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The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer [Part 1]



Thirteen years after his death, Schaeffer's vision and frustrations continue to haunt evangelicalism.

[ Mark Heard related note ]

When Francis Schaeffer first appeared on the American scene in 1965, evangelicals hardly knew what to make of him. He was 53 years old. His Christian faith had been formed in the furnace of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1930s, and he was a card-carrying member of the impeccably fundamentalist Bible Presbyterian Church. He defended passionately the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture, a doctrine that had already seen some slippage in evangelical circles.

Yet this was no ordinary fundamentalist preacher. He and his wife, Edith, had lived for ten years in a student commune they had started in the Swiss Alps. When he lectured, he wore an alpine hiking outfit -- knickers, knee socks, walking shoes. By 1972 he had added to his already singular appearance long hair and a white tufted goat's-chin beard. Most curious of all, he seldom quoted from the Bible. He was more apt to talk about the philosophical importance of Henry Miller (then regarded as the most pornographic writer in American letters).

During the next two decades the Schaeffers organized a multiple-thrust ministry that reshaped American evangelicalism. Perhaps no intellectual save C. S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole. Together the Schaeffers gave currency to the idea of intentional Christian community, prodded evangelicals out of their cultural ghetto, inspired an army of evangelicals to become serious scholars, encouraged women who chose roles as mothers and homemakers, mentored the leaders of the New Christian Right, and solidified popular evangelical opposition to abortion.

The Schaeffers left an imprint on the wildly diverse careers of Jesus People organizer Jack Sparks; musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard; political figures Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Chuck Colson, Randall Terry, C. Everett Koop, Cal Thomas, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye; and scholars Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Thomas Morris, Clark Pinnock, and Ronald Wells. Strange bedfellows, indeed, and this is part of the puzzle of Francis Schaeffer. Clues to its solution are spread across a half-century and two continents -- from Westminster Seminary, the art galleries of Europe, and an English boarding school to the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Supreme Court. And in the end, when the pieces of the puzzle are all assembled, the life of Francis Schaeffer gives us a picture of a side of evangelicalism quite at odds with the trajectory of the modern world.


Agents for fundamentalism

The Schaeffers' story properly begins with the fundamentalist-modernist conflict of the 1920s. Edith and Francis first caught each other's eye when they both stood up to defend Christian orthodoxy at a church youth meeting. She was the daughter of missionaries to China and grew up with table talk about the evils of theological modernism. In high school she listened to J. Gresham Machen on the radio, debated evolution with her science teachers, and searched out liberalism in theology books. Francis, in contrast, was raised in a nonreligious home. His teenage conversion led him to a more devotional style of fundamentalism, his reading interests running to inspirational books like Geraldine Guinness (Mrs. Howard) Taylor's Borden of Yale '09.

Early in their relationship, Edith schooled Francis in the particulars and personalities of the northern Presbyterian arguments. When considering where to receive his pastoral training, Francis was put off by the prickly militancy of students at Machen's Westminster Seminary. He leaned toward attending the irenic Biblical Seminary of New York, but Edith, a steadfast Machen partisan, persuaded him to enroll at Westminster. There Francis learned from Machen the doctrine of inerrancy and from Cornelius Van Til the presuppositional apologetics of Dutch theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper.

He also learned the art of 1930s Presbyterian polemics. Before Francis had finished his degree, Machen was dead and Westminster's people were at each other's throats. So in 1937 Francis and Edith helped set up Faith Seminary as an alternative. The split was a bitter one, giving birth to personal animosities that lasted for years. In the short term, it made of Francis a sharp-tongued partisan for separatist fundamentalism. But in later years, wounds inflicted and received spurred him to serious reflection about how to handle theological disagreement in a spirit of genuine Christian love.

After nine years of pastoring Bible Presbyterian churches and youth work, the Independent Board for Foreign Missions sent Francis on a three-month trip to Europe to build networks among "Bible-believing" churches, pastors, and institutions. Between appointments, he spent his time in art galleries. Then, in 1948, the board sent the Schaeffers to Europe as long-term missionaries.

The Schaeffers located in Switzerland, where they took up the tasks of spreading their Children for Christ program throughout Europe and organizing an international arm of the separatist fundamentalist movement. On the side, they entertained groups of schoolgirls on ski holidays, hosting evening religious discussions by the fire in their chalet. They kept a relentless schedule, most days working until well past midnight.

A year later, Francis met a Dutch student of art history, Hans Rookmaaker, who shared Schaeffer's commitment to Kuyperian thought. Together they discussed how art could be a window into the general philosophy of society. This became a trademark both of Rookmaaker's career as an art historian and of Francis's portrait of the decline of Western society. In later years, Francis gave Rookmaaker international exposure, and Rookmaaker in turn inspired and assisted a number of young evangelical artists such as Theodore Prescott and art historians such as Mary Leigh Morbey and E. John Walford of Redeemer and Wheaton colleges, respectively.

Schaeffer's separatist preaching frequently decried the weaknesses of Karl Barth's theology: "Neo-orthodoxy gave no new answer. What existential philosophy had already said in secular language, it now said in theological language." In 1950 Schaeffer visited the renowned theologian at his home in Switzerland. There he asked Barth, "Did God create the world?" Barth answered, "God created the world in the first century a.d." Francis gestured out the window to the forested hillside and asked, "This world?" Barth replied, "This world does not matter." This was a signal moment for Schaeffer, confirming that modern thought presumed that religious truth and material truth consisted of two separate realities. He spent the rest of his life dissenting from this view, insisting that "Christianity speaks of true truth." His commitment to the unity of truth reinforced his lifetime insistence that the Bible was inerrant in all respects. He refused to countenance the idea that the Bible's history and science might be less true, or even differently true, than the Bible's theology.

Though certain that Barth was wrong, Schaeffer harbored growing doubts about whether or not he himself was right. He could no longer avoid the fact that his party of fundamentalist separatists displayed little Christian love, and that his own spiritual life had become dry and joyless. In 1951 and 1952 he struggled through a lengthy spiritual crisis, questioning his beliefs. Edith was frightened, prayed a lot, and tried to keep from intervening. In the end, he found a new assurance that his doctrine was correct and that the "real battle for men is in the world of ideas," but also a new conviction that orthodox belief must travel hand in hand with demonstrative love. "The local church or Christian group should be right, but it should also be beautiful. The local group should be the example of the supernatural, of the substantially healed relationship in this present life between men and men ... How many orthodox local churches are dead at this point, with so little sign of love and communication: orthodox, but dead and ugly! If there is no reality on the local level, we deny what we say we believe."


Hospitality at L'Abri

In 1954 Schaeffer took his new message of "observational love" back to the Bible Presbyterians in the U.S., where it was not universally received as a word from the Lord. Moreover, the Schaeffers reported that the simple receiving of guests was an increasingly important part of their work, prompting the mission board to cut their pay. So in 1955 they resigned and set up their own independent ministry organization called L'Abri ("The Shelter") in the mountain village of Huémoz.

Immediately, the oldest of their three daughters began bringing home fellow students from the University of Lausanne. In short order, students were coming to L'Abri every weekend. The Schaeffers developed a pattern of meals, walks, and a Sunday church service all geared toward providing an atmosphere that would stimulate conversation about philosophical and religious ideas.

In this the Schaeffers were brilliant. For Edith, homemaking was high art, and she created an atmosphere that drew people in and invited them to relax. Francis was a superb and caring interlocutor who listened attentively, made guests feel important, and spoke with earnest confidence of Christianity's ability to solve the human dilemma. Wrote Francis, "This was and is the real basis of L'Abri. Teaching the historic Christian answers and giving honest answers to honest questions." A number of students converted to Christianity as a result of these weekends, and a few volunteered to stay on to help with the growing workload.

Word about this unique open home in the mountains quickly spread, and by 1957 they were hosting up to 25 people every weekend. Francis spent weekdays teaching classes for students in several locations in Switzerland and Italy. Though the Schaeffers never appealed directly for funds, Edith kept a growing list of supporters abreast of L'Abri's activities through her "Family Letter."

The Schaeffers learned firsthand that keeping their door open was very costly. Francis later remembered, "In about the first three years of L'Abri all our wedding presents were wiped out. Our sheets were torn. Holes were burned in our rugs. Indeed once a whole curtain almost burned up from somebody smoking in our living room... Drugs came to our place. People vomited in our rooms."

At this time, many of the students who came to L'Abri were Europeans, well-schooled in the philosophies of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger and in the existentialist literature of Sartre and Camus. These students tutored Francis in the details of modern post-Christian thought, while he observed its impact on their lives. They had been taught that human beings were the mere product of time and chance in a materialistic world. This left many of them unable to find any basis for distinctions between right and wrong nor meaning in the normal activities of human life. The young people's self-destructive moral confusion, alienation from society, and sincere search for something better stirred the Schaeffers' compassion. It made the cost of an open home worth bearing, and it compelled Francis into ever-deeper reflection on the trajectory of modern culture.

By 1960, L'Abri had become such a phenomenon that it attracted the notice of Time magazine. Facilities had expanded to three chalets, Edith's "Family Letter" had a circulation of 1,300, and her Sunday evening "High Tea" was hosting upwards of 50 people from around the world every week. Sheer numbers made it necessary to replace the informal weekends with a full-time program of lectures, discussions, study, work, and worship. L'Abri workers taped Francis's lectures on the philosophical meaning of modern theology and culture, and these tapes quickly developed an international circulation. "Study" at L'Abri consisted of listening to and discussing Francis's recorded lectures.

These may have been the hardest years of marriage for the Schaeffers, both of whom were extraordinarily intense, work-centered personalities. Edith was by nature proud and competitive, and Francis had for a long time struggled with a plant-throwing, pot-smashing temper. Stormy sessions between them were not infrequent. The most demanding years of L'Abri's ministry had coincided with their son Franky's early childhood, made twice difficult because he had contracted polio at age three. L'Abri's financial situation was always precarious and sometimes desperate -- more than once they faced a table full of guests with only a few basic staples in the pantry. Edith, who from the start bore much of the practical burden, began to resent her role. She remembers the early 1960s as "a time that could only be described as one of self-pity. I had begun to look away from 'willingness for anything' to a desire for 'something for myself,' and this filled far too much of my thoughts and prayer times."

Francis was receiving an increasing number of invitations to speak to groups in Europe and North America, but Edith resisted his going on extended lecture tours. Giving up this opportunity was terribly frustrating for him. By this time he was the veteran of hundreds of conversations with well-educated doubters, agnostics, and scoffers. He had developed great confidence in his by now standard replies, and he was ambitious for larger audiences. Edith remembers many nights after small-group discussions at L'Abri when he would come upstairs to their bedroom and pound the wall with his fist until it turned red, saying, "Oh, Edith, I'm sure I have true answers... I know they can help people... But no one is ever going to hear... except a handful... What are we doing? What am I doing?"


Return to North America

In 1965 Edith at last relented, and Francis got the larger stage he longed for. Harold O. J. Brown, then working with college students in Boston, arranged for Francis to give several lectures in the area. These were followed by a series of talks at Wheaton College, which were later published as his first book, The God Who Is There. Schaeffer ranged widely over the arts and sciences to argue that all of modern thought and culture was based on the presupposition that human beings were the chance product of an impersonal universe. But systems of thought based on this presupposition could not explain the origin of human personality, of "hope of purpose and significance, love, notions of morality and rationality, beauty and verbal communication." Apart from Christianity, one is left with two choices -- escape into the unreality of mysticism, or descent into nihilistic barbarism that debases humans by reducing them to machines. Christianity alone, because it is true and therefore comports with the lived reality of human existence, has the power to solve this existential dilemma. But Christians cannot effectively present the gospel in this modern era until they first learn to speak the language of twentieth-century culture and thereby persuade non-Christians to face the logical conclusions of their presuppositions.

This small, intense man from the Swiss mountains delivered a message unlike any heard in evangelical circles in the mid-1960s. At Wheaton College, students were fighting to show films like Bambi, while Francis was talking about the films of Bergman and Fellini. Administrators were censoring existential themes out of student publications, while Francis was discussing Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. He quoted Dylan Thomas, knew the artwork of Salvador Dali, listened to the music of the Beatles and John Cage.

The effect of this tour de force on evangelical students was electrifying. Schaeffer's Boston lectures, Ronald Wells later wrote, commenced "my excitement about the task of Christian scholarship." Historian Mark Noll remembers the Wheaton talks as the most stimulating campus intellectual event of his student years. Francis Schaeffer tore down the gospel curtain that had separated evangelicals from contemporary cultural expression, giving Christians object lessons in how to interpret sculpture, music, painting, and literature as philosophical statements of the modern mind. Future historian Arlin Migliazzo was thrilled: "Schaeffer showed me that Christians didn't have to be dumb."

In the next ten years, the Schaeffers became well-known figures in American evangelicalism. Francis published 18 books and booklets, most of which came out of lectures and talks he had been giving since the 1950s. (Four more books were to follow after 1975; total U.S. sales alone exceeded 2.5 million copies.) Edith accompanied him on many of his speaking tours, developing her own messages and popular following. On college campuses, Edith liked to treat young women in the dorms to "an intimate, candid talk about marriage, sex, and the career of being creative as a homemaker." Edith also took up her typewriter, publishing L'Abri in 1969. In the mid-1970s, she wrote a regular column for Christianity Today, and by 1981 had completed a total of eight books on family life and devotional topics that had sold over 1 million copies. In her writing she often voiced opposition to "women's liberation" and the trend toward two-career families. This latter was curious, given that Francis's wider ministry commenced for her a new full-time career as a writer and lecturer. Meanwhile, 11-year-old Franky was trundled off to English boarding school.

Her depiction of L'Abri's early years was perfectly pitched to the countercultural sentiments of young people, with its homey images of young people with backpacks, shared labor, fresh whole-grain bread, and intellectual conversations by the fireside, all under the umbrella of God's supernatural provision through prayer. The book brought in hundreds of new visitors, mostly American evangelicals. Nevertheless, L'Abri still attracted a fair number of non-Christians -- even Timothy Leary, the guru of lsd, managed to find his way there. Francis and Edith now spent but three months per year in residence, the work being carried on by their daughters' families and by volunteers.

* continued in next article >>

Michael S. Hamilton ( Christianity Today, March 3, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 3, Page 22)
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today.

This article first appeared in the March 3, 1997 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

Christianity Today magazine, provided by ChristianityToday.com, provides evangelical thought leaders a sense of community, coherence, and direction through thoughtful, biblical commentary on issues and through careful, caring reporting of the news.


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