Memoirs December 23, 2007

The past two books I’ve read have been memoirs. Though this isn’t a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, maybe I was because I’ve got a bit of memoir in my new book. Early reviews of TNC are positive, but people are noting that it tells the emergent story from one perspective. That’s right: from mine! I understand this is a slanted perspective, but it is “truthful,” insofar as I’ve done my best to tell the emergent story accurately — but telling the story winsomely is more important than accuracy in a memoir.

That differs, of course, from autobiography. Jim McClendon, one of my mentors in seminary and an uncommonly bright and well-read man, once told me, “Autobiography is the art of self-deception.” (McClendon’s Biography as Theology is a fantastic book.) As we’ve all seen with the recent memoir fiascos (and Oprah’s scoldings), memoirs treat the “truth” differently than biographies and autobiographies.

The first memoir, which I read on my Ireland trip, was Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer. Frank is the son of Francis, the famous Reformed evangelical who founded a community called L’Abri in Switzerland. Not growing up evangelical, I didn’t hear of Schaeffer until seminary, and I’ve never read a book about him. Francis Schaeffer’s name comes up occasionally in emergent conversations, usually as a guy who engaged culture but stayed true to inerrancy and conservative, Reformed doctrine. For those who hold that position, I say: read this book, and you will be disabused of many of the notions you hold about old Francis. He was a tortured man who beat his wife and battled suicidal depressions, but he was also a brilliant and undereducated autodidact. In the end, Frank writes, his dad was co-opted by the nascent Religious Right figures like James Dobson into shilling for them by making abortion his number one issue, though it was an issue he didn’t really care that much about.  (I was disappointed that I found at least a dozen grammatical errors in this book — it needed a better copy editor!)

What was so interesting in reading Frank’s memoir was how the ministry and ideology of Francis and Edith Schaeffer really paved the road for today’s Mark Driscolls and the many other young, Reformed souls who want to be culturally edgy and theologically conservative. It seems that Schaeffer is the patron saint of the neo-Reformed movement. (Speaking of that, I’m now back to reading Marsden’s magesterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life to get a better grasp of their other patron saint.)

Then, in the Dublin Airport, I purchased Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt (it seemed fitting to read an Irish memoir on the way home). I tore through this book — it’s one of those books you carry around and read at every spare moment. The writing is remarkable, and the story of a childhood of Irish poverty is compelling. It’s a great book, and it causes one to appreciate how good I’ve got it — and to remember that many around the world still live in that kind of poverty.

Now I’m reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement (not because there’s a movie out) and the Edward’s biography.

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  • Tessa

    Wow, then I think you’ve misread Frank if you think his father “didn’t really care that much” about abortion. And yes, I’ve read Frank’s book, as well as his father’s, as well as having spent good chunks of time at L’Abri when Francis Schaeffer was alive.

    Oh, and I know of at least one “inaccuracy” that Frank tells in his desire to pitch a story winsomely, as you put it. So memoir is a cool genre, no? One can advance most anything and not be too concerned with ‘truth’ as long as what one says moves the story along in a winsome way.


    Rather postmodern, doncha think?

  • Ben Lamb


    I have recently started reading your blog and really just recently began to gain interest in the Emergent Movement. You talk about inerrancy in derogatory terms in the above post. I have not been able to find much about this topic from many of the Emergent websites. Could you point me to a website/blog post that explains either your or the Emergent view of inerrancy of Scripture?
    Interestingly reading.

  • I did a study of Francis Schaeffer in college and during that time happened to have a professor who spent a good bit of time at L’Abri back in its peak.

    I’ve also run across the younger Schaeffer in various places.

    My impression, for what it’s worth, is that Francis was far from being a perfect man, and cultivated an image to be sure. He was a man of his generation and that meant one reality for public and another for private.

    Yet, my impression of the younger Schaeffer is someone who really was thrust into the public eye as neither as intelligent nor as hopeful as his father and has over the years specifically turned against that. Which means while you have to take Francis’ life with a bit of skepticism, it’s also important to take Frank’s writing with a good many grains of salt. I suspect reality is somewhere in the middle of the two sides.

    Francis was not particularly good about giving answers, and his books have an air of intellectualism that seems great unless you really know the subjects he’s talking about. But he was absolutely great about asking questions, and questions no one else was willing to ask.

    Indeed, I would suggest that his abortion stands were far less important in his later career than his strong environmentalism. And in this and a lot of ways by providing an open community for discussion, he was proto-emerging.

    But abortion is the big battleground now, so Frank is using that issue to firmly place his father on a side he despises.

    Very sad, though not entirely unfair.

    Angela’s Ashes, a book I also read when I was in Ireland a few years ago, is indeed very powerful. Though a bit too powerful for me to try again for a second reading.

    Frank McCourt’s book on teaching is also very good.

  • I had to look up autodiadact, and upon investigation discovered that I am one.

    Hopefully this emergent movement will remain grassroots to the extent that it continues to welcome folks like me, and I pray I can make a similar impact.

    Merry Christmas, Tony.

  • crazybilly

    I just finished Crazy for God.

    The thing I liked most about it was that listening to the narrative voice make it pretty apparent that knows exactly what you’re talking about as far as self-deception.

    Which means, of course, that taking it too seriously as fact would be foolish. But disabusing ourselves of having anyone on a pedestal, which Frank is happy to do, would be wise as well.

    I thought it was a great book.

    I thought it was interesting how both Reformed and pre-Emergent Francis was, though, in the book. His (and his wife’s) ability to love the marginalized were pretty amazing, I thought.

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