Popular Posts

Monday, September 24, 2012

Frank Schaeffer: Progressive Demagogue? (Update)

I am stuck on how exactly to respond to the post by Frank Schaeffer about Christianity Today's Mark Galli and his review of the new film Hellbound. I was determined that I would simply let a comment by me at his post stand as my reply, but having seen Frank's response to my reply I think a bit more needs to be said. Before sharing my comment and his, a bit of background. I have written serious and sustained critiques of Christianity Today on the subject of Samuel Rodriguez and Heidi Baker. Anyone who reads my work knows that I believe serious, thoughtful analysis and criticism of Christian media is important and necessary. I have been very frustrated with their coverage of many issues and I believe that they deserve to be challenged on things, but I firmly believe that there is a difference between thoughtful criticism and demagoguery. Here is one definition of a demagogue: "A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace." I think Frank would admit that for many years his work fit that defintion. The question, and I think it is a serious one for Progressive Christians at Patheos to consider, is whether or not Frank is not still a demogague though this time with a different "populace" with different "prejudices" to appeal to. His Patheos column from last week entitled "Everything You Always Hated About Christianity Today (But Were Afraid to Say)" is perhaps the clearest example of how the progressive Schaeffer still employs the same rhetorical knife he used in the past (see also his Huffington Post column on the film entitled "Pro-Hell Evangelical Bastion Smears New Movie Because it is Anti-Hell"). I will leave it to you the reader to take in his full column and decide for yourself, but here are key quotes from it that I think point to a man still in the style of a demagogue. 

1. Christianity Today workers are "keepers of the flame of second-rate Christianity" and CT is "a little obscure rag on the Christian right that wouldn’t know a nuance if one bit them."
2. On CT's Mark Galli: "how odd and yet somehow typical that Christianity Today would assign this review to Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, a book that simultaneously tried to cash in on the best-selling title Love Wins while at the same time “answering” the book in order to defend the evangelical establishment view of a literal hell, say the kind of hell all those Jews gassed in WWII went to seconds after they died because  they never 'accepted Jesus.'...I guess that’s the best you can expect when CT assigns a professional theologian with a personal commercial ax to grind rather than a professional film reviewer to the case...Overall I would say Mark Galli is really upset he wasn’t interviewed. This review sounds a lot like a “What about me?” protest."
3. In his Huffington Post version of his article Frank says "you have to wonder what's wrong with a 'Christian' publication so attached to hell that they have to smear a great new movie -- even lie about it -- to make a pro-hell point.  Christianity Today magazine is the send-all-the-sinners-to-hell gatekeeper of the evangelical establishment. And they are trying to stop their evangelical readers from even considering the anti-hell, anti-damnation, anti-retribution version of our collective human destiny"

In response to his article I posted this comment at his blog: "I have criticized different columns/articles from Christianity Today before and I have definitely had and still have at times great frustration with things there, but this response is so vicious and so wide-ranging as to cry out for a deeper explanation from you for you and your father’s disdain for the magazine. I also have to say that the Mark Galli you describe here is not the Mark Galli I know. Even when I disagree with him or his editing, I never sense in him the kind of craven, egotistical man you paint here before us. Instead, what I see in this piece is more of the same painfully raw wounds in Frank’s soul. I pray for you, brother. It feels sometimes that you have just replaced one group of people that you hate with another group of people that you hate, but the hate is still there. Please try to disagree agreeably. This is not modeling a deeper spirituality or a vision of journalism any better in anyway than what CT, warts and all, provides."

This is Frank's reply: "I think it is time for evangelicals who want to play critic to grow up. I think you should read the posts by me and others on Huffington Post where I live most of the time pro or con and use that perspective when reading my post, not Sunday school etiquette. If CT wants to play critic of movies being released into the larger culture then they should bring knives and forks to the food fight. Where have you been living? All the sobbing over tone is odd. This was an answer to a movie review by a crumby little mag. Why should I have been nicer? CT is a multi-million operation, not the old lady down the street."

I have to say that Frank's response baffles me. Of course context matters and of course harsh criticism is in order at times. But perhaps I don't want to believe that Christians should ever want to resort to a "food fight" or use of "knives" that reflect the larger culture, but rather I want to imagine a world in which we as Christians don't view questions about how we say things as "sobbing over tone" but rather as honest attempts to be sure that we "speak the truth in love."  Am I missing the boat on this? Am I going too far the other way in calling Schaeffer’s work an example of demagoguery? I freely admit that I am biased in my view of Schaeffer because I was so hurt by the work he did for many years on the religious right and later as a kind of “Orthodox fundamentalist” against Catholicism. Am I allowing that bitterness to taint my view of him now? Or am I just able to see that having been hurt by him in the past I can now see that even if his politics aligns with mine I can’t ignore his similar use of inflammatory, simplistic rhetoric?  

UPDATE: This is how Frank responded to another person who commented with concerns about his tone. "Again stop with the “tone” nonsense. I was answering a MOVIE review by a multi-million dollar organisation of bullies picking on one brave film maker. This ain’t Sunday school Lee. It doesn’t even have anything to do with religion. It has to do with a vast establishment protecting its corporate ass. Sticking up for CT in this context is like sticking up for Bain Capital or the Koch brothers in the context of politics. Get real and quit hand wringing."


  1. Dear Mr. Metzger,

    I wrote something in this space the other night only to withdraw it at the last moment. I may still post it, but for now I simply want to let you know that I've paid attention.

    Over the past week or so I've been reading some of Mr. Schaeffer's online essays and several words come to mind: anger, bitterness, envy, resentment (and ressentiment), jealousy, petulance, yearning, craving, need. All these, and more, come to the fore while reading him. (Permit me to add irrational, judgmental, and crude to the list.)

    It shouldn't puzzle you, if it does, that Mr. Schaeffer will not engage with you further on this matter. He is right and all others are wrong. It's fairly simple arithmetic. You do not agree with him. Therefore you have to be wrong. Or something like that.

    Does this mean he's a demagogue? I have no idea. But he is not going to fight a fair fight. He's not going to reason with you; and he's not likely to consider any slights against him as having merit -- unless the slights come from the evangelical "bastion" he damns as a worthless rag. He dismissed your suggestion that civility might be commendable by denigrating that suggestion as "Sunday school etiiquette". His dismissal, if not irrational, is at least a hoot.

    All in all I think you are left to yourself to figure out Mr. Schaeffer's reply to you. I can only say to you what I've said, and that his silence and avoidance can only mean that you will never get the answer you seek.

    Peace to you.


    1. Thanks, Bill, for the reflection on Frank from your reading of him and his interactions with others. I don't expect a reply from him and I continue to try and do what I said I would do in my comment at his post--pray for him. He has been through much in his life that I don't understand. It has left him in a place that seems to leave little room for non-cartoonish readings of people and institutions.