If you’re still in the fundamentalist and/or evangelical fold and are familiar with the writings of Francis Schaeffer – or even if you’ve left in the last few years – the novel Portofino by Schaeffer’s son Frank is bound to be unnerving. Especially if you’ve also read his recent autobiography, Crazy for God.
In Portofino, Schaeffer writes about the son of an American missionary family living in Switzerland, following two of their summer holidays in the Italian town that gives the book its name. We immediately suspect biographical elements in the book, given that Calvin Becker’s family teaches intellectual ideas in a setting similar to L’Abri, the institution founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. The two family holidays take place in 1962 and 1965, about the same years that Frank would have been Calvin’s age. And Calvin, like Frank, is eventually sent to a boarding school in England because his education is sorely neglected in Switzerland while his parents concentrate on their more important ministry.
The similarities between the Schaeffer family and the fictional Becker family become more obvious as eleven-year old Calvin views the world through a strict Reformationist theological prism.
For example, he fully accepts that the Italian family he spends time with on the beach is “obviously not saved.” When he takes a single sip of wine the family offers him, he judges himself: “…now I was drinking wine just like the Spaniards did while they laughed and swore and tortured real Christians because they would no longer worship Mary, whom we know was an ordinary girl, not anything special, but they worshiped her because they were pagans who served the Pope not our Lord. Now I drank wine too!”
This wrestling between viewpoints – believing the strict Calvinist teachings of his parents while secretly being embarrassed whenever fellow vacationers find out about them – the acceptance of some bizarre interpretations of the world (see the Spaniards, above), yet trying to enact those beliefs in daily life – this all suggests just how odd and difficult it must have been to be a Schaeffer child.
Yet the behaviour of the Becker family is clearly overdone, a caricature, overemphasized merely to create humour from the contrast between a strictly Calvinist Protestant missionary family and the casual worldly atmosphere of Europe in the 1960s. Right?
We might assume this, if not for the autobiography, Crazy for God. The dark Moods of Ralph Becker are described in almost exactly the same words as the Moods of Francis Schaeffer. Elsa Becker’s smug, upper class Christianity (and secret contempt for her husband’s lower class) are astonishingly similar to Edith Schaeffer’s attitudes in Crazy for God.
Just how fictional is Portofino, really? Especially reading how unreasonable and even violent Ralph’s Moods are, and how they terrify his family. How tormented he is, having to live up to his ministry, his real self emerging only when he escapes to hike into the beautiful Mediterranean hills. Or escapes the holier-than-thou attitudes of his pious wife. And Elsa, broaching inappropriately intimate topics with her children, preaching judgementally to strangers and family alike in the guise of public prayer, swinging between overbearing control of the children and virtual neglect.
For some of us, the humour in Portofino tarnishes as we suspect that the novel is more than merely autobiographical, but is in fact Frank Schaeffer’s therapeutic working out of quite a bad childhood. It’s difficult, now, to wonder if books such as Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri were merely an instance of wishful thinking, an expression of how she wished the personal lives of God’s faithful servants could be, instead of how they actually were.
Very likely, anyone who hasn’t heard of or studied Francis Schaeffer – non-Christians, or people he would have considered more “liberal” Christians – will find Portofino hilarious, as Calvin attempts to live his young life guided by sixteenth-century theology. But for those who once idolized Francis Schaeffer and his teachings, the book is more like a devastating obituary.
That may not be all bad. Portofino and its real-life counterpart, Crazy for God, remind us yet again of the dangers of the Cult of Personality. It’s as bad in a “Christian” context as, say, in a Stalinist. Unfortunately for us, and more unfortunately for Frank Schaeffer, who had to live through it, it seems to be a lesson we need to be taught over and over again.