Father, Son and Holy Rift

Share via
Times Staff Writer

From his pulpit in Santa Ana, Chuck Smith’s voice thunders with certainty. He denounces homosexuality as a “perverted lifestyle,” finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.

If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the ruddy good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known a day’s doubt or despair.

From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father’s church, Chuck Smith Jr.’s voice trembles with vulnerability and grapples with ambiguity. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a “conversation” rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as “The Simpsons” for messages, and aims to reach “generations of the post-modern age” that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.


There is a tradition among superstar evangelists like Chuck Smith the elder of bequeathing the pulpit to a son. Billy Graham did it, as did Robert H. Schuller.

However, it has been ages since anyone considered the younger Smith a possible successor to his father’s 15,000-congregation ministry, the symbolic center of a network of independently run Calvary churches: about 1,000 across the United States, including two of the three largest non-Roman Catholic churches in California, plus radio and TV ministries.

Instead, critics whispered that the son was a dangerous impostor. Last year, those whispers exploded into a full-blown din. Online protests and fliers distributed at the younger Smith’s church demanded that he drop the “Calvary” name because of his increasingly liberal drift on such non-debatable issues as the evil of homosexuality and the promise of hell for unbelievers. “What will it take for Chuck Sr. to stop the nepotism?” blogged Calvary congregant Jackie Alnor, one of the critics leading the charge. “Does his son have to burn incense to Isis and Zeus before he is disfellowshipped from a Bible-believing fellowship of churches?”

By last spring, one thing had become clear to Smith Jr.: Sprawling as it was, the church his father had built -- the place that once embraced a generation of drug-addled hippies and helped change the way many Americans worshipped -- had little room left for him.


“Even when I speak, some of what I say is opinion and confusion and error,” says Smith Jr., 55, who wears shorts and flip-flops as he welcomes a visitor to his church. “I’m more in a place of learning than I am in a place of certainty.”

He said he grew up as a true believer in his father’s Pentecostal world, a world that could tilt and slide him into hell at any moment, or end with the thunderclap of doom. His earliest memories involve an overpowering sense of sin. “You can never be good enough if you’re Pentecostal or if you’re fundamentalist,” Smith Jr. said. “Jesus may even be upset if you didn’t make your bed or brush your teeth.”


His mother mostly raised him, because his father was often gone, teaching the Bible, taking outside jobs, shuttling from pulpit to pulpit throughout Southern California. At Newport Harbor High School, Smith Jr. said, he found himself hopelessly estranged from his classmates, who seemed to guarantee their damnation anew every day with sex, drugs and parties.

One day, everyone was buzzing about a band called the Beatles and he was clueless; he had been in church when they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

When he suffered his first bout of severe depression in his teens, his hearty, ever-upbeat father found the malady so alien he could provide little help. If you’re sad all the time, he told his son, you won’t have many friends.

Dad, for his part, was reshaping American Christianity. He opened the first nondenominational Calvary Chapel on a Costa Mesa lot with just 25 congregants in 1965. Soon he became famous as the strait-laced pastor who threw open his doors to the ragged counterculture and baptized thousands below the ocean cliffs of Corona del Mar. He became Papa Chuck, the smiling man in the Hawaiian shirt, a staunch-but-benevolent spiritual father to a generation of end-of-their-rope hippies, dropouts and drug casualties.

To his older son, he was more elusive: “He wasn’t present emotionally, even if he was present physically. To hear him speak, you just get the impression this is such a warm and intimate person, but the closer you got to him, the more you’d realize he really didn’t have those intimacy skills.”

When he left high school, Smith Jr. was certain he would not follow his dad to the pulpit. But during his first semester at Orange Coast College, he found himself defending Christianity to his classmates. People kept firing questions, and, because he was Chuck Smith’s son, he had answers right on his tongue. About the same time, a pretty coed invited him back to her apartment. Suddenly, he said, his choice seemed vivid. It was between Jesus and being “sucked into the vortex of the evils of the world.” He politely declined temptation, dropped out of college and became a pastor, the only one among his parents’ four children to do so, and by his mid-20s had founded two churches of his own.


Theologically, father and son were on roughly the same page. They preached damnation for the unsaved, the wickedness of homosexuality, and what the son, looking back later, would call “a general hopelessness about the world,” one salved only by the promise of an imminent, cataclysmic Second Coming.


There was no shattering epiphany, no Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It was a slow drift from his father’s booming certainties to a universe of questions with murky answers.

About the time he opened a church in Dana Point in 1975, Smith Jr. began reading widely, making friends with Christians of different backgrounds. He began to consider that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he was referring to the rewards of a selfless life, here and now -- that the Gospels’ core message was real-world compassion, not preparation for the afterlife.

For years, Smith Jr. said, he had preached about hell uncomfortably, half-apologetically, because he couldn’t understand why a loving God would consign his children to eternal flames. It felt like blackmail for a pastor to threaten people with hell-scapes from the Middle Ages to induce piety.

Now, he came to believe that the biblical images used to depict hell’s torments -- such as the “lake of fire” and the “worm that does not die” -- were intended to evoke a feeling rather than a literal place.

He also grew disillusioned with the Rapture, the notion that believers in Jesus will be whisked to God’s side during Armageddon. His father had predicted the end of the world would arrive in the 1980s, based on his reading of the Book of Revelation. He has continued, year after year, to announce its imminence with absolute confidence.


The father: “Every year I believe this could be the year. We’re one year closer than we were.”

The son: “To use [the Book of Revelation] for prognostication, to me, is just ridiculous.... I knew of a guy who was racking up debt because he just assumed he was going to get raptured and wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

During the 1980s, as an AIDS pandemic exploded, Smith Jr. embraced members of the gay community from nearby Laguna Beach.

The father on homosexuality: “It is the final affront against God.”

The son: “I met homosexuals who were trying to live celibate lives or be heterosexual, and I heard all about their struggles, and I never wanted to exacerbate that. My heart went out to them. Listening convinced me that homosexual orientation is not something people chose.”

One by one they fell away, the doctrinal pillars of the house his father built. Yet Smith Jr. remained under the Calvary Chapel roof, not wanting to embarrass dad by leaving.

Donald E. Miller, a USC professor of religion and author of a book on American evangelism, calls the elder Smith a pioneer of “new-paradigm Christianity” -- one who championed contemporary music and casual dress in church, jettisoned traditional church symbols and rituals, deemphasized theological sophistication and paved the way for the modern megachurch. But he remained an old-school biblical literalist, he said, and the contrast with his son is probably fueled by generational differences.


“While Chuck Smith was very much a culturally savvy guy in the 1960s, nevertheless he came out of the Depression period, whereas his son grew up in a completely different era,” Miller said.

For Smith Jr.’s part, he believed he was carrying on the work of radical outreach his father started in the 1960s. Since its early days as “the culturally relevant, rock-n-roll worship, hippie church,” he believed, Calvary Chapel had regressed into a “hunker-down mentality -- ride out the vagaries of this evil world until Jesus comes to the rescue.”


There was also, theology aside, the question of the son’s temperament. He hardly fit the mold of the Christian soldier championed by his father in his book “Harvest,” in which he spoke of “the ideal of a biblical man who is strong and not vacillating or weak” and denounced “the new touchy/feely men.”

Smith Jr. weeps before his congregation, making no secret of his ongoing battle with depression that took him to the brink of suicide after his 1993 divorce. At the time, he stood before his congregation explaining that his wife of 18 years, the mother of his five children, was leaving him despite his effort to save the marriage.

“In my mind,” he wrote in his book “Frequently Avoided Questions,” “divorce was an alien behavior that could not touch true Christians, let alone a minister.”

A friend got him a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist got him antidepressants. A local pastor called for his resignation, but his congregation sent hundreds of letters of support.


“My vulnerability allowed them to love me in need,” he said.

Still, his condition alienated him further from his father’s church, where depression is widely viewed as a spiritual problem bespeaking flawed faith.

William Alnor, a longtime Calvary congregant and former pastor, expressed the view in stark terms: “I don’t believe any Christian leader should be flirting with depression.”

Fundamentalists have also been troubled in recent years by gestures they see as a throwback to paganism, such as Smith Jr. giving the sign of the cross at services and hanging his sanctuary with paintings of Jesus in the iconic Byzantine style. In 2005, to make matters worse, he took several extended retreats to a Catholic monastery in Big Sur.

One of his most vocal detractors, William Alnor’s wife, Jackie, denounced his “decline into Catholic contemplative mystical religion” and protested outside his church. “I could sense the darkness around that place,” she wrote on her Apostasy Alert webpage.

The squall intensified with the 2005 publication of the elder Smith’s book “When Storms Come,” which Smith Jr. edited. Among many additions Smith Jr. made was a quote from a priest, Anthony de Mello, whose Jesuit affiliation alarmed evangelicals. And on Page 103, Smith Jr. inserted the suggestion that breathing exercises might put one in a spiritually receptive state.

This seemed, in the eyes of some, dangerously close to endorsing a Buddhist practice.

As complaints mounted, the elder Smith announced that the offending passages had not been his work and ordered the book revised. Then, in May, the younger Smith got a visit from his father’s brother, Paul. As Smith Jr. recalled, his uncle spoke of redefining what it meant to belong to Calvary Chapel. He seemed uncomfortable, seemed to be driving at something, but couldn’t quite say it.


“We’ve had some problems with the book,” he finally said, as Smith Jr. recalled.

Smith Jr. knew what was in the air -- his 35-year affiliation with Calvary was at an end. He volunteered to sever his ties. He said his uncle sighed in relief.

In no time, the link to Smith Jr.’s Dana Point church was dropped from Calvary’s website. Soon, the elder Smith issued a memo denouncing the use of icons, Eastern influences, “special breathing techniques,” tolerance for homosexuality and “the soft peddling of hell as the destiny of those who reject the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.”

The memo did not identify his son by name, but Smith Jr. said he read it as a personal attack.

The elder Smith “loves his son,” William Alnor said. “I think that’s why he held off so long in lowering the boom. I think if it had been anyone else in the Calvary Chapel movement promoting the doctrines Chuck Jr. promoted, he would have been long gone.”


In person, the elder Smith, a stocky, rosy-skinned man with kind eyes and snowy hair at the temples, is warmth itself. His office is attached to the low-slung, pavilion-size church at the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana where he still preaches to a weekend congregation of 15,000. On his desk: jars of candy for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On his shelf: a crown made of ferocious-looking thorns from the Holy Land.

He stresses how much he loves his son, regrets that he didn’t spend more time with him as he grew up: “Surely he’s not a clone, and I respect and admire him for that. There’s nothing shoddy about his ministry at all.”


He shrugs off the controversy as the result of critics who “get on and blog their ignorance,” adding: “If you don’t march to their drumbeat, they begin to pick at you, and once you put on that hypercritical mode, you can find plenty of things to criticize.”

Reminded of the memo he issued cracking down on his son’s views, the father replies, calmly and amiably, that he and his son are just aiming for different audiences, and he doesn’t want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.

“I don’t feel that he’s an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned.”


On a recent summer day, the younger Smith sat in the second-floor office of the Dana Point home he shares with his second wife, Barbara, a physical therapist.

The shelves overflowed with books, biblical commentaries fighting for space with Dean Koontz novels, a Bob Dylan scrapbook and texts on neuroscience. In just a few minutes, his conversation can veer energetically from Russian religious painters, to his upcoming visit to African orphanages, to his belief that Christianity and evolution are compatible.

It is no small irony, as he sees it, that his father, the biblical literalist whose chapel bookstore is full of anti-Darwin tracts, ignited his love of science. Equipped with a cheap telescope, Dad took him under the stars as a boy, rapturously pointing out the constellations and the distances between heavenly bodies -- all a reflection, he explained to his awe-struck son, of God’s majesty.


“It’s sad to me that a man passionate about God’s creation should have his education stunted at some level by a narrow vision of creationism,” Smith Jr. said. “Because the universe is no less fascinating for being 15 billion years old than being 10,000 years old.”

The breakup with Calvary Chapel, as he sees it, was a good and inevitable thing. He wasn’t abiding by house rules, so it was only fair he go.

“I knew it was coming,” he said. “It was a matter of time.”

He had no desire to inherit the sprawling Calvary Chapel from his father anyway, he said, being better suited to a smaller flock. Until recently he preached to a weekend congregation of 1,700 at a church he converted from a bowling alley. He is now taking an extended hiatus from the pulpit, explaining that counseling congregants about their personal crises is emotionally depleting. He is considering whether to open a remote spiritual retreat as a harbor for Christian leaders “who are burned out.”

His relationship with his father, he agrees, is tighter than ever. He will even write his dad’s biography some day. His challenge, he says, is extricating himself from his dad’s fundamentalist evangelical community without traumatizing his parents.

“It’s like the parents whose child comes out to them and says, ‘I’m gay,’ ” Smith said. “Hopefully they come around and say, ‘You are our son and we will always love you.’ My parents are no less loving than that.”

Smith Jr. recalls a troubled preacher from Calvary Chapel’s early days, Lonnie Frisbee, who was instrumental in helping the elder Smith reach the counterculture. A recent documentary about Frisbee’s life makes the case that the church whitewashed Frisbee from church history because it emerged that he was gay.


Though Smith Jr. demurs from that thesis, he appeared in the film, looked at the camera and pointedly asked: If the church shuts its doors to gay people, where are they supposed to find God? It sounded like a direct plea to his father.

Smith says no, he wasn’t really speaking to Dad. Then he pauses. “Maybe I was,” he says.