- Thursday, July 17, 2008
His preferred medium was talk—conversation, whether with an individual or with a large group of people. He had the uncanny knack of addressing an individual personally, even if one was sitting with several hundred other people. His tapes, books, and films are best seen as embodiments of his conversation or table talk. The overwhelming impression of those who met him briefly or more extensively, particularly in connection with his homely yet expansive community at L'Abri in Switzerland, was his kindness, a word that constantly occurs in people's memories of him, whether Dutch, English, American, Irish, or other nationality.
His attire was quirky and memorable, dapper in knee-breeches and colorful tops, a goatee beard he wore later in life adding to his artistic, cultured appearance, far from the stereotype of the evangelical pastor. He was cool, knew about Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock, Merce Cunningham, the older Wittgenstein, the younger Heidegger, and neoorthodoxy and spoke of postmodernism in the sixties before it was clearly post. He bluntly challenged evangelical and fundamentalist pietism and later superspirituality as "neo-platonic." This challenge left at least one of his students, me, wondering at the time how it was "neo" as well as "platonic," but it had the desired effect of leading to a spiritual pilgrimage that was often painful.
Francis Schaeffer was a small man whose giant passion for truth, for reality, for God, and for the needs of people made him a key shaper of modern Christianity, larger than any label put on him. This biography portrays his formation and achievement, illuminating the complex person and his vivid teaching.
Having studied under Francis Schaeffer when young, interviewed him about the course of his life near the end of it, and heard many friends and others acknowledge their debt to him, I waited in vain for a comprehensive biography. I have therefore tried to meet this need. It is now nearly a quarter-century since his death, and it seems to me that his essential message is as topical and important as it was in his lifetime. He has some detractors, but for me, he always eludes their nets. I have attempted to give an affectionate, accurate, warts-and-all portrait of a fascinating and complex person whom people always remembered. To ensure a truthful and reasonably objective portrait, I have been guided by over 180,000 words of oral history concerning Francis Schaeffer. This oral history was gathered by the historian Christopher Catherwood, his wife (musicologist Paulette Catherwood), and myself. We carried out interviews in Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Northern Ireland, and the USA, talking to a variety of people, including former L'Abri members, workers, helpers, students, as well as members of the immediate family.
I've also made use of PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) archive material, early writings of Francis Schaeffer, letters, biography and memoirs by Edith Schaeffer, writings of the novelist Frank Schaeffer, and assessments of the pastor-intellectual (including Time magazine and De Spiegel). I've put this into a continuous narrative so that the reader might get to know Francis Schaeffer, his vision and concerns, and the thrust of his teaching (the purpose of my book is, of course, biographical, not to give an analysis of Schaeffer's thought).
My hope is that my book may play a little part in drawing a new generation of readers to Schaeffer's crucial work and message—sadly, they can no longer have the benefit of the teacher in person. I emphasize teacher. Schaeffer was of the old school of teacher or master—charismatic, memorable, learned. Though he wasn't a scholar in the usually accepted sense, he pushed those who truly listened to explore more, to learn more, to be more prepared for living as a Christian and human being in today's post-Christian, media-rich, exciting, dangerous world. Like John Milton I believe the image of God is captured in a unique way in books, and though Schaeffer is dead, his mind and spirit are alive in his writings, even though they lack the elegance and style of a C. S. Lewis. His message can still leap from mind to mind, as it did at the time I remember as a student. Our world still cries out for his imaginative L'Abri ("The Shelter"), which can and should take many forms for differing needs.
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