Note from CM: It is Thanksgiving week in the U.S., and I’d like to take each day leading up to the holiday to share a few of the blessings I’m thankful for. I’ve decided this year to focus on some people and things that have had an impact on me personally, so you may find my list a bit quirky. Nevertheless, we each have unique factors that have shaped us and made us who we are. You’ll meet a few of mine this week.
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I’m Thankful for Francis Schaeffer
A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment.
• Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality
I give thanks today for Francis Schaeffer.
As I was pondering this today, I came to the conclusion that he might have been my first guide out of the evangelical wilderness. Funny thing is, I came to know him through his writings when I was first entering evangelicalism, before I had any clue I might one day leave.
Schaeffer and his wife Edith founded L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1955 in their home as a “shelter” (the meaning of l’abri) where young people could come, ask questions, and learn about the Christian faith. The L’Abri Fellowship website lists four main emphases of the ministry that developed there and spread to other branches around the world:
(1) Christianity is objectively true and that the Bible is God’s written word to mankind. This means that biblical Christianity can be rationally defended and honest questions are welcome.
(2) Because Christianity is true it speaks to all of life and not to some narrowly religious sphere and much of the material produced by L’Abri has been aimed at helping develop a Christian perspective on the arts, politics and the social sciences etc.
(3) In the area of our relationship with God, true spirituality is seen in lives which by grace are free to be fully human rather than in trying to live on some higher spiritual plane or in some grey negative way.
(4) The reality of the fall is taken seriously. Until Christ returns we and the world we live in will be affected by the disfigurement of sin. Although the place of the mind is emphasized, L’Abri is not a place for “intellectuals only”.
This overview concludes with this statement from Edith Schaeffer:
We are as concerned for living as we are for thinking and from the beginning the concern has been that the truth is as much exhibited in everyday life as it is defended in discussion. We do not do this perfectly of course but depend on the Lord to bring forth a measure of reality in our daily life.
I wouldn’t sign off on all of that, but I think you can see that there are several things here which show the profound and seminal influence Schaeffer had on my own approach to faith:
First, I appreciated the idea that questions are welcome and that people should not just simply accept dogma. The Schaeffers not only said this, but modeled it by welcoming people into their home who were seeking genuine life and spirituality, and in many cases had been hurt by force-fed religion. Though Schaeffer came across as “intellectual,” in fact the points he made were usually simple and foundational, and the fact that what I read in books was actually worked out in a community of teaching and interaction gave it a special kind of life and power.
Second, Schaeffer’s emphasis on the arts, history, and culture was a breath of fresh air in my narrow fundamentalist Bible world. Again, he wasn’t always right and he often gave only a surface perspective, but compared to the separatist “Bible only” (as interpreted through dispensationalism) greenhouse where I was planted, it seemed shockingly open and broad in its awareness of and appreciation for the world of ideas and culture. There was a humanity to it that was lacking in the black and white space where I lived. Though it took me a long, long time to escape that constricted world, thank God I did. Schaeffer did for me what, for example, folks like C.S. Lewis did for so many others: he cracked the door open to a God-soaked world and what Michael Spencer called “Christian humanism.”
Third, I learned from him that true spirituality is a matter of Christian freedom in Christ as faith works through love. In a very real way, Schaeffer prepared me for engaging Luther (who reveled in Christian freedom) many years later. Note the phrase in point three above: “true spirituality is seen in lives which by grace are free to be fully human.” I think you’ve probably heard that said in several different ways here on Internet Monk. I can thank Schaeffer for introducing me to that perspective.
Now, let me be honest and say that there are many things not to like about Francis Schaeffer. Son Franky has written of his father’s dark moods, his anger, and his abusive behavior within the family. Francis Schaeffer is also one of the leaders responsible for evangelicalism becoming a culture war religion in the U.S., beginning in the late 1970s. Because of the emphasis that Schaeffer and others adopted, Michael Spencer was able to make this observation:
Every day I listen to and read Christians whose consideration of other persons is on the basis of politics and cultural conflict. Not the Gospel. Their anger and frustration dominates, not the Gospel.
And then there is this: Francis Schaeffer had strong roots in fundamentalism. His first church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, was a breakaway fundamentalist branch founded by Carl McIntyre, the notorious fundamentalist and anti-Communist radio preacher. Schaeffer went to Europe on a dogmatic mission — to dissuade pastors and church leaders from the “heresies” of Karl Barth. It was only when he began to fully comprehend what he called the “ugliness” of his denomination and the way churches were splitting and separating in vividly unloving ways that he took a different course. However, when I heard him speak in the early 1980s, he sounded exactly like some cranky fundamentalist zealot associated with the likes of McIntyre. Thankfully, Francis Schaeffer was able to temper and even disavow a lot of that at L’Abri and in most of his foundational writings, but in some ways it never left him and it contributed to his stridency in the culture wars.
I owe a great deal to Schaeffer, who was able, especially in the 1960s and early 70s, to challenge the lack of love and anti-creational separatism in evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, especially as it impacted seeking young people. But let’s admit it, he was a fundamentalist at heart.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to downplay my gratitude for how God used Francis Schaeffer as an integral part of my own spiritual formation. Early on in my adult life, he began to show me that life is bigger, richer, fuller, more God-soaked, and more relational than I could imagine.
If you’ve never read much Schaeffer, I’d suggest beginning with True Spirituality and The Mark of the Christian. These two books teach the view of spirituality and community that he came to embrace, directly countering the weaknesses and failures he saw in his fundamentalist background. I do not recommend his later books, starting with How Should We Then Live? (1976). That’s when the culture war stuff begins.