Rediscovering Francis Schaeffer and intellectual Evangelicalism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Edith Schaeffer, writer and wife of famed Evangelical leader and theologian Francis Schaeffer, died the other week. If you haven’t read her New York Times obituary, it’s an interesting read that also serves to remind us of Francis. This is not to diminish from her many accomplishments. But in many ways, the two were partners. And to read of Edith is to remember Francis.

It was an amazing shared life, and one that conservative Christians might be shocked to (re)discover. For example, speaking of the “Swiss commune considered the theological birthplace of the American religious right” — which Edith essentially ran like a five-star hotel — the Times notes:

“In the ’60s, when L’Abri’s guests included backpackers, hippies and even celebrities like Timothy Leary and Eric Clapton, Mrs. Schaeffer was known for maintaining a seamless five-star-hotel level of comfort for guests occupying L’Abri’s simple rooms, while Mr. Schaeffer delivered many of the lectures that became the basis of his most influential books, including “Escape From Reason” (1968) and “How Should We Then Live?” (1976).”

Francis died in 1984, and though he is still highly regarded, his fame pales in comparison to the Billy Grahams of the world. This makes some sense. While Graham was holding crusades and Oral Roberts was holding tent revivals or healing services, Schaeffer was holed up in a Swiss commune, giving lectures to hippie elites, writing books.

Unfortunately, in recent years, Schaeffer’s name popped up in Ryan Lizza’s controversial profile of Rep. Michele Bachmann. In the process of hitting Bachmann, Lizza captured a less-flattering snapshot of the latter part of Schaeffer’s life.

In fact, Schaeffer’s oeuvre consisted largely of a rejection of what we might consider to the the worst stereotypes of Evangelicalism. But that’s not the impression readers of Lizza’s New Yorker profile were left with. “He went from being a sort of apolitical critic of culture,” explains Schaeffer author and Baylor University Professor Barry Hankins, “to being a sort of political culture warrior — before that term was even used.”

But most of Schaeffer’s career and life were about much more than that. Long before the era Lizza described, Schaeffer served to provide an intellectual heft to Protestant Christianity that was all too often lacking during latter part of the 20th century. “Fundamentalism certainly has a strong strain of anti-intellectualism, says Hankins, “but there’s also an intellectual wing of early 20th century fundamentalism. And Schaeffer was really a product of that particular wing.”

Schaeffer rejected the fundamentalist notion that Christians must separate from the world, instead, insisting that they be in this world, but not of this world. “Essentially he was arriving at a position that said fundamentalism…needs to be more concerned about taking a Gospel message into the culture,” Hankins said. In many ways, that was his legacy.

Listen to my full conversation with Baylor Prof. Barry Hankins about Francis Schaeffer here:

Matt K. Lewis