildren, especially Lucy, present on every page, because he is writing for them, not to them as much as for their benefit. He acknowledges the megatons of crass religious crap that are being spread liberally on us all by the bigly (believe me!) dispersal fan of Donald Trump; Frank challenges us not to surrender to that political and religious shower of stench, but to defy it by seeking beauty in the ugliest of administrations.
Through beauty – in forms from jazz to classical, from sculpture to film, from children’s literature to Shakespeare – we can survive these times, and build a better world for our grandchildren on the other side, Frank argues.
But he doesn’t just argue. He demonstrates. So when he mentions a great piece of jazz, you can click and listen. When he mentions a great piece of sculpture, you can see a photograph of it on the page. He lets us sample the ways he is enriching the lives of his grandchildren.
Along the way, he talks about his family, his upbringing, his faults and mistakes, his misadventures in the rumbling bowels of the Religious Right. At times he’s furious, at times, hilarious … but throughout, he’s as sincere as a furiously loving grandfather can be, and that passionate sincerity is downright … evangelical, in the absolute best and lower-case sense of the word.
Yes, Frank has joyfully left fundamentalism/evangelicalism behind, but he is still an evangelist … of beauty, which signals goodness, which points to truth. And in this, he shows that he has not betrayed his parents at all; rather, he has found the heart of what they loved most in Christianity and in God (remember Edith’s Hidden Art?) … and he is setting it free from the tacky religious duct tape in which it was bound.
This is a beautiful book, and I recommend it to all who yearn for liberation from what religion and politics have become in the age of Trump, Fascism, and Lies. Buy it (download it) here.