Katie sent me this essay about trashing me. It’s good so I’m publishing it as a guest blog here. Also: I come out okay by the end! Back in the early 1980s as a very young woman Katie Andraski worked as a publicist in big time Christian publishing at Crossway Books. She did what few evangelical publicity people ever managed to do: Katie convinced editors at Newsweek, The New York Times, and the NBC “Today Show” to publicize the Schaeffer family as we emerged as leaders in the religious right. In those days we Schaeffers all had books at Crossway. Katie helped make us famous.
There was only one problem: Katie was very good at what she did but didn’t agree with one word we were saying! We reconnected more than 30 years later… here’s the fascinating result!
HOW I TRASHED FRANK SCHAEFFER IN MY NOVEL AND HE’S PROMOTING IT
I thought I was promoting a future American Hitler. In the early 1980s I sat in the pew and watched Frank Schaeffer’s face contort, the cream and blue walls of assorted nondescript churches like Jerry Falwell’s church where he preached twice behind him. Thirty-plus years later I wrote a novel trashing Frank. Now he’s helping me promote it because he has, as it were, changed sides.
The old Frank would shout, his mustache flashing, and I’d want to plug my ears but I couldn’t because I was his publicist, and my company’s (evangelical powerhouse Crossway Books) representative. My heart was too tired to pound. I’d turn my mother’s engagement ring, first this way, then that, trying to make light reflect off a facet.
“The only true Christians are the ones who picket abortion clinics,” he’d scream. “You’re not a Christian if you don’t care about this.” I swallowed hard because I thought you were a true Christian if you responded to Jesus as Christ, as Lord, accepted him into your heart, gave a cup of cold water to the stranger, believed in the resurrection, believed Jesus was God incarnate. “If we don’t roll back legal abortion, God will remove his blessing from our country. We’re on a slippery slope, where in ten years people who aren’t convenient—the disabled, the elderly, the very ill–will be euthanized because of the secular humanists running our country.”
In private conversations I heard Frank talk about how Christians should infiltrate the culture—taking over education, the arts, media, politics, the court system.
I was terrified of what I was doing. Terrified.
So much so I told journalists they should sit up and take notice. “This guy is fomenting revolution. The country could burn.” I was dramatic and they were kind, telling me that the great apathy of middle America wouldn’t budge. There’d be no revolution. But they saw a good story and told it. They assured me that by telling the story I was relieving the pressure, keeping the movement from gaining power by being secret.
It’s funny how secrets can take on a life and power of their own. When Rachel Held Evans recently wrote about evangelicals telling her not to criticize other evangelicals because it would be divisive, a bad witness to people on the outside, I remembered hearing those same words come out of my parents’ mouths. “Don’t be divisive. Don’t be honest about your faults. Don’t ruin our family’s witness.” (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/on-being-divisive.) But I have seen up close and personal how trying to “be a witness” and not copping to our darker sides can destroy a person’s life. Those lies crust up and eventually a person loses who they are, forgetting the genius of Christianity, which is the confession of sins. I have seen how trying to be better than you are as a person, as a family, can make you worse.
Knowing the power of secrets and hating them, being the kid who blurted her failings, I did just that. I promoted the heck out of the Schaeffers (Frank, Francis and Edith), making friends with journalists, telling them I was a poet, pay attention to these guys, here’s your angle.
I tried not to let the Schaeffers know I was doing this. I felt like a Judas, betraying them, but what if their revolution took hold? Were Christian fundamentalists any better at running the culture than anyone else? I didn’t think so.
Everything set up in my face. “I could see it in your eyes: How have I gotten in with these crazy people?” Frank Schaeffer said recently, the first time we talked since his fathers’ funeral in 1984. “I knew back then you weren’t on board. I used to talk to Dad about this. We knew you weren’t a true believer. We’d say she’s weird with her cowboy boots, driving a Firebird, but hey she just got us a full page in Newsweek and got me on the ‘Today Show.’ You were the force making us famous, though you were a nobody.”
I wondered what good was Christianity? Did believing in Jesus change lives? Was grace such a thing, really? I looked at the men claiming Christ, but stepping over me to get to Frank or his father Francis. Where was the reality? What good is Christianity if we don’t live it? Famous Christians were no different than the unbelieving welder I dated.
My question wasn’t answered right then, right there. Though there were enough kindnesses along the way, enough cups of water, that I kept walking as a Christian through the very real terrors of men making love to power and power taking them over.
Towards the end of my new novel The River Caught Sunlight, I write about sitting through a sermon at Liberty Baptist Church. The “preacher” (AKA Frank) talked about how the devil can take advantage once you are exhausted from fighting his assaults. “It’s like some Christians who are exhausted keeping the faith against the assaults of the devil. They swing and swing until they can’t swing any more and get knocked down by sin. They’re neutralized. They can’t do any more. They are no good to God.” And my response was, “If this is Christianity, I don’t want it.”
Spiritually, I wanted to puke. I wanted no part.
Frank and I have wondered why it was me that was called to do that work, when I wasn’t a true believer, why it was me and no one else. My mom used to say that God had some special work for me, and I wonder if she meant my work promoting the Schaeffers, who some call evangelical royalty.
Evangelical leaders were eating out of Frank’s hand back then. Dr. James Dobson ordered 150,000 copies of A Time for Anger from my former company. Frank gave the keynote address for the Southern Baptist Convention. I remember that Pat Robertson asked him to be on the board. Frank made unbelievable amounts of money.
Not long after, I married, and began teaching composition to young people from some of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. I began writing pages of what would later become The River Caught Sunlight. There was so much to sort out—my parents’ deaths within five months of each other, promoting these national figures that I didn’t believe in, fighting my brother for my inheritance. When I told Studs Terkel I was writing this, he encouraged me to keep writing, that it might be important for the country.
Then one day I walked into our local Borders and saw Frank’s novel Portofino. This was back in the early 1990s. I’d heard Frank had dropped out of the evangelical world to make Hollywood movies. I picked his first novel up, read it and saw how tightly he’d crafted his narrative. A sense of awe came over me. This was a first class secular novel. It was also light, funny and warm.
Where had the real Frank been when living in the shell of that right wing leader I’d feared? How was this huge change possible?
This grace stuff is real. This Frank Schaeffer, this young man I thought would be an American Hitler, because of the power he wielded, walked away from all that, became an Orthodox Christian and wrote a fine novel. Oh my.
Maybe God and grace do make a difference in someone’s life. And now 30-plus years later here he is helping me!
When I was ready to send out The River Caught Sunlight, I wrote Frank and confessed I’d written a novel with a major character based on him. He wrote back, “I use anything and everything in my life for my writing. If you portray me as an asshole or worse, then so be it.”
One of the reasons I’d been afraid to publish my novel, was because I was afraid of what he’d say, but as time went on, there was nothing I could say that was worse than what he’d said about himself and his family in books like Crazy for God and Sex, Mom and God.
Unlike many evangelicals who are afraid to be divisive, afraid to blow the witness of his sainted parents, Frank blew past that to reckless honesty, showing how goodness, grace if you will, can blast through dysfunction.
One of my readers asked me why Frank would help promote my novel when I trashed his former self. “Well, because he’s generous. He’s always been generous.”
When I mentioned her comment, he said, “I am serious about undoing the damage we did. Besides you’re not as harsh about me as I am in my own books. We won. The bad ole me won. We succeeded in pulling the Republican Party to the right. Just ask President Obama as he fights the Tea Party. Michelle Bachman grew up on Francis Schaeffer.”
My friend was troubled by the title of Frank’s new book Why I Am an Atheist who Believes in God, not seeing that Frank is doing what Madeleine L’Engle talked about, when she talked about being a Christian atheist in The Irrational Season.
Frank has stopped “worshipping the false god which has crept into Christianity (all those Anglo-Saxon moral virtues)” Frank goes after the false god of certainty whether it shows itself through fundamentalist religion or through atheism. “The very fabric of our universe is unknowable and stranger than we can imagine and has a message for us: climb down off that atheist, religious or agnostic pedestal!” he writes.
What I said about seeing grace moving and shaking through Frank’s life, when I picked up Portofino, still holds true for my reading of Why I Am an Atheist who Believes in God.
There’s something real and mysterious and alive, affirming art and loving people that radiates through this book. In Chapter 4 of Why I Am an Atheist who Believes in God Frank Schaeffer asks,
“Who is actually following Jesus: fundamentalist Christians rejecting gay men and lesbians’ right to marry or atheist humanists treating men and women with love and dignity? Fact based, enlightened atheists sometimes treat people like shit, and delusional fundamentalists sometimes miss a book event in order to help a lonely hotel maid…Who someone is and what they do is all that matters.”
It is a stroke of grace that Frank Schaeffer was willing to endorse The River Caught Sunlight. He told me: “It’s odd to find my darker self fictionalized. But in another life (as it were) you and I traveled together. Your book has a piercing insight at its heart as humane as it is damning of religion gone off the rails. Of course I want to help.”
And Frank Schaeffer, iconoclast, master of hyperbole, broke through years of my being silenced by my evangelical roots by offering his deep and sincere blessing and very real friendship. Those old words, don’t be divisive, be a witness, don’t hold quite the power they once did for me. Frank has blessed my voice, with as sure a blessing as the patriarchs gave their children.