Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Francis Schaeffer

  • Colin Duriez Author
  • 2008 17 Jul
Francis Schaeffer
EDITOR'S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Francis Schaeffer by Colin Duriez (Crossway).


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.

A biography of Francis Schaeffer must account for his remarkable impact on people of many types—the intellectual, the humble laborer, the scientist, the artist, the doubting Christian, the questioning nonbeliever; man, woman, youth, and child; white, black, hairy, and smooth. After Francis Schaeffer's first visit to Europe, still suffering from the effects of war in 1947, a wall of parochialism in his life began to collapse—a process quickened by his friendship with the Dutchman Hans Rookmaaker and his own long-standing interest in and love for art. A biography of him (or a critique, for that matter) cannot itself be parochial in any sense, intellectual or regional. He was larger than any denominational or political context.

In this book I write about Francis Schaeffer's strengths and flaws, placing him in the context of his times, portraying the formation of his ideas and the genesis of his lectures, writings, seminars, and movies, as well as the complex person and his relationships. I portray the establishment and impact of the L'Abri community, and the deeper idea of a "shelter," as Schaeffer's most representative and abiding achievement, showing the development of this unique phenomenon and revealing its importance in the context of church and recent cultural history. The man himself is pictured as in essence undivided, rather than consisting of two or even three Schaeffers, though he went through sometimes anguished change and growth. Even his late and very emphatic association with the American church in the Reagan years was for him a development from the L'Abri work, not a capitulation to what he called the "middle-class church."

Though Francis Schaeffer is undivided, the distinct phases of his life are all portrayed here, each illuminating the other phases: his working-class childhood in Germantown, Pennsylvania; his intellectual and cultural awakening and student and seminary years; the ten years as a "separated" pastor in eastern and midwestern America; his early years in Europe working with his wife Edith for Children for Christ and speaking widely on the dangers of a new, deceptive liberalism as regards the Bible; the crisis in his faith resulting in a deep experience of the Holy Spirit; the birth and early struggles of L'Abri in Switzerland; the gradual opening up of a wider ministry through taped lectures, international speaking, books, and the formation of new L'Abri centers, first in England, then in other countries; and, at the end of his life, the dramatic, celebrity phase of the movies and large seminars, in which Schaeffer extended his cultural analysis to the sphere of politics, law, and government, putting his long-standing role as a compassionate controversialist into the spotlight, with all its distortions of view.

As I was completing this book, Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God was published. This is a confessional memoir of his life. While it vividly and sometimes poignantly portrays Frank's own life and journey, it added little to what I had already documented about his father—as a biographer I knew his strengths and weaknesses. Many of those interviewed for this book spoke of them openly. What I must remark on is Frank's portrayal of his father as keeping up a façade of conviction about his faith, especially in his final years. This bears no relation to what was the case. Francis Schaeffer was always open about his personal struggles and failings—this was the secret of his strength as a pastor and as a counselor. He emphatically did not divorce his inner and public life. When I was a young student, on my first or second visit to his L'Abri community in Switzerland, I once joined him on the descent to the chalet-style chapel for his regular Saturday night discussion. Suddenly he confided, "Colin, I feel like I'm about to jump out of an airplane without a parachute."

In an unpublished letter to his close friend and peer Hans Rookmaaker, perhaps that same year, he confided that he was low after working hard on the manuscript of The God Who Is There with an editor: "I am so very much behind in every aspect of the work that I feel in a rather depressed mood which means of course that it is a difficult time. However, the Lord continues to open doors and we are thankful. . . . I would be glad if you would continue to pray for me personally because . . . this is a bit of a low period for me. However, I suppose I will be dug out in a couple of weeks and then I will feel better."1

As my book reveals, Francis Schaeffer in the twilight of his life was as convinced of the truth-claims of Christianity and the efficacy of what he called the finished work of Christ as he was after his struggles in the early 1950s and even immediately after his conversion in 1930. Indeed, his conviction continued to deepen into his closing years, allowing him no respite from his grief over the lost condition of human beings and still expanding his empathy for those whom he encountered. In his final film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? He included a powerful episode about the historical underpinnings of Christian conviction.

What is the essence of Francis Schaeffer? Is it his system of theology, his books, his political campaigning, the existence of L'Abri? Ironically, though he attacked first the "old" modernism, then the "new" modernism of existentialism, neo-orthodoxy, and even, in anticipation, postmodernism, he demonstrates what might be called an existential Christianity—living in the moment; embracing the reality of existence; seeing the underpinning certainty of Christian faith in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and reckoning on the specific intervention of the Holy Spirit in conversion at a point in time in a person's life, after which he or she passes from death to life. Schaeffer might be dismissed as a scholar or even original thinker (though it can be argued he was both, but particularly the latter), but his realistic, existential Christianity is remarkable and perhaps unique for someone of his biblical orthodoxy in his generation and is the secret, perhaps, of his impact on many people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities.

A full list of acknowledgments appears toward the end of this book, but I must here especially express my thanks to Christopher and Paulette Catherwood, for their brilliant and enthusiastic help with the interviewing for this book; to Ted Griffin, for his wise and thorough editing; to others who added to this book in a very special way, including Lane Dennis, John and Prisca Sandri, Ranald and Susan Macaulay, and Udo and Deborah Middelmann. Though not well enough to give me more than a warm smile and greeting, Edith Schaeffer's published records of the family and L'Abri history, and unpublished Family Letters must have a special mention. While Christopher, Paulette, and I interviewed, we received kindness and hospitality of a Dutch, Swiss, English, Irish, and American variety. I particularly remember the kindness of Marleen and Albert Hengelaar and the inspiring memories of the late Anky Rookmaaker as she reached back in her mind to the war years; the events she recounted seemed as yesterday. It is a privilege even to share a little in others' lives.

Francis Schaeffer
Copyright © 2008 by Colin Duriez
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

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