23 August 2005

Francis Schaeffer's legacy

I have just finished reading Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth, probably the thickest in the recent series of worldview books which have been produced by thinking Christians. I may comment on this book at some point, but what immediately stands out for me is her debt to Francis Schaeffer, who, along with his wife Edith, founded the l'Abri Fellowship 50 years ago. I have known any number of people over the years who were impacted by the Schaeffers' ministry in that unlikely corner of Switzerland. Pearcey was one of these, and she speaks in fond terms of her reconversion to christian faith through the Schaeffers' leading.

My own youthful contact with Schaeffer was through some of his writings, and I will admit to being somewhat less than favourably impressed at the time, for reasons I may come back to later. After three decades, I cannot recall which of his earlier books I read, but I'm fairly certain one of these was Escape from Reason. Of his later books the one I definitely recall reading was How Should We Then Live, whose subtitle, The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, seemed to me to be a particularly egregious example of a publisher overselling a book.


Francis A. Schaeffer

I recently found three Witherspoon lectures on Schaeffer's thought, one by Darryl Hart, who incongruously compares him with Russell Kirk; a second by Greg Jesson; and a third by Kenneth Myers. Of the three, I found Myers' reflections the most thought-provoking, especially his discussion of Schaeffer's apparent "bohemianism," as it translated into an excessive mistrust of legalism and tradition. Here is Myers:

Consider this passage in one of the appendices to The God Who Is There (1968), titled "The Problem of the Middle-Class Church in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century": "Mature Christians must summon the courage to distinguish, under the Holy Spirit, between unchangeable biblical truth and the things which have only become comfortable for us." Surely there are aspects of the Church's life which are neither unchangeable biblical truth nor merely comfy habits, but deliberate and wise practices accepted and sustained in an effort to embody unchangeable biblical truth and confirm its living significance in our lives and in those of our children. Schaeffer does not seem to recognize this essential middle phenomenon.

This is characteristic of a reluctance--if not a refusal--in Schaeffer to recognize the salutary (indeed necessary) place of tradition within the Church, tradition not as a means of revelation but as a set of practices adopted to continue in the task of discipleship. Schaeffer seems more aware of the way in which the presuppositions of modern thought find their way into art, music, literature, and shared life than he does of the necessity for the Church's presuppositions to become incarnate in its life. He was certainly concerned throughout his life that visible and costly love be made evident in the life of local churches, and (in places like Art and the Bible) he repeatedly addresses the question of the responsibility of the individual artist to produce works that were consistent with a Christian worldview. But I am not aware of any sustained effort on his part to reflect on how local churches can become countercultural communities and not simply lifestyle enclaves. The bohemian side of Schaeffer seemed to resist reflection about how the Church's commitments to its truths become institutionalized. His writings pay much more attention to the institutions of the state than to those of the Church. Indeed, there are passages in Schaeffer's work where, in a hyper-Protestant manner, he pits the authority of the Church against the authority of the Bible.

I am insufficiently conversant with Schaeffer's life and thought to judge whether Myers' assessment is accurate. However, confirmation may lie in the fact that Schaeffer's son, Frank, left behind his Reformed upbringing and converted to the Orthodox Church, something of which his father would have heartily disapproved if he had lived long enough to see it.

I notice that the original l'Abri in Huémoz, Switzerland, is now being run by the Schaeffers' granddaughter and her husband. Other l'Abri locations are to be found in England, the Netherlands, South Korea, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Sweden and British Columbia. Whether they are still attracting the same sorts of searching young people who went to l'Abri in its heyday in the 1960s and '70s I don't know. I hope so. I wish them God's blessing in their efforts.

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