Friday, 24 April 2009

Reflections on Francis Schaeffer

There's been a resurgence of interest over the past few years in the life and contribution of Francis Schaeffer to Evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. While, I don't suppose that Schaeffer's writings are devoured by keen evangelical undergraduates the way they were twenty or thirty years ago, many Christian academics gladly acknowledge his call for joined-up thinking about the development of a Christian mind and worldview at any early stage in their intellectual and spiritual development.
The recent interest has come about in large part as a response to Frank Schaeffer, Francis' son's autobiography, Crazy for God: How I Grew up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to take it all (or almost all) of it back (2007). Rivaling the Puritans penchant for long titles, Crazy for God is the painful account of Frank's engagement from Evangelicalism, and as such stands in a long line of evangelical de-conversion narratives (see David Hempton's excellent recent Evangelical Disenchantment: 9 Portraits of Faith and Doubt (2008) for more). Frank's damning assessment of the life and spirituality of his mother and father reads almost like tabloid journalism at times, and its hard not to feel slightly voyeuristic as revelation upon revelation about life at L'Abri spills forth from Frank's pen.
Whether in response or not, two more detailed biographies of Francis Schaeffer have recently appeared. Colin Duriez's, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Leicester: IVP, 2008) is, as its title suggests, a much more sympathetic portrayal that undoubtedly attempts to repair the damage done by Crazy for God.
Much better and more scholarly is Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Hankins argues that Schaeffer's career had three phases; he set out as a Fundamentalist pastor, a persona ameliorated by his years in Switzerland, only to re-emerge when he became a champion of more militant American Evangelicalism during the 1970s. Hankin's study is much more than a straightforward biography though. Some of the central chapters attempt to analyse his writings, focussing particularly on the sophistication of Schaeffer's view of the history of Western philosophy. Here Hankins is pretty critical, pointing out that Schaeffer rarely read deeply, but gleaned his material from magazines and religious periodicals. He was one for the big picture, which while still having some element of truth about it, needs to be heavily nuanced by more recent scholarship. In many ways Schaeffer's Escape from Reason now needs to be read in conjunction with something like Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age (2007) for one to get a fuller and more complete picture of the decline of Christianity and the rise of secular modernity. Importantly, Hankins also draws attention to the apparent contradiction between Schaeffer's criticism of the rise of rationalism and modernity, while he himself made use of rational argumentation to defend the Christian worlview. Of course, the emergence of postmodern epistemology has subsequent made Schaeffer methodology seem slightly out-moded.
There's much in Hankins's book that deserves comment, but for me, as an historian, the most interesting part was the second half of chapter 8 in which he discusses Schaeffer's interaction with two of America's most influential evangelical historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll. By the 1970s Schaeffer had become committed to the political programme of what we now know as the Religious Right, and argued repeatedly for the Christian foundation of the American constitution. Both Noll and Marsden, in a long and extensive correpsondence, attempted to reason with Schaeffer, on the basis of their own detailed historical work, that there was little obvious evangelical input in the Constitution of the United States, that the concept of a Christian America in the eighteenth century was in fact a myth. Schaeffer accused them of letting their commitment to the writing of history stand in the way of their supposedly higher calling of defending the Christian foundations of America. Schaeffer, by now the typical Fundamentalist was demonstrating his hostility to scholarship, even scholarship informed by a Christian worldview.
Those who attempt to write history within the academy, and attempt to do so without compromising commitment to Christ, will find much in these pages. Those who've had one of their books published in the pages of a periodical like The Banner of Truth will know all too well that the suspicion of academic history runs deep in contemprary British evangelicalism as well. As evangelical historians our loyalty should be to the truth of history, not to the defence of any perceived evangelical golden age in the past, or favourite saint from the pages of Church history. If this quest for truth, and use of all of the tools that modern scholarship has to offer, means that there will be a necessary debunking of many of the historical myths loved by evangelicals, then surely we should have nothing to fear. In this, I guess, Schaeffer, or really Hankins I suppose, has much to teach us!

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