“Let me be FRANK” — A rainy afternoon Christian Atheist meditiation

A rainy view from the Cambridge Unitarian Church manse
A couple of years after I moved to Cambridge to become minister to the congregation of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church a friend and colleague of mine arranged a meeting over afternoon tea between me and Ranald Macaulay, a key figure in the international, evangelical Christian L’Abri Fellowship. Ostensibly the reason for arranging this meeting was to talk about putting on some kind of public conversation about the differences between the Unitarian and Free Christian approach to Christianity (my own religious affiliation) and that practised by the L’Abri Fellowship and the Round Church where Macaulay was then based. I say “ostensibly” because with hindsight I can see this proposed event was never going to be a “runner” . . . here’s why.

In a piece called “Edith Schaeffer | A Very Special Heritage” written by Macaulay he tells readers about his first meeting in Cambridge during 1958 with the founders of the L’Abri Fellowship, Francis and Edith Schaeffer. He recalls the moment when the introductory chit-chat was ending and Edith took charge by saying to her husband “‘Fran’ . . . why don’t you say something to these young men?’” Macaulay continues

“[Fran] hesitated briefly and then launched into a survey of western thought, outlining along the way some of the devastating consequences from that so-called ‘enlightenment’.”

As most of the readers of this blog will be aware, the phrase “that so-called ‘enlightenment’” includes the religious tradition to which I belong and so, in other words, without fully appreciating it I had entered this “conversation” with Macaulay (who spent four years working with the Schaeffer’s, married their daughter Susan and set up the L’Abri Fellowship in the UK) not on terms equal enough to have a real debate or conversation, but simply to be told in no uncertain terms that the religious views I held were both devastatingly wrong and pernicious. It was the most passive-aggressive tea-party I have ever experienced and I was mighty glad when it was all over and I have hardly had cause to think of the Schaeffer’s, L’Abri or Macaulay since that day some fourteen or fifteen years ago.

However today, thanks to the continuing rain here in Cambridge, I decided to stay inside and deal with some work related correspondence from a couple of American colleagues. In that there was a passing reference to a book called “Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God” written by a certain chap called Frank Schaeffer. Now, I’m very interested in any person who calls themselves a “Christian Atheist” (as does Frank Schaeffer) not least of all because it is how I often describe myself — so of course I couldn’t but look him up and, when I did, Lo!, I discovered he is the son of the aforementioned Francis and Edith Schaeffer which, naturally, vividly brought back to me my encounter with their son-in-law and (albeit very briefly as we sat down for tea) with Frank’s sister Susan. I thought, whoa . . . from a L’Abri Fellowship type of Christian to Christian Atheist, . . . that’s an interesting journey. So what happened? Well, it’s clearly a long complex story but I did find on YouTube what I think is an excellent, informative and, at times, very moving (especially towards the end), fifty minute documentary about Frank’s journey called “Let me be FRANK”.

I really do recommend watching it at the link below— not only for the reasons I have just given above — but because it will give British viewers an powerful insight into the current shape of the conservative evangelical movement which has had such an influence on American politics and which has played a significant role in creating the conditions for the election of Donald Trump.


Unknown said…
You might like Frank S’s autobiography ‘Crazy for God’, which is enlightening, funny and moving and well written. It also is revealing as to the creation of the religious evangelical right. The ominous bit is that he feels that his former role as part of the religious right created the conditions for Bush.., it was written before Trump!
Dear Ben, Thanks for the comment. I think I'll almost certainly read 'Crazy for God' so thanks for letting me know you think it's worth reading. I ordered a copy of"Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God" today so I'll read that first and then move on to his earlier book. By the way the film includes a section where he admits to some responsibility for the rise of the religious right - clearly this was and is not an easy or pleasant thing to do - and it's remarkable that he has had the courage to do this. That he then uses that admission to help create the space to articulate a powerful, creative and loving Christian atheism is, to me, all the more remarkable. And his final story about what he learnt from his three year old grand-daughter really, I'm mean REALLY, struck me powerfully. See you soon. All the best. A.