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 (2008)
We were Les Américains on the edge of a tiny vil age, fundamentalist Christians running a mission called L’Abri, surrounded by Swiss peasants who hated the fact we’d invaded their farming community.
Mom sometimes stamped her foot (literally) if H. L. Mencken’s name was mentioned. And she would say of his anti-fundamentalist satires: “But we’re not like that! He would never have written those horrible things if he had ever met me!”
But there was also an unintended message that I picked up, which has shaped my life: we were outsiders doing everything we could to be mistaken for insiders, so that we could be accepted by the insiders and then convert them to being outsiders, like us, until everyone became an outsider and therefore we got to be insiders forever!
When I opened my curtains, if the sun was shining at a certain angle, a brilliant beam of light shot through the cutout tulip and across my bedroom, picking out glittering dust particles. If I smacked my pillow a couple of times, I stirred up a dazzling explosion of dust and it seemed as if a whole universe had suddenly sprung to life, complete with galaxies, suns, and worlds swirling and twinkling in the light that cut through the thick dark. I’d wedge myself between my bed and the wood-paneled wallmy bedroom was very small, only about five feet by tenon the narrow patch of faded blue linoleum. I stared up at the mote-filled light. Maybe, I thought, our Planet Earth is nothing more than a dust mote floating in some huge bedroom. What if on one of my dust planets there was a boy lying on his back watching dust glitter in his sunbeam? What if his mother was downstairs preparing to lead the Monday Morning Bible Study and telling her young peopleassuming other universes had lost people, toothat God was watching over them and had a wonderful plan for their lives?
Mom got to have her cake and eat it, too. Her daughters had married “truly cultured and refined men,” and then they joined L’Abri and denied their worldly standing that had made Mom so pleased to fold them into our family. The more successful in the world you were before you got saved, the greater the triumph when you “turned from these worldly things to serve the Lord.”
Dad didn’t become a famous and Evangelical leader (awash in book-royalty money) til I was in my late teens. So during my childhood, I was haunted by the big question: Is there enough money in the vacation box this year?
I believe that my parents’ call to the ministry actually drove them crazy. They were happiest when farthest away from their missionary work, wandering the back streets of Florence; or, rather, when they turned their missionary work into something very unmissionary-like, such as talking about art history instead of Christ. Perhaps this is because at those times they were farthest away from other people’s expectations. I think religion was actually their source of tragedy. Mom tried to dress, talk, and act like anything but what she was. Dad looked flustered if fundamentalists, especially Calvinist theologians, would intrude into a discussion and try to steer it away from art or philosophy so they could discuss the finer points of arcane theology. And Dad was always in a better mood before leading a discussion or before giving a lecture on a cultural topic, than he was before preaching on Sunday. I remember Dad screaming at Mom one Sunday; then he threw a potted ivy at her. Then he put on his suit and went down to preach his Sunday sermon in our living-room chapel. It was not the only Sunday Dad switched gears from rage to preaching. And this was the same chapel that the Billy Graham family sometimes dropped by to worship in, along with their Swiss-Armenian, multimillionaire in-laws, after Billylike some Middle Eastern potentatearranged for his seventeen-year-old daughter’s marriage to the son of a particularly wealthy donor who lived up the road from us in the ski resort of Villars. Did the followers of Billy know that he’d plucked his seventeen-year-old daughter out of her first semester at Wheaton College to marry a man almost twenty years older than her whom she had never met until Billy introduced them? Would they have cared? Every human being has a dark side. But when you are being hailed as a conduit-to-God, the fact that you are a mere humanor, in the case of Billy Graham, just plain bizarrehas to be ignored by your followers for the same reason that the tribes of Israel really and truly had to keep on believing in Moses’ abilities as they wandered lost in the desert. Believing in “things unseen” is tough. That cloud must be a “pillar of fire” right? And the coincidental windstorm or earthquake has to be some sort of “parting of the Red Sea.” Believers tend to grasp wildly at anything that gives them hope, including clinging to religious leaders who throw things at their wives, then preach on love or run out of food on a pilgrimage to some promised land. In his “year of doubt”as Mom always called itDad had spent the better parts of several months pacing in our old Champéry chalet’s hayloft. He was considering giving up his faith. Things no longer made sense to him. Somehow he convinced himself to still believe. And in 1949 (at about the same time Dad was pacing), Billy Graham was also suffering from doubts and had a similar re-conversion. Billy walked into the woods, laid his Bible on a tree stump, and prayed for more faith. Suddenly he just knew it was all true! To an outside observer, these self-fulfilling miracles of renewed faith might be open to question; they might even seem to have something to do with the fact that Dad and Billy, and many others, had a vested interested in their belief, belief through which they found meaning, the respect of others, and also earned a living. But since Billy mentioned to Dadat least half a dozen times over thirty or so years of knowing each otherthat he was terrified of dying, maybe Billy’s moment of sublime revelation hadn’t quite done the trick. As for Dad, his temper and violent rage at my mother lessened with time but only disappeared altogether when he was dying of cancer. God might have given Dad faith, but he never did manage to get him to be polite to his wife.
The most ridiculous thing in the world is a PhD in theology, an oxymoron if one ever existed.
So when Billy preached, no one wanted to know why he’d gotten his daughter into an arranged marriage with the son of a very wealthy donor. And when my father stepped up to preach at a multitude of Christian colleges, few knew, or would have wanted to know, that my sisters and I sometimes huddled in our beds listening to the dull roar of his voice as he screamed at my mother and occasionally abused her.
Dad could be screaming at Mom one minute, or just bluntly muttering “I’l kill myself one of these days,” and ten minutes later he would be down in the dining room earnestly answering questions from the guests. They never had any inkling about his state of mindexcept when, once in a while, the yelling could be heard or when a tea tray or vase would be hurled down the stairs or over the balcony. But people pretended nothing was happening, except of course for Mom, who would work a sanitized version of her interminable fights with Dad into her talks as a demonstration of the way God was working in their lives “in spite of Fran’s weaknesses.” I once thought Dad’s ability to present two very different faces to the worldone to his family and one to the publicwas gross hypocrisy. I think differently now. I believe Dad was a very brave man. Suffering from bouts of depression, I have come to understand that the choice is to carry on or not, no matter how I feel. And since my dad literally had no close friends, let alone a confessor or therapist to talk to, his suffering was in near-total isolation. When that bleak grayness envelops everything for a few days or hours and sucks all the joy and air out of a day, as a writer I can just shut the world out, if I want, and retire to some inner cave and nurse my depression. Dad craved privacy, too, but his work was people. And Dad never sought counseling.
Dad did contemplate suicide. He sometimes spoke in detail about hanging himself. I went through my childhood knowing that there were two things we children were never to tell anyone. The first was that Dad got insanely angry with my mother; the second was that from time to time he threatened suicide. Mom was naturally gregarious. But Dad’s idea of what he had to do with his life was horribly at odds with his introverted personality. And the fact he carried on doing what he believed to be rightopening his homewas a brave and wholly admirable thing.
Left to himself, Dad never talked about theology or God, let alone turned some conversation into a pious lesson the way Mom did. Left to himself, reality seemed enough for Dad. Besides, this was a day off, and God and the Bible were work.
How exactly was this supposed to work? God was in charge, but he wouldn’t do anything for us unless we believed he would do it. But if he didn’t do anything, what reason was there to believe? We lacked the faith to pray effectively and make God do stuff. So we prayed for the faith to make God give us faith to make him do stuff. But getting enough faith was the biggest problem, so we prayed for the faith we needed to pray for faith. But how much faith did it take to pray to have enough faith to pray for faith? And if God knew you wanted faith, why didn’t he just give it to you? It was like spending all your time calling directory information for phone numbers that you aren’t allowed to call unless you can guess the number right without asking.
The school was owned and run by Madame Moraz, a robust tweed-clad, child-hating, wide-hipped French woman married to a small subservient Swiss husband who trotted at her side, the way a worried pilot fish accompanies a shark.
On some days I wouldn’t bother to ski back to the school but asked permission to head down through the forest and skied right up to my front door, through new unbroken snow, absolutely alone for a blessed hour, completely free. Sometimes I would play a little game with God. I would radically alter my path, make illogical and sudden turns and stops, just to see if I could momentarily get ahead of predestination, do something God wasn’t expecting. But I always had the feeling it wasn’t working. And out in the wilderness I was glad enough to believe that the Lord was watching over me. I knew that if I fell and broke my leg, I might be stuck outside for a night or worse.
Bob Dylan scheduled a visit to L’Abri, then at the last minute didn’t come. Mick Jagger also failed to show up at the last minute. (He and Keith Richards had a chalet in Villars and called to say they were on their way down to us several times.) My cousin Jonathan (his mother was Aunt Janet, of the Communist Party and later of the Closed Brethren) was hanging around London with Paul McCartney. Dad was carrying on a long handwritten correspondence with Leopold Senhor, President of Senegal (a famous African poet in his own right). When I met Jimmy Page, lead guitarist for Led Zeppelin (in 1969 or thereabouts), he had a paperback copy of Escape from Reason in his back pocket and pronounced it “very cool.” Eric Clapton had given him Dad’s book, Page told me. One of Joan Baez’s best friends was at L’Abri. Of course, we were all hoping Joan Baez would come to L’Abri and get saved, because that would be a “great way to reach so many young people for Christ.” The more famous, the more hip the convert, the more “the Lord could use that person.” There was a type of unofficial aristocracy. A born-again Wheaton College student (Wheaton is a major evangelical school in Illinois), who showed up just to do Bible studies and to “deepen her walk with the Lord,” was low on the totem pole compared to, say, a British heroin addict-artist who was hanging out with Keith Richards. When former Harvard professor and LSD drug guru Timothy Leary came to Villars and stayed in a hotel for several days to meet with Dad, we canceled everything and had a special day of fasting and prayer. “Just think of what it will mean if he gets saved!” Mom exalted. When Bob Dylan didn’t show up, “the Devil won a victory.” According to Dad, Samuel Becket, Jean Genet, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, et al., were doing God’s work. They were preparing men’s hearts, in “pre-evangelism,” and “tearing down the wall of middle-class empty bourgeois apathy.” Jimi Hendrix was right to scorn that plastic business, man! All we needed to do was provide the answer after the counterculture rebels opened the door by showing people that life without Jesus was empty. The great thing was that since Jimi Hendrix saw the problem“the problem” was materialistic middle-class life without eternal valueslistening to Jimi became essential to “understanding our generation” and “reaching them.” As Dad said, “We have to speak their language.” Since that language was rock and roll, art and movies, it suited me perfectly. Not only had the fundamentalist taboos of my childhood lapsed; they were reversed. In fact, during our many arts weekends I was encouraged to play the latest records, and then we would have discussions on what it all meant. Dropping out and turning on was cool now, so I was going with the flow, no longer an oddity.
And there were a host of Schaeffer clones who were starting to get into the be-cool-for-Jesus business, too. Os Guinness, Dick Keyes, and many others who were at one time or another L’Abri workers, learned their I-can-explain-everything-to-modern-people strategies for evangelical intellectual renewal while sitting at Dad’s feet.
During the period Kathy remembers so fondly, Dad was at his angriest. And my sister Priscilla was about to have her first complete nervous breakdown. A fight was brewing between my brothers-in-law that would eventually split L’Abri. On some days, Mom was hiding bruises on her arms; on other days, she was flirting shamelessly with Roger, a handsome “sensitive poet” from San Francisco, twenty years younger than her. This was the source of my parents’ biggest fights. Mom would take Roger to pray with her in the woods, to her prayer treesa great and unique honor!where he would collect moss, twigs, and flowers and make lovely Japanese-style arrangements. Dad was reduced to glaring fury by these activities. He never so much as picked a bunch of flowers, and now here was this Roger, writing poems, empathizing with Mom’s “if-only” wistful remembrances of opportunities lost, and endlessly seeking her spiritual advice.
In other words, my parents were no better or worse than most people and went though a few really bad patches. But groupies have to believe in something or someone.
I wasted many a hard-won three francs. After all that effort, I never once managed to do what so many other boys I met at the Grenier casually bragged (lied?) about, take a girl someplace and have sex with her after meeting her on the dance floor. All my successful conquests were in L’Abri, not out in the worldly “scene.” It was a bit ironic. I got laid in the Lord’s work; but in the immoral secular world, the girls weren’t so easy.
Genie still loves me, even though she knows me now. And thirty-seven years later, we have no idea what those children had in mind or who they were. And when Genie takes a trip alone, say to visit her mom, or the time she went with my mother to China for five weeks, to take Mom back to where she was born, my life stops. When Genie comes home, life starts again. I cook for Genie. We drink wine every day at five. And standing in the kitchen together is the best part of any day. And it is hard to believe that someday one of us will die and leave the other alone.
L’Abri was growing. And I was more and more aware that my life was being defined by my parents’ choices. I was very grateful for their kindness to Genie and me, but also conscious that I was like some asteroid caught in the orbit of a giant planet. I had several fights with my mother, accusing her of folding her children into her ministry by using us as an illustration in her talks and books and by “volunteering” us to be raised in a small weird community after inviting a horde to invade our home. “Did you ever ask us if we wanted to be part of this?” I said more than once. Mom never had an answer, other than to claim that the Lord had led Dad and her. That always seemed to excuse everything.
Billy never seemed al that interested in the scripts. “Do whatever you all want. Just do it on budget!” was his usual reply to any question. But we would have long, intricate, and seemingly endless strategy sessions about how to approach donors. “Mary Crowley doesn’t like to be asked,” Billy would say. “You have to get her to take you to her private chapel and pray about the project with her. Make sure you kneel down next to her and hold her hand! Then let her ask you how to help.” With Rich DeVos, the tactic was different. “Talk to Rich about saving capitalism!” Billy would say. “Tell him your Dad is standing up to the socialists! Do not talk about art!” With the “Hunt boys,” as Billy cal ed them, he advised “Don’t talk too fast! Do not mention the word ‘intellectual.’ Stick to the simple Gospel. We’re doing this for Jesus! Got it?” We would approach Nancy DeMoss as if she was a skittish runaway colt, sidle up with many friendly calls, never really ask, just tell her about the project. “Get Edith to call her again! Nancy needs to feel excited, and she loves your mother’s books! Let Edith do the talking on this one!” Billy knew what he was doing. We were raising money by the fistful. I was learning how to suck up to, stroke, and “handle” the super-rich. Approaching one was like trying to gain favor with the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Do it wrong, and it was off with your head! Stroke the target correctly and, for a few minutes, you might become a coddled favorite. Above all , as Billy said again and again, you had to pretend to be interested in them “as people.”
One event stands out as foreshadowing one of the many reasons I would later flee the evangelical world: The best material we shot for How Should We Then Live?genuinely historic and unique footagewas filmed in the Accademia that houses Michelangelo’s David. Dad was on a scaffolding that we built right up next to the statue, so people would get the sense of scale. (That was when I handed him a featherduster to clean off David’s head! We noticed it was dusty!) We filmed a magnificent dolly shot past Michelangelo’s Captives (or “unfinished works”) that line the hall up to the David. Then the shot continued all the way around David and ended on Dad. Gospel Films insisted that I cut the scene and replace the shot with stock footage bought from an old NBC show because our shots revealedoh, horror!David’s genitals. The old NBC footage conveniently blacked them out. “We can’t have this for a Christian audience,” said Billy Zeoli. “Churches won’t rent it.” “But we have other nudes and you never said anything. What about Mary’s breast in that Virgin and Child?” “That’s bad enough! One holy tit is okay, as long as you don’t leave it on screen too long. But churches don’t do cock!” said Billy with an uproarious laugh. I fought and lost. When I told Dad, he muttered, “We’re working with fools.”
This dismissive attitude backfired. For instance, after Planned Parenthood and NOW sent people to a few of our seminar venues to challenge us, the latter part of the tour began to pull a bigger evangelical crowd in an “us against them” spirit. Our small audiences listened to Dad, Koop, and myself try to debate in-your-face (and often off-the-wall) NOW and Planned Parenthood plants sent by those pro-choice organizations to protest the fact that we even wanted to discuss “their” issue. And our audiences were also sometimes treated to an exhibition of pro-choice self-righteousness that made our fundamentalism seem nuanced. We could not have scripted it better. A screamed chant of “My body! My choice!” isn’t much of an argument.
Dad’s strategy seemed to work. When I wanted to turn Reagan’s article into a book, I only had to call the White House once.
What I slowly realized was that the religious-right leaders we were helping to gain power were not “conservatives” at all , in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.
Long before Ralph Reed and his ilk came on the scene, Dad got sick of “these idiots,” as he often called people like Dobson in private. They were “plastic,” Dad said, and “power-hungry.” They were “Way too right-wing, really nuts!” and “They’re using our issue to build their empires.” To our lasting discredit, Dad and I didn’t go public with our real opinions of the religious-right leaders we were in bed with. We believed there was too much at stake, both personally, as we caught the power-trip disease, and politically, as we got carried away by the needs of the pro-life movement. And however conflicted Dad and I were, like the other religious-right leaders, we were on an ego-stroking roll. We kept our mouths shut.
In Europe, children are expected to look both ways all by themselves before crossing a street. The first time I saw a school bus stopped, lights flashing, I just zoomed past, nearly ran down several children, and heard the driver honk furiously and the shouts of the angry children: “You’re supposed to stop!” I asked Genie what the hell all that was about, and she explained that in America when a child gets off a bus, the world stops.
The public image of the leaders of the religious right I met with so many times also contrasted with who they really were. In public, they maintained an image that was usually quite smooth. In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement. Dad and I were sitting in Falwell’s study just after Dad spoke at Jerry’s church. (Later I preached there, too, endorsed Falwell, and also gave a talk to the whole student body at Falwell’s college.) Out of the blue, Jerry brought up the gay issue. Dad said something about it being complicated, and Jerry replied: “If I had a dog that did what they do, I’d shoot him!” The offhand remark came from nowhere. Jerry wasn’t smiling. He was serious and just tossed his hatred out there the way gang members throw down hand signals. Dad looked nonplussed but didn’t say anything, though later he growled, “That man is really disgusting.” Later still, Dad commented: “You can be cobelligerents, but you don’t have to be allies.”
America-the-hysterical is a profitable place for shrill activists of all persuasions. In some back room, away from the TV cameras, the busybody do-gooders who ran the ACLU and like-minded organizations, and the busybody do-gooders who I was working with on the religious right, would have understood each other perfectly. We all claimed that the only thing that could stop the loss of “all our rights” was us! Just send in your donation today! “Urgent! Open this time-sensitive material right away!” The sky always had to be falling, otherwise we allof the paranoid left and delusional religious rightwould have been out of a job.
Dad and I were also going to be on the 700 Clubagain. So after the closed-door meeting ended, Dad, Jim, and I were standing in the green room before the show in a circle of prayerin other words, squeezing some stranger’s sweaty hands with our heads bowed. Dad looked about as comfortable as a cat being held over water.
[T]he point is, you want Pat to tell the director to cut to a closeup of your book when he holds it upwe didn’t want to look like we were too pushy, because of all that stuff in scripture about being meek that we were still supposed to believe.
Anyway, that day God gave Pat a “Word” for some lady with deafness in one ear. Pat squinted at the floor director through closed eyelidshe was deep in his healing, we-just-this-Lord-we-just-that, prayer. She was counting down the seconds on her fingers to the out. And Pat wrapped up the Word of Knowledge right on cue! Since a Word of Knowledge is as direct a message from God as you can get this side of the Last Judgment, it interested me to learn that God made sure his Word fit the time slot.
Priscilla has made it a mission to disabuse the students who still come to L’Abri of the Schaeffer mythology. She makes no secret of her nervous breakdowns, her dependence on Prozac, her depression and anxiety attacks, her alcohol-related struggles. She will tel anyone who asks that being a Schaeffer childand the pressure from Mom to be part of the ministry and, above all, from strangers to live up to their “Schaeffer expectations”didn’t help.
I knew “The Speech” so well, I could think about other things while I delivered it; for instance, about how I wished God had never made any men or women with a “ministry in music.” I wished he’d strike them all down so I’d never have to spend another minute listening to another fat lady (even the men were “fat ladies” to me) sing another Jesus-is-my-boyfriend song to synthesized violin playback.
The tension in my life between who I saw myself as, and who I was as others saw meand what I was really doing, no matter how I tried to fool myselfwas becoming unbearable. I was working in America, talking about America, living in America but was really a half-assed semi-European just beginning to learn about the real America.
There were three kinds of evangelical leaders. The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who stil believedsort ofbut knew that the evangelical world was shit, but who couldn’t figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else. I was turning into one of those, having started out in the idealistic category.
“I’m fucking stuck! How are we supposed to earn our living if I quit? I’ve never even been to college! I don’t know how to do anything!” “What about going back to painting?” “How will we live?”
Evangelicals weren’t politicized (at least in the current meaning of the word) until after Roe v. Wade and after Dad, Koop, and I stirred them up over the issue of abortion. More than thirty years after helping to launch the evangelical pro-life movement, I am filled with bitter regret for the unintended consequences.
But the earnings from my secular writing feel genuine, not like some sort of Monopoly money, which was the way my Jesus-dollars always struck me.
When I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church (around Christmas of 1990), I was chrismated: anointed with oil, had a bit of hair trimmed off, and a gold cross put around my neck. I read the Nicene Creed out loud, spit on the Devil, renounced some things, affirmed others.
These days, I don’t know what my children believe or don’t. I don’t ask. It’s none of my business.
For a couple of years, I had the zeal of a convert and stuck my conversion in my sister’s faces. I was obnoxious. Of course, my ranting was ironic since Orthodox tradition teaches a transcendent mystery of faith, so that the type of heated historical (hysterical) “theological” arguments I was having were far more Protestant than Orthodox. Obviously I had missed the point.
Perhaps I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church (rather than simply abandoning religious faith) because spirituality is a way to connect with people and might even be part of a journey toward God. (If there is a God.) According to Jesus, community is spirituality: “Love one another.”
The Greek Orthodox Church is the least-changed continuous body of Christian worship and tradition. So what? The average pebble in my driveway predates human existence by a hundred million years or so.