The Legacy of Francis Schaeffer: A Prophetic Voice, An Authentic Life
My good friend Byron Borger is hosting the annual Hearts & Minds Summer Lecture at Robert Morris University tonight. The lecture will be given by William Edgar, discussing his new book Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality (Crossway). You can learn more about the event here. If you are in the Pittsburgh area you won’t want to miss it!
I was reminded of a review/reflection I did a few years ago about a biography of Francis Schaeffer by Colin Duriez. If you are interested in a good introduction to Schaeffer’s legacy, I highly recommend Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway). Here’s my review:
“Who is Francis Schaeffer?” The question came from a young, bright, Christian college student who over heard me talking about the new biography Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez. “Are you serious? You don’t know who Francis Schaeffer is?” I responded. It was as if someone from a far-off tribe had asked me “Who is this Jesus of Nazareth that you speak of?” My heart began to beat a little faster, and I had the privilege of introducing this young student to the giver of Christian intellectual life, my savior, I mean, my hero, Francis Schaeffer.
There was irony in this conversation, of course. I was talking to a young, Christian student, who is passionate about developing a Christian approach to sustainable agriculture, linking it to deeper, local community life. We have had numerous conversations about the church in the 21st century, the kingdom of God, and environmental concerns. She was beginning to make connections with her deepest convictions about the environment and the Gospel and was living them out at a summer internship on an organic farm. Connecting what she believed about the world with how she lived in the world, was being manifested (incarnated) in tangible ways, and she had a plethora of resources to draw from: books, conferences, mentors and MP3 lectures. Here’s the irony: while she had no idea who Francis Schaeffer was, he had pioneered a movement of Christians to not only think more deeply about the Christian faith and how it sustains the attacks of modernity and the scientific revolution, but he also pleaded with believers to live-out faith in ways that showed the world the “Truth” of the Gospel. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that if this same college student would have had similar convictions 50 years ago, the only place on the planet where she could have had an opportunity to wrestle with these questions, network with like-minded people and seek a Christian understanding of her concerns would have been under the teaching of Francis Schaeffer at his L’Abri ministry in Switzerland.
I don’t want to overstate this. Certainly Francis Schaeffer wasn’t the only “thinking Christian” in the 20th Century. But it did dawn on me that while this student didn’t know who Francis Schaeffer was, she was certainly living in his legacy. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was a Presbyterian pastor who became a missionary in Europe to expand a children’s ministry that he had started with his wife Edith. He was also deeply concerned with the “liberalization” of the church, especially the “higher criticism” approach to scripture. Not only did Schaeffer travel from city to city starting children’s ministries, but he would also lecture on the contemporary challenges to biblical, evangelical faith. In 1955, the Schaeffers started L’Abri (French for shelter), a place for “truth-seekers” to come and ask questions, wrestle with faith, and study Christianity more deeply. People came from all over the world, many converting to Christianity and many being energized to live-out their faith in powerful ways. You can learn more about this amazing ministry in Edith Schaeffer’s book L’Abri.
Colin Duriez’s biography is an excellent place to start to learn more about this remarkable man. I recommend it highly, not only for those wanting to learn more about Schaeffer but for anyone who is interested in a deeper engagement with the Christian faith and culture. Schaeffer’s story needs to be known for generations to come and Duriez has told his story beautifully. Instead of retelling his story here, I’d rather discuss what I learned. What follows are three important things that I learned about Schaeffer through reading this book, and why I think each one is vital for the church today:
First, Schaeffer was not afraid to ask tough questions about his faith. Before starting L’Abri, Schaeffer went through a grueling period of doubt and reconsideration of the Christian worldview. In fact, his wife thought that there was a chance that he was going to walk away from his faith altogether. Fortunately, this crisis of faith led Schaeffer to an even deeper commitment to the Truth of the gospel and to starting one of the most influential ministries of the 20th century. Probably the most significant aspect of Schaeffer’s legacy is his belief in the Christian faith for the sole reason that it is True. Because of this, he wasn’t afraid to meet intellectual challenges head on, even opening himself up to the possibility that he could be wrong. Humility became one of his defining characteristics. What a legacy for the church to consider. Do we, as the body of Christ, welcome times of questions and doubts? Do we take the time to fully understand opposing viewpoints? Is humility one of our defining characteristics? In order to engage the culture around us in effective ways, we can learn much from Schaeffer’s approach.
Second, Schaeffer was not only concerned with a “thinking” faith, but also a “living” faith. Schaeffer thought that too many Christians were not living out what they believed. Following his faith crisis, Schaeffer was determined to live in a way that revealed the Gospel to be true. If there truly was a God who was present, working in history and in our lives, then we should live in a way that conformed to this reality. We should expect God to meet our needs, provide opportunities to minister and make Himself known to others. In many ways, L’Abri could almost be seen as Schaeffer forcing God’s hand, making Him be true to His word. And the story of L’Abri is, itself, confirmation of the Truth of the Christian faith. Do we live in ways that require the Gospel to be true? Or do we simply live out an American, Western lifestyle and hope God is there to bless us? I think Schaeffer would challenge us to evaluate our lives to see if we really live as if the Biblical story is the True story of the world. Schaeffer’s words from an interview in 1980:
“I think there are many Christians – I mean, real Christians, real brothers and sisters in Christ, people I’m really fond of – who believe that certain things in the Christian faith are true, and yet, somehow or other, never relate this to truth. I don’t know if it comes across, what I’m trying to say, but I believe it’s truth – and not just religious truth, but the truth of what is. This gives you a different perspective.” (p. 189)
Third, Schaeffer was willing to partner with people outside of the evangelical Christian faith who supported a common cause. While not wavering on his personal convictions regarding evangelical faith and the authority of Scripture, he had no problem joining others who had similar concerns regarding public policy and social justice. This is certainly more widespread today, but in Schaeffer’s day, as a reformed Presbyterian pastor, it was almost unheard of to work along side Catholics or Mormons or agnostics who were united to confront injustices in the world. The church today should glean needed wisdom from Schaeffer’s willingness to work with and learn from others outside of his Christian tradition.
Schaeffer’s story is one that needs to be told and retold. Thanks to this new biography, more people can learn about this important person in Christian history. Christian college students, especially, need to be reminded of the coherence and Truth of the Gospel and how it applies to all areas of life. Duriez’s biography reminds us that the life and writings of Francis Schaeffer is a good model for how to put this into practice.