Hanging Out with Francis Schaeffer on a Friday Night in College

Was Francis Schaeffer significant?  Was he significant for you?  He was for me.  I’ve got a piece up at the Gospel Coalition entitled “Everything But the Knickers: The Enduring Influence of Francis Schaeffer” that offers a brief apologetic for his importance.  Here’s a snatch from it:

In a news cycle driven by the latest quotes from Rick Perry, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, you would not expect to see Francis Schaeffer popping up on the daily ticker. The American expatriate, wearer-of-knickers, connoisseur of Swiss cosmopolitanism, and, above all, philosophically minded Calvinist public intellectual once made national headlines, to be sure. But suddenly he has returned, posthumously torturing the public square with supposed plans of a Christian political takeover, a master-strategy foiled in his day yet rising again in the phoenix of Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign.

In the piece, I engage with the idea, recently suggested by Alan Jacobs, that Schaeffer was not important to evangelicalism beyond promoting a basic interest in ideas and art.  I seek to show that Schaeffer in fact had a wide-ranging impact on our movement.  You can surf over there and puzzle through whether you accept my case.

I’ll leave my thoughts on that page, but I will add an anecdote I didn’t include in the TGC piece.  When I was at Bowdoin College, Schaeffer was a big deal to my friends and me.  When many of our classmates were cutting loose on weekends (and others were in the library!), several of us gathered to watch How Should We Then Live?, the 1977 Gospel Films production by Schaeffer and his son Franky.  The ten-part series electrified us.  We studied at a college that did not offer many classes in the grand style of Schaeffer, the traditional Western approach to history that reads it as a great sweeping gust of ideas and epochal events.  The material was inspired by Kenneth Clark’s ultra-popular Civilization series, a project that won massive popular acclaim but turned off some academicians who sniff at overarching historical narratives.

Anyway, I am grateful to God that I was not partying, losing myself in the temporal pleasures associated with the hedonic exercise that is modern collegia.  In God’s good grace, my buddies and I were instead clustered around a tv on many Friday nights, watching an eccentric old man in odd if stylish clothing walk us through western ideas from a robustly theocentric perspective at warp-speed.  I count this as one of the moments in my life that God awakened me to the power and importance of ideas, and I am sure many others out there have had similar experiences.

I do not suggest in the TGC piece that Schaeffer was a perfect man.  It is clear from material covering his life that he was not.  He seems to have been extremely busy, which left him with little time for his children, perhaps Franky, his boy, most significantly.  I’ve read up on Franky’s childhood, and though I’m not always clear about what exactly happened in the Schaeffer home, it does seem true that Francis was in some times and places too busy for his son.  I wonder if Schaeffer’s life suffered from some aspects of “celebrity Christianity” that some talk about today–too much travel, too little time with one’s wife and kids, not enough engagement with a local church and body of elders.

Even with the flaws of Schaeffer laid bare, though, I contend that he was an important man, a hero of the faith.  My friends and I studied at a very challenging secular school, and we found guidance and answers in Schaeffer.  He did not let us down.  His literature is very much worth engaging today; he deserves, I think, to be remembered well in evangelical circles, to be studied and appreciated.  All of us are sinners; not many of us will affect so many so powerfully as Schaeffer.

Were you influenced by Schaeffer?  If so, I’d honestly love to hear how.  Leave a comment if you like.

(Image: Randy Alcorn)


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