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)

  • Al Mather

    Yes, I was influenced, many of his books are still on my shelves. I re-read parts of one about a month ago. (I do forget some of the things I have read or even learned.) In spite of growing up in a Christian home, church and “Bible school”, by God’s grace, studying Schaeffer taught me how to think, and gave me a foundation to build a Biblical worldview.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=637930068 David Bissett

    YES! I was (and continue to be) influenced by Schaeffer. I attended the University of Wisconsin and was privileged to hear him in person on several occasions, and was also drawn to his books. He made deep, clear thinking very desirable for me and other Christians in my IVCF group on campus. I will never forget his regular plea to remember him as an *evangelist* for Jesus Christ. Skipping ahead a dozen years, my wife and I read through L’ABRI as we drove across country to take up my first pastorate in New England. His life, writings and legacy are real blessings.

  • owenstrachan

    Amen, brothers. Thank you for your thoughts. They are well-taken.

  • Jeremy

    Hey brother, excellent article…but there is one problem. The title….”knickers” means ladies underwear to our British friends. It was even pointed out more than once on the GC site. In honor of Francis, please modify it. Thanks!

  • Jane

    I was privileged to live in the Schaeffer’s household in the 60′s and 70′s. I witnessed Edith’s and Francis’s small flaws and Franky’s great flaws. If Franky was neglected, it was because of his father’s compassion to reach out to those without the knowledge or understanding of the truth of Christianity. Francis spent many late nights pacing the floor of his bedroom/office (the walls and floors of the chalet were very thin) praying for those with whom he knew struggled. I have seen him weep for those who turned their backs of the living God. One of those is his own son, Franky. For Franky the gains of Christianity were the means to attention from young women at L’Abri and a road to fame and adulation by using his father’s name. Francis and Edith took in the homeless and gave them a family. They accepted those unacceptable to the culture at that time. They gave selflessly of all they had. Franky wanted money and celebrity. All he gave were demands for more.

    I will never forget one lunch when we were eating on the balcony gazing at the mighty alps surrounding us. I even remember that we were eating artichokes. I was sharing my doubts of faith because of the perceived ugliness of current fundamentalists I knew. Francis acknowledged their shortcomings and their lack of love for those that did not “look like them.” He counseled me with utter sincerity and love. I will never forget that he spoke to me strongly and said “Jesus urged His disciples that when He was gone to ‘Feed My sheep, feed My lambs.’ Not one of whom is any less valuable to Him, He is the judge of men, not us.”

    Francis Schaeffer never wanted to be remembered. He wanted his legacy to be for each of us to open our homes and share our lives with others who needed to know the love of God. He would be appalled by much of what is said of him. His heart would be broken to see his son telling lies about him.
    But most of all he would pray for those who despitefully use us. He would weep for those who turn their backs on God.

  • http://oikosfellowship.org Pete Williamson

    I was first introduced to the Schaeffers just after I graduated from college back in the early 90s, but once I started reading I found myself unable to stop. Of all the ways that I have been influenced by them, I think the most prominent was the discipline they cultivated of listening before speaking and listening with real compassion, not thinking of the unbeliever or struggling Christian across from you as an object of contempt, but rather someone who is made in the image of God and is worthy of our full respect and love even as we seek to convince them of their need of Christ.

    • http://www.cliftonparkcommunitychurch.org Pastor Dave Bissett

      Pete – great point on listening; it was a big part of being in any meeting with Schaeffer. I appreciate your mentioning it (I need to recapture that for myself). db

  • owenstrachan

    Thanks, Jane and Pete. Good words, Pete. Jane, I loved your stories. Great stuff. Eloquently put.