As part of Maryville College’s Community Conversations program to promote and provoke dialogue in community and on campus, a series of inspiring people have been invited to the college to share their stories and spread their messages.
Tuesday, March 6, saw the latest in the series of conversational events take place in the Alumni Gym.
Frank Schaeffer, a famous American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker, talked at length about spiritual, religious and political transformation on both a personal and a political basis.
As soon as Schaeffer took to the podium, the aura that surrounded him was evident. He was one of those people that command respect instantly, before uttering even a single word.
His demeanor suggested a strong character and, as he started to talk, his voice only intensified this image. His command of language and his perfect interjection of humor made it obvious that he was clearly a very proficient and experienced public speaker.
He opened with what he described as “the perfect introduction” by reading a passage from one of his own books, entitled “Portofino.” He read a number of passages from his own work and talked about his books, which detail the “life and ideas of the writer.”
Schaeffer had a fundamentalist childhood and grew up in early 1960s Switzerland as the son of two missionary parents. He tracks his time in Europe in “Portofino,” which brought about his first understanding of Christianity. He talked about dinnertime at the table and his mother’s long graces.
He said, “My mother’s 10-minute graces trying to convert the locals in Italy were about faith.”
The Italians would stare at these Americans as his mother prayed louder and louder trying subtly to convert the natives. In response, Schaeffer and his family received a number of strange looks from tilted local heads, and he came to the conclusion that, “Jesus had called us to be odd.”
After a couple of readings from his works, Schaeffer then turned his attention to the real meat of his argument, the relationship between religion and politics.
He continually referred back to the “good old days of politics” when “we used to be in a civil society where we could talk and debate, not this craziness we see today.”
He then said that politics today have become a manipulative game to try to push on people’s morals in order to entice them into voting one way or the other.
“The morals used to matter, but today religion is masqueraded as politics and politics is masqueraded as religion,” he said.
Schaeffer may be most famous for his rejection and breaking away from the evangelical right which he helped create.
“In 1995, I slammed the door and got out. I made some movies in Hollywood,” Schaeffer said. “I got out of evangelical movement. I feel sorry for those who are using religion for politics now because I used to do it. Sooner or later, you realize you are just shoveling BS.”
This took him into the intriguing world of religious politics.
“Faith as a political weapon becomes soul destroying. What profiteth the man who gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”
This was one of his most interesting concepts, the idea of this question that a little voice asks in the head of every modern politician.
“The politicians know they are selling their souls when they use radical religious ideals to influence votes,” Schaeffer said “This is not Christianity. This is not why Christianity has lasted two millennia.”
Many audience members were left wondering whether or not they had been charmed into the palm of his hand through laughter and humor or not, but this idea resonated with a great deal the crowd.
A captivated audience took in the next message from Schaeffer, which underlined his entire philosophy since his personal transformation: “We get caught up in theological tradition and condemn people we see as inadequate based on scripture, not on content of character.”
He continued on this strand: “It’s a terrible mistake to hitch a wagon to just one thing, our religion. When it comes to cosmology, no one knows anything. We can only love. Let’s worry a lot less about Corinthians and more about the people you love. Love thy neighbor.”
Schaeffer is a very confident speaker and emitted a passionate strength when addressing these topics, which were obviously close to his heart, but he also showed genuine humility and shades of a quite beautiful weakness resident somewhere within him.
One sensed that a rather bitter taste of the past still hurts Frank Schaeffer. He spoke sincerely about his own blurry past and touched on the anger he could not control as a young, teenage father.
He spoke fondly of his granddaughter and grandson throughout, and when he got onto the subject of his personal religious practice, he almost fell into a story about his grandchild, Lucy.
He addressed his religious conversion in a typical manner: “You’ll like church a lot better if you don’t know what’s going on. I go to a Greek orthodox church. It’s like opera. You don’t know what is being said, you just enjoy the music.”
Schaeffer said there is no salutation in winning an election, not in the madness that modern politics has become. He instead said salutation comes in the form of real love, like that in the eyes of his grandchild, Lucy, when she looks at him.
“You know what I love about Lucy?” Schaeffer asked. “She didn’t know my sins and my angry past. Perhaps how God sees us. She looks at me and her eyes say, ‘As you are, I love you.’ This is why I go to church.”
Maryville’s own Dr. Sam Overstreet, who attended the lecture, gave his perspective on Schaeffer’s anecdote about his granddaughter and the possible parallels with the way God sees us.
“Here’s the poignant thing about Schaeffer’s seeing the eyes of God in his grandchild who accepts him as he is now, not as he has been in his past failures: the heart of the Christian message is that, because in Christ God paid the penalty for all our evils and failures, those who come to God in sorrow for their wrong thoughts and actions can find the perfect acceptance that only Jesus Christ actually deserved,” Overstreet said.
Overstreet sensed that Schaeffer seemed rather weary of God’s ability to love us for who we are and as a result turned toward his grandchild.
“The complete acceptance expressed by his grandchild, pure and great though that be, is pale in comparison [to God’s],” Overstreet said.
Reverend Anne McKee also commented on Schaeffer’s tale of his relationship with his grandchildren. “He talked with deep affection about his relationship with his grandchildren, as a kind of redemption, a chance to be a better grandparent than he was a parent,” she said. “I sensed a great relief, and sense of grace, as he realized that the mistakes of his past have been forgiven, and that he has a chance to speak with others [about] how he sees the world now, and to undo some of the damage, both personal and political, that he believes he was a part of.”
Schaeffer seemed to pull at the heartstrings of the community which came out to have a conversation with him at this event. He closed with a Q&A session and then signed some copies of his books for a grateful fan base.
A good majority appeared to have been “won over” during the hour and some change in which they had heard this man talk, and there is no doubt he made a very compelling argument.
Of course, as with any religious thinker, Schaeffer brought up some points that were a little more radical than others, and there are many devout Christians who will likely find holes in his arguments.
However, as Schaeffer adamantly said time and again, “The good old days were good old days because politicians were able to sit down and debate with each other about moral and religious issues.”
A guise of humor may have allowed Schaeffer to slip a couple of his more extreme ideas regarding foreign policy and religious doctrine through the net; nevertheless, he spoke to a lot of people who have lost faith in faith and faith in the American political system, especially the right wing.
Schaeffer did not offer a quick fix solution, but he did emphasize that a shift back to morality and political integrity lies in the hands of our generation.
“I was really struck by the intelligence, kindness and worldly interests of the Maryville College students I ate dinner with earlier this evening,” Schaeffer said. “I think there is hope in this young generation.”
While there is hope, there is room for belief. “Schaefferist” thought might not be everybody’s answer, but in a cosmologic and political world of endless questions, judging others by the content of their character does not seem to be the worst place to start on a path toward love and righteousness.