Two on Francis Schaeffer: A mentor making sense of things
In the summer of 1981 friends helped us pack our belongings into a rented truck. The next day we drove from Albuquerque, NM where we had been living to Rochester, MN where we have lived ever since. We could not move into our house when we arrived so we unloaded everything into a storage unit. We visited family and when our house was vacated by its old owners we loaded everything back into another rental truck to unload it in our new home, which our children christened Toad Hall. We had moved to Rochester not because we had a new job here, or because we had friends or family here, but because it was where our spiritual mentors lived.
Thirteen years earlier, the year it was published, someone had given me a copy of The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer. I had never read anything remotely like it before. I had been raised in the church but the Christianity I had known was not like this—open to culture, embracing all of life, and vibrant with a love for God, for people, for the gospel, and for seeking honest answers to honest questions without fear or defensiveness. This was the life I desired and a vision of the faith that made sense of things across all of life, reality and culture. Now we were moving to a new home in a new city simply because Francis and Edith Schaeffer lived here. All these years later I do not regret our choice. People need mentors, people who embody the ideas, worldview, values, and lifestyle that shape their vocation. It is an ancient notion but one confirmed by research, wise tradition, and common sense—it is a wonder to me that I haven’t met far more people over the years that have moved at some point for the same reason.
For those who want an introduction to Schaeffer—the man, his life, his impact and his thinking—there are two books, both brief and accessible, that I would recommend.
The first is Francis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God. In 2008 a conference with that title was held at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The book collects five presentations made by four speakers that knew Schaeffer well. Udo Middelmann (“Francis Schaeffer: the Man”); Jerram Barrs (“His Apologetics” and “His Legacy & His Influence on Evangelicalism”); Ranald Macauley (“Francis Schaeffer in the Twenty-First Century”); and finally a lecture by Dick Keyes on sentimentality that demonstrates the approach Schaeffer used in thinking about culture in the light of the gospel.
My experience of Schaeffer resonates with what these four authors write. To give merely one example, I had grown up in a setting where witnessing had become a legalism, reduced to techniques we were taught and practiced, a rote task you did to prove your spirituality and because nothing else in life had any significance except trying to rescue a few souls from the coming judgment. Some argued for lifestyle evangelism which meant the Christian’s life should be different enough that non-Christians will ask about it. In practice, few if any asked, so for most believers I knew it turned out to be a form of social withdrawal into a privatized faith. Then I came across Schaeffer and was astonished that he cared for people as he did, treating them with dignity and listening intently. He asked them about their story, their interests, their background, their spiritual pilgrimage, their dreams and fears, and so much more. The way I would express it is that he wanted them to flourish as human being across all of life and so he was interested in all of it, and in the process he delighted to discuss the Christian story because it was an emotionally satisfying, intellectually coherent, and imaginatively open worldview that made true flourishing actually possible. This was the Christianity I craved with all my being. It was a faith in which evangelism didn’t need to be taught because it was a natural part of caring for my neighbor as someone made in God’s image, whom I could learn from and be blessed to have a friend. Looking back now I realize that the reason evangelism had become a topic so fraught with tension and artificiality was that the fundamentalist faith it sought to commend did not result in flourishing but in mere conformity to a set of rules and expectations our tradition had come to identify as spiritually acceptable.
“I am often asked,” Jerram Barrs writes, “‘What about Schaeffer made the greatest impression on you?’” I think all of us who had the privilege of working with Schaeffer would respond to such a question: “His compassion for people.”
Some who came to the Schaeffers’ home were believers struggling with doubts and deep hurts. Some were people lost and wandering in the wasteland of twentieth-century Western intellectual thought. Some had experimented with psychedelic drugs or with religious ideas and practices that were damaging their lives. Some were so wounded and bitter because of their treatment by churches, or because of the sorrows of their lives, that their questions were hostile and they would come seeking to attack and to discredit Christianity. But, no matter who they were, or how they spoke, Schaeffer would be filled with compassion for them. He would treat them with respect, he would take their questions seriously (even if he had heard the same question a thousand times before), and he would answer them gently. Always he would pray for them and seek to challenge them with the truth. But this challenge was never given aggressively. He would say to us (and he would model for us): “Always leave someone with a corner to retire gracefully into. You are not trying to win an argument, or to knock someone down. You are seeking to win a person, a person made in the image of God. This is not about your winning; it is not about your ego. If that is your approach all you will do is arouse their pride and make it more difficult for them to hear what you have to say.”
Schaeffer believed and practiced the conviction that it is God who saves people. Indeed, he would frequently encourage people to leave L’Abri for a time and to go off by themselves to think through what they were hearing. He would say that we do not have to try to push and to pressure people into the kingdom… [p. 34-35]
Schaeffer recognized that there are fewer and fewer people who truly hold to a biblical worldview. Consequently he saw that it is absolutely essential with the majority of people we meet to begin at the beginning. The beginning for modern people, and even more for postmodern people, is denial or doubt about the existence of God and denial or doubt about the existence of truth. While these might seem like abstract issues, they are not in fact abstract. Rather, they are very practical. Nothing is more practical, nothing is more basic, than the conviction that there is truth that can be known. Without this conviction, life becomes more and more intolerable and more and more filled with alienation. The more consistently people live with the loss of truth, the more their lives will fall apart, for the center does not hold. [p. 39]
The second book I would recommend is Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality by William Edgar. Edgar, long a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary came to faith at L’Abri in the early years of Schaeffer’s ministry. His understanding of Schaeffer is thus both deeply personal and solidly scholarly, and his book reflects those strengths. He writes in an accessible style, covering Schaeffer and his times, Schaeffer’s convictions about spirituality, and how Schaeffer sought to demonstrate practically what it looks like to live under Christ’s Lordship day by day. Edgar’s treatment is especially helpful for those who wish to reflect not merely on Schaeffer and his impact in a historical sense but in terms of what we can learn from Schaeffer and the founding of L’Abri for our lives as Christians outside L’Abri as the 21st century unfolds.
Schaeffer on the Christian Life has the advantage of having a single author, so the voice throughout is consistent and the story told can move consistently forward. Transcriptions of good lectures make for good reading, but they still seem a bit choppy when compared to a good book by a thoughtful author on the same topic. This is not a criticism of the book edited by Bruce Little, but an observation to prepare the reader for the experience of reading both titles. Edgar also weaves Edith Schaeffer into his narrative, her life and books and personality, and that adds another degree of richness to Edgar’s book. Still, I commend both books, and do so warmly.
William Edgar’s Schaeffer on the Christian Life is part of series being published intended to include volumes on a wide variety of the most influential theologians on the Christian life. And that naturally raises the question as to whether Francis Schaeffer should be considered as part of such a series—a questions Edgar addresses at the beginning of the book.
Is Francis Schaeffer in the same league as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the other figures in the Theologians on the Christian Life series? Had you asked me twenty years ago, I would have said no. It would be hard to overstate my love for the man. However, I thought he had neither the academic standing nor perhaps the influence wielded by these giants. His writings and films often seemed dated, and his principal legacy is no doubt people, not a movement based on revolutionary ideas. I was always a bit troubled by comparisons made between him and C. S. Lewis, whose stature is nothing if not towering. But today I gladly agree that Schaeffer belongs to this hall of fame.
A legacy of people is just the reason why. Schaeffer’s importance is because of the way he could take God, thinkers, and truth and make them so profoundly exciting—to people! Os Guinness, one of Schaeffer’s closest associates, tells us he has never met anyone like him anywhere “who took God so passionately seriously, people so passionately seriously, and truth so passionately seriously.” While a number of Schaeffer’s ideas or historical assessments could and should be put into question, what is unquestionable is the way Francis Schaeffer moved from the heart of the Christian faith, or “true spirituality,” into every realm of life, with absolute continuity and astonishing freshness, and communicated all of that to so many people. I am honored to be asked to help defend such a legacy. [p. 14]
I do not recommend these books in order to place Francis Schaeffer on some sort of pedestal. I realize he was not perfect, and neither book treats him as such. There are details in his books or lectures that I would dispute, having come to different conclusions about the topic, author, thinker, or event that he was exploring. He was not perfect in life, either, and we lived closely enough to him and his wife in the final years of his life to catch glimpses of the brokenness that wove its way through their relationships, actions, and choices. Still, the foundational principles that he taught and demonstrated—the reality of Christian community, that there are no little people, that doubts and questions are not to be feared but addressed compassionately, the centrality of prayer to the Christian life, that Christianity has something substantial to say to every sphere of life, that the truth of the gospel is to be exhibited by those who claim to believe it, that God has spoken in a way we can understand—all these basic principles remain not just true but essential to Christian faithfulness. And yet, perversely, it is often the central, simple, foundational, essential ideas that can be easily forgotten.
There are two groups to whom I especially commend these books. First, those who like me were influenced by Francis Schaeffer and could use a pleasant and challenging reminder of who he was and what he stood for. This can be especially helpful right now when a number of writers, pundits, and cultural warriors are claiming they are continuing Schaeffer’s “legacy.” Of course those who work in L’Abri Fellowship can make that claim, though they tend to make it not about themselves but about L’Abri. It’s fascinating to me that the only people outside L’Abri who to my mind could plausibly claim such a thing—Jerram Barrs, for example—do not claim it but instead honor Schaeffer’s memory by carrying on living out the gospel as Schaeffer insisted should be done. It seems to me that if you have to claim you are embodying Schaeffer’s legacy you probably aren’t. In any case, I need reminders of the essential things in life, and these books served that purpose admirably.
The second group of Christians to whom I recommend these books are those who have come to faith since Schaeffer’s time and so only have a vague idea of who he was and what he stood for. You have come to adulthood at a period in history when the church has waned in cultural influence so much so that the movers and shakers of society often dismiss the gospel as either dangerous or irrelevant. If you listen to the clamor in the public square you will know that those claiming to speak for the evangelical community often seem more shaped by politics than by the resurrection. If you attend church you will know some churches are theologically orthodox but so solemn and strict as to be stifling while others are so doctrinally relaxed one realizes that their message has nothing unique to offer a fragmented culture populated by people seeking a vision of life that is both whole and compelling. In the midst of all the claims and counter-claims, you may wonder what Christian faithfulness looks like in our postmodern world. To you, I commend these books, not because Schaeffer is the final word in such things, but because he so ably named and tried to embody how the gospel embraces the essential ideas and values, all distinct graces, that are necessary for human beings to flourish. Taking his ideas and the example of his life and applying them creatively to our particular cultural/historical setting can be a fruitful—and robustly countercultural—effort for everyone who names Christ as Savior and Lord.
SourceFrancis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God edited by Bruce A. Little (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing; 2010) 108 pages.
Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality by William Edgar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway; 2013) 192 pages + appendix + indices.