Features

Fathers and sons

Interview | Frank Schaeffer discusses life as a wartime parent and how watching his son join the Marines and go to the Middle East changed the way he thinks about his relationship with his famous father

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

This is the seventh in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share WORLD's perspective, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott, Charles Murray, Joseph Epstein, and William F. Buckley.) Frank Schaeffer is the outspoken son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Now a member of the Orthodox Church, Mr. Schaeffer has found what he calls his "fundamentalist" background to be a rich source of inspiration for three novels and other writings. Frank Schaeffer wrote in an essay on Beliefnet, "The Christian fundamentalists who stumble across my novels because of the family name detest them because they're about religious people and are set in Europe, where my parents had their mission. Some evangelical readers take them as biographies and are offended that the parents in the stories are portrayed warts and all, thus besmirching the memory of Francis Schaeffer. Other fundamentalists just don't like anything that pokes fun at the narrow legalistic Christianity in which they have invested themselves and with which they are inflicting their children." In that same essay Mr. Schaeffer criticized both the political right and left for trying to force him into one camp or the other. Those who like his nonfiction books about the military tend to hate his novels, he says. Those who love the novels think he's all wrong about the military. "So I'm caught in the shrinking space between two calcified political doctrines of the left and right. My correspondents seem so certain of everything -- especially that God is on their side." Where is Mr. Schaeffer? "I hope there is still room in our polarized country for Christians like me, who don't subscribe to any one-dogma-fits-all. It seems to me that life is too short, sweet, and mysterious for us to be able to exhaustively 'explain' anything much, let alone explain everything with certainty." WORLD: Faith of Our Sons is a journal of your experience as a military dad whose son was on active duty in Afghanistan. Do you think the increased information flow makes it harder or easier to be the parent on the home front now than it was during World War II? FS: I think the information flow with e-mail and phone makes it easier for the military parent. What makes it harder is all the barrage of instant "real-time" TV news coverage. As a parent you get hooked on one hand and just wish the news was more serious and less entertainment orientated on the other. But it's hard not to watch night and day and try and learn if your loved one is OK. WORLD: When your son decided to enlist in the Marines, you and your wife had a hard time understanding his decision. You also found yourselves living among people who didn't understand or admire what he'd done. They were basically hostile or indifferent to the military. How did your son's decision transform your thinking about the military and war? FS: I have to admit that before my son joined the Marines I was like a lot of my friends are now. I just assumed that the military was for other people, not my family. How I have changed is that what happens to our men and women is now intensely personal to me. I cry over the news of deaths, and am angry at how the widows and children of those killed in action are treated, which is not well, as I point out in the appendix of Faith of Our Sons. What happens to the "military family" is now MY problem. And I wonder why so many of our leaders have no children serving. I was once someone who had elitist attitudes regarding our military too. My son cured me of that, rather shamed me! WORLD: Your friend Frank Gruber, a Hollywood producer, is a major character in the book. He's opposed to the war and hostile to the military, yet he loves you and your son. Explain what that relationship is like and how it survives such major differences in worldview? FS: Frank is an agnostic Jew and I'm a practicing and believing Christian. Frank and I go way back to when he represented me when I was directing movies. We became friends and our friendship is based on a common commitment to our families. We disagree on a lot but both have been married to the same woman for many years -- something all too rare in both "secular" and "Christian" circles these days. We both love our children, believe in family and love. What we differ over is the sort of issues the "culture wars" are being fought over, but our friendship survives those disagreements because we both love our families and also because we both love America. WORLD: The papers are full of news and photos of the prison-abuse scandal. You write that your son was involved in some activities too hard to talk about. What does he say about the scandal? FS: He does not say much. As a parent I have to let John open up when he wants to and not push too hard. He went to war, not me, and he has earned the right to say or not say whatever he wants on the subject. I know, however, he will be angry with anyone that hurts the good name of the U.S. military, and as such he will want those who did the wrong thing brought to justice. WORLD: Your father, Francis Schaeffer, was a great influence on many WORLD readers. Now that you're a father, watching your son forge his own way, explain how it's changed the way you think about your relationship with your father. FS: In my book Faith of Our Sons, I say that I wished my dad was still alive so I could have shared the pain of sending my son to war and gotten his advice. I guess it takes living life to understand what we as children put our parents through. My dad and I were very close, but having John go to war has taught me that my own dad must have also suffered when he watched me as a young man starting life and wished he could reach out and guide me. WORLD: You became an Orthodox Christian some time back. Are your children following that path? What role did your religious faith play in your waiting time? FS: My children all did in fact join the Orthodox Church. The role faith played had nothing to do specifically with Orthodoxy as far as doctrine goes but to do with the absolute need for prayer and depending on grace. I have no idea how some of my secular friends get through life, but having John deployed taught me again that prayer and feeling God's love and grace is the indispensable aspect of life, as basic as breathing. WORLD: Has your opinion about the war in Iraq changed over the past year? If so, how? Do you fear that your son's sacrifices may be in vain? What should the United States now do in Iraq? FS: I'm only a military parent with no special insight into the war in Iraq. But for what it's worth, my sense is that we needed to send a message to the Muslim-Arab world that the days of cutting and running as we did from the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut to the bombing of the Cole have to be over. My own view is that successive American administrations have sent the wrong signal from the time our hostages were taken by the Iranians almost to the present. So I don't know how it will all come out in Iraq, but I do know we have to finish the job now we are there for better or worse. I note that the discussion of the war would be different if more of our leaders, including the president and members of Congress, had children serving the way that the Roosevelts did in World War II. We'd be a stronger country morally if our leaders had some "skin in the game." Right now out of 535 members of Congress only six have kids serving. WORLD: It's 20 years since your father died, soon after writing A Christian Manifesto. What do you agree with and what do you disagree with in his Manifesto? If you were to write a Christian manifesto, what would it be like? FS: I think I'd look at the whole culture from the point of view of trying to figure out how a very soft society can defend itself in the face of radical violent Islam. I would not only look at the internal threats of moral collapse as he did, but look at the fact that we are now under very real external attack. We now live in different times than my dad wrote in. The new fact we have to face is the rise of radical Islam. BOOK REVIEW: Passionate companion Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Faith of Our Sons: A Father's Wartime Diary, is exactly what the title suggests: the proud, sometimes anguished, and often-angry account of his life during the 11 months his son John, a corporal in the U.S. Marines, spent fighting in Afghanistan. He recounts the hours and days waiting to hear from John after every bit of bad news trumpeted 24/7 on cable TV. Short phone calls bring joy but also worry: Did he really sound OK? Letters and e-mails from other Marine families, shared in the book, help him deal with the uncertainty, while anti-war political statements made by officials of his church hurt. The book isn't a patriotic homage to military service. It's too raw and personal for that. Some pages cry out, "Feel my pain," "Feel my anger at those leaders whose kids don't serve." But that emotional honesty and immediacy, expressed often with bad language, make real his experience to those who have never shared it. Those who have shared it will find in Mr. Schaeffer a passionate companion.

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Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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