Will the REAL Francis Schaeffer Please Stand Up?

Will the REAL Francis Schaeffer Please Stand Up? September 7, 2011

I didn’t grow up reading Francis Schaeffer, as so many of my evangelical friends did.  I’ve only come to know of him and his work through the writings of his son, Frank Schaeffer.  Frank’s writings are, to be sure, slanted against his father’s theology/ideology.  Nevertheless, they paint a chilling picture of the Christian thinker and author that Michelle Bachmann now says is her biggest influence.  Andrew Sullivan weighs in on a debate between a conservative and a liberal on the real core of Francis Schaeffer’s thought:

And this is the core point: Schaeffer is deeply illiberal, profoundly opposed to the Enlightenment on which the US Constitution rests and determined to replace Enlightenment thought with a Biblically based regime. The choice is pretty clear. Either you base your conception of politics on the Constitution, framed along Enlightenment principles with a Deist architect floating ethereally behind it, or you believe that religious doctrine is and must be the core basis for our society, and that a long-standing government that continuously permits and encourages absolute evil must be resisted, eventually with force.

via Christianism – And Its Defenders – The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast.

UPDATE: Frank Schaffer emailed me and suggested that I and others read the interview with him HERE.

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  • Perry L Stepp

    I suggest you balance Frankie’s view of his father against Os Guinness’s.

    Guinness was a participant in L’Abri during Frankie’s years there. He is also an eyewitness to the ministries and relationships of Francis & Edith Schaeffer.

    He does a is good at showing how Frankie–always a polemicist, never a thoughtful or reasoned critic, regardless of which side he was lobbing grenades at–twists and at times distorts his parents’ record.

  • My impression, which comes from a fair bit of study a while back and interacting with people who spent time at L’Abri, is that Schaeffer’s influence wasn’t as much in his conclusions as his willingness to ask and engage questions. He really did help transform an old popular Fundamentalism into a public faith that engaged intellectual questions and sought answers in the public square.

    I had a professor who visited him, great NT guy and one of the best teachers I had in college, who spent time there and shined when he talked about Schaeffer’s influence, again not as a source for conclusions but as a seeker after answers.

    No doubt like many of his generation he had his failings and problems, but there’s also a fair bit of that in his sons own journey over the last four years, not finding success in his father’s footsteps so making a name for himself as his father’s detractor, but only when his father is long dead. At least the Reagan kids stood up to their dad while he was still alive.

    I think of Schaeffer the Elder a bit like Larry Norman. Norman helped spark a renewal of music in Evangelical Christianity that suffered through a lot of low spots over the decades, but which has matured into some engaging stuff (and it has a lot farther to go), opening up the door for others with similar callings to make new explorations. Schaeffer engaged an intellectual curiosity among those who were taught not to think to much, or to avoid topics of philosophy. Indeed, his celebrations of art and culture still resonate as opening the door to the transformation of Evangelicalism into a much more engaged group, and in doing this, in essence, open the door for the atmosphere that gave rise to the emerging church.

    Folks like you or Peter Rollins and others are doing exactly the sort of thing that Schaeffer did, pushing for conversations on debated subjects, pissing people off along the way, but in general helping to create forums where questions are asked and answer are pursued in light of a whole body of rigorous thought.

    That he was doing this in the mid to late 20th century shapes how he came off. But just like I’m wary when the church declares heretics long after their dead, it’s worrisome to me here.

    That’s not to say he’s above criticism. But, it bothers me when one man who really did a lot for the church is sacrificed on the altar of political and personal rancor, for what seems to be an attempt to forge a destructive narrative against an opposing political candidate.

    It’s disturbing because it’s precisely the sorts of things that characterized the Religious Right for so long.

  • DanS

    Frank Schaeffer has descended to a level of creepy obsession with dragging his father through the sewer that his credibility is somewhere below that of Michael Moore and/or Judas Iscariot.

    As for his father Francis Schaeffer and politics, vapid charges of “christianism” or “dominionism” or theocratic longings may impress those who need a new dead white male to demonize, but they won’t wash with anyone who understood Francis Schaeffer’s passion for both truth and compassion. His entire point in his political thought was that for societies to function there needs to be a balance between freedom and form. Absolute freedom is anarchy, absolute form is tyranny. We need sufficient law for freedom to flourish and no more.

    But if a society lacks a consensus on the basis of law and morals, a consensus the USA once had, it tends to descend into anarchy and the end result is increased state control to stem the anarchy. This often becomes the pretext for tyranny. Self-government – not theocracy – but democracy rooted in those Christian principles that apply to society as a whole (do not murder, steal, bear false witness, etc.), is desirable but never perfect. But once tyranny takes root, tyranny where “might makes right”, where there are no truths save the power of the state –peaceful measures to resist tyranny will be met with the iron fist of oppression leaving no alternative but either servitude or forceful resistance. In such a case, Schaeffer would not counsel a Christian toward pacifism.

    His exhibit A was the French Revolution (enlightenment base) which ended in the guillotine and the American Revolution (loosely Christian base) which ended in a constitutional democratic Republic where “all men are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights”. Because rights come from God, government has no right to infringe on them – so government must be limited. A theocratic tyranny is no better than a secular one – for cripes sake, the founding fathers escaped from Europe in part for freedom of worship! Schaeffer’s thought, which calls for limited government, is hardly the stuff of some Christian form of sharia law. His views are consistent with much of the justification for the American Revolution, so to criticize him for those views is about as credible as to say the Revolutionary War was about Washington, Franklin and Jefferson wanting to become kings and popes.

    But because Francis Schaeffer was influential in emboldening Evangelicals to get off the sidelines and participate in the political realm, it seems to be the mission of Frank Schaeffer, who is now making a living writing sex obsessed “memoirs” about his days in the Christian right and penning profanity laced rantings for Huff-Po, to desecrate his father’s corpse. Let’s paint dad as a radical who wants to overthrow the government and hang him around the neck of Republican candidates! Fun! And I’ll get glowing reviews from the utopian Christian left!

    I am thoroughly disgusted with this nonsense and hope that those who knew the elder Schaeffer will expose his son’s utterly reckless and arrogant tripe for the self-serving pap that it is.

    • There is a lack of balance on Frank’s part when talking about his dad and family. I sometimes think that life pins us into positions and that the level of comfort we obtain in these positions makes us not want to change.

      I have talked with people that seem to think that Ehrman’s position on the biblical text is made even harder by the amount of money he receives from his books.

      In Frank’s case it seems that he went from one extreme to the other, and hasn’t found balance.

      • Phil

        Is balance really something any of us can attain? Is it even a worthy goal? I’m reminded of an interview I read by the late Mike Yaconelli where he said that the concept of balance can become a sort of tyranny.

        In any case, I actually didn’t find either of Frank’s autobiographical books to be that extreme. I actually found them refreshing.

        • Sometimes these post get long, and after a certain length I probably am talking into a void at this point, but I am going to.

          Before the dust settled from the attacks in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik Frank was tar and feathering right wing Christians. Anders was just as much a “Christian” as he was also a “Progressive.” The terms mean different things over there than here in the States.

          If someone wants to post a right winger putting forth that progressives will be committing mass murder and Anders is their evidence, then I would like to see the link. This is essentially what Frank is did. Using Anders as evidence of right wing Christians want to murder or mass murder is extreme.

          Many of the positions for the pro-GLBT movement Christians I think, and will argue, leave open the move into social devolution. I don’t think Tony ,or others, are for many of the extremes that I use to point this out (e.g. adult, child sex). You guys on the Left (ahem, Tony) need to call Frank out on this. Tar and feathering the other side with accusations of wanting mass murder. That is extreme fellas.

  • My take is quite different. I’ve had only two major sources of information (or mis-) on Francis Schaeffer. I watched & discussed his film series “How Should We Then Live?” with a church group over the course of several meetings. (And most of those in the group were very strongly pro-Schaeffer.) Getting his views largely right from his own mouth, I didn’t like him *at all*. Then I read Frank’s book, CRAZY FOR GOD. And after reading the book that supposedly trashed Francis, I liked and appreciated the father a lot more.
    Well, at least I’m not alone. Here’s a review of CRAZY FOR GOD by Michael Spencer, the “internet monk” (now dead, sadly), who had a very similar reaction to mine: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/recommendation-and-review-crazy-for-god-by-frank-schaeffer

  • Phil

    It’s kind of funny Tony posted this when he did. I actually just finished reading both of Frank Schaeffer’s books. I read Sex, Mom, and God first and liked it so much decided to pick up Crazy for God. I honestly didn’t get the feeling reading the books that Frank was trying to sully his dad’s reputation at all. If anything, I felt like he was trying to stick up for his dad in a way by not letting him be dragged down with James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and the like. He certainly did reveal some things about his family that weren’t pretty – his dad’s abusive treatment of his mother, for one. But he makes it clear that he still loved and respected his father.

    I just have a suspicion that people who accuse Frank of trying to tear down his parent haven’t actually read these books or they’re reacting based on some other impulse. I too had a deeper respect for Francis Schaeffer after reading Frank’s books than I did before.

    Anyway, regarding the topic of this post, I do think there is some truth to the idea that the people who claim to love America the most don’t actually love America as it is. They love an idea of America that really only exists in their minds.

  • Phil

    Also I must say the review that Os Guinness gives of Crazy for God. He seems to be saying that Frank is accusing his parents of being hypocrites themselves. After reading both books, I never had the impression that Frank was saying that they were at all, really. I believe he says they were caught up in a movement that demands hypocrisy on many levels, but that they honestly managed to live lives that were for the most part loving and compassionate despite that.

    Perhaps because I grew in as a pastor’s kid in a pretty fundamentalist background, I am naturally sympathetic to people like Frank Schaeffer. I understand what it’s like to live in a world where you simultaneously see what happens on and off the stage, as it were.

  • Dave

    When Frank waxes polemic, it is likely a reaction to disgust with his own past actions, not with his father. I’m sure that it frustrates him that it took him so long to see past his own fundamentalism. I can relate: “Dad just analyzed culture before becoming Jerry Falwell’s inspiration. If not for his later works, he would be remembered as a progressive. Not politically progressive, but because of what mattered to him: philosophy, art and culture, not politics. Later he doubled down on his fundamentalist roots. I pushed him to do that, and I’m sorry for it.”

  • Tessa

    Patrick O, thank you for what he wrote. Combined, I spent a little over a year at Swiss L’Abri and English L’Abri. This was back in the early 70s and early 80s. Francis Schaeffer indeed was a person that I’d think many in the emergent vein would have greatly appreciated. Giving honest answers to honest questions, the appreciation of understanding culture and a high view on the importance of the arts made L’Abri in the late 60s and early 70s a haven for many who genuinely questioned the truth of Christianity. Schaeffer was a man who deeply listened to people and a man of great compassion. This, combined with the rich creativity and warmth of Edith Schaeffer made L’Abri truly a shelter for many.

    The caricature of this man that has been bandied about in the last few weeks is anything but the man I knew.

    Please DO read Os Guinness’s rebuttal to Franky’s views. Frank has profited greatly financially by writing about his parents in the two memoirs, but also in his fiction. He’s always been strident. He’s flat out wrong, tho, to paint himself as a creator of the Religious Right.

    Tony, I think you’d have liked Francis Schaeffer very much. He was not a dominionist and not the caricature that has been put forth over the last few weeks.

    It’s really something to see all this ink on Schaeffer who died nearly 30 years ago. I cherish my memories of conversations and his insights when I was at L’Abri.

  • Frankly, read some Francis for yourself!

    • Tessa

      Exactly! And read some of the earlier works including True Spirituality, The God Who is There, and Escape from Reason.

  • Chris

    Why am I not surprised that this blog would engage in and promote ugly gossip and character assassination.

  • Sorry for belatedly commenting on this post, but I can’t resist. I was deeply influenced by Francis Schaeffer and, in fact, owe my entire adult religious development – both Christian and ex-Christian – to him. That may sound outlandish, but there it is.

    At the age of 18, as a Pentecostal preacher’s kid fresh out of high school, I first read _The God Who Is There_. I read it in one day, late into the night. After finishing, I wrote a journal entry that resembled a Cartesian meditation, expressing the sense of profound awe and questioning that this book provoked. I pressed on to read _Escape From Reason_, _He is There and He is Not Silent_, and many others.

    The next January, I entered a Bible college and began spending hours in the library, discussing and questioning everything with classmates, and my lifelong passion for philosophy and theology became firmly entrenched. The honeymoon with Schaeffer ended when his book _A Christian Manifesto_ was published that spring of 1982. His argument that Christians may need to use force to turn back the tide of secularism shocked me (I’d never read _How Should We Then Live?_, an obvious oversight.).

    Nothing in his earlier works prepared me for that turn. As a child of both the Jesus Movement and Dr. King’s nonviolence (against my father’s wishes), I turned leftward (eventually finding Sojourners Magazine), though I continued reading Schaeffer as a thoughtful Christian whom I respected and with whom I disagreed on some things.

    As an ex-Christian today, I still owe my intellectual awakening to Dr. Schaeffer. The only Christian writer who ever challenged me as deeply was the late John Howard Yoder. But it all started with finding my Dad’s copy of TGWiT.

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