Thanks to Crazy for God, a new tell-all memoir by his son Frank, Francis Schaeffer is back in the news in evangelical circles. Twenty-four years after his death, the height of his fame has long since passed, but Schaeffer had an incalculable influence on the contemporary evangelical mind.
In 1955, Schaeffer and his wife Edith founded the Christian retreat center L’Abri in Switzerland. Schaeffer, a Presbyterian minister, took all comers, engaging college students, dropouts, and others in debates about the meaning of life.
Each of us, he insisted at L’Abri and in books that offered sweeping historical surveys of philosophy, art and literature, really has only two choices: the Christian God and his moral universe, or despair. Since roughly 1890 in Europe and 1935 in the U.S., he argued, Western culture had sided with despair, abandoning Christian truth and sliding into a humanistic relativism. In the last decade of his life, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, Schaeffer turned his attention to abortion. Under the direction of his son Frank (then known as Frankie), he made two film series, How Shall We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, that spurred evangelicals into the pro-life movement and became a celebrity activist.
Frank Schaeffer’s memoir is a fascinating, sometimes sleazy, self-aggrandizing mea culpa. If he hadn’t prodded his father into high profile militancy, the younger Schaeffer suggests, perhaps the Religious Right never would have emerged– or at the least his father wouldn’t have been associated with it. Crazy for God has already prompted a sharp rejoinder by Os Guinness, one of Francis Schaeffer’s principal successors, in the Christian review Books & Culture. For those interested in a less breathless account of Schaeffer’s ministry, Molly Worthen has just published an elegant article in Christianity Today exploring the changes in L’Abri since Schaeffer’s death.
Even outside his family, Schaeffer critics are not hard to find. To many, his confident pronouncements about philosophy, literature and art now seem superficial. (My own pet peeve, even in the days when I was driving under Schaeffer’s influence, was his confident prediction that Dylan Thomas would be viewed as the most important mid-twentieth century poet). Worthen quotes a Schaeffer son-in-law as saying Schaeffer never read the books he wrote about; he subsisted instead on clippings from Time and Newsweek. Schaeffer’s tactics in his activist later years, and his attacks on those who didn’t fall into line, sometimes seemed over the top, even for those of us who share many of his commitments. In my own professional world, the law, the legacy of those years has been the proliferation of Christian legal defense funds; several can be traced directly or indirectly to his complaint in A Christian Manifesto (1981) that “Christians in the legal profession did not ring the bell” as the law shifted from Christian conceptions of truth to relativism. Whatever their merits, these funds have not encouraged serious evangelical scholarly inquiry. (For more detailed discussion of Christian legal scholarship, and Schaeffer’s influence, see here and here).
Yet for all his flaws, especially in the later years, Schaeffer’s passionate insistence that evangelicals must engage the culture, that we must wrestle with the ideas of our time, and that we must apply the Bible to all of life, were transformative for a generation of evangelicals, including this one. Schaeffer taught us that it was okay for evangelicals to become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and scholars– indeed, that it was important for Christians to enter these fields. It is hard to overstate how freeing this message was for those of us who struggled with the question of how to reconcile our faith with the life of the mind. If this is what it means to be crazy for God, count me in.