Memories of a mentor: Francis Schaeffer (I)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

On the wall of my office is a picture of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, his arm affectionately over her shoulder, both smiling as if one of them had just said something that struck them both as funny. She is looking off to her right (my left as I look at the picture). He is looking directly into the lens, and thus it seems, directly into my eyes as I look up from my typing.

When I first stumbled on the Schaeffers I was still part of the Plymouth Brethren. In fairness I should add that they don’t like that name, preferring to be called simply, the Brethren or better yet, simply, Christians. Still, Plymouth Brethren is how they are known, and I use the name with no intention of being disrespectful. I had come close to losing my faith—or more accurately, to walking away from my faith—because like all Fundamentalism it spoke to only a small narrow slice of life. It promised forgiveness and eternal life in heaven, but for now only spiritual things mattered, things like Bible reading, prayer, and witnessing, while everything else, things like art, gardening, good wine and everything else that is physical was deemed of secondary importance at best, dangerous at worse, and destined to be burned up in the fire of God’s judgment at the last day. I liked knowing I was going to heaven, of course, but even that began to seem dubious when my questions about meaning and culture and philosophy and knowledge were not addressed by the faith I had been taught and instead were interpreted as indicators of my lack of spiritual devotion.

My questions would not go away, however, and when I came across the Schaeffers I came across Christians who insisted that honest questions deserve honest answers. That might not sound too radical or exciting, but it was for me. I had not known that Christianity could possibly be like this, providing the basis for a solid world and life view that had something substantial, creative, and redemptive to say about every aspect of life and reality.

When I began reading Francis Schaeffer’s books I had no intention of leaving the Plymouth Brethren, or of changing my theology. I was trying, quite desperately, actually, to make sense of and hopefully save my faith. But slowly my theology shifted as I heard the Bible explained in a way that formed a solid line of orthodox teaching going back from Schaeffer to Abraham Kuyper to John Calvin to St Augustine to the apostles. Eventually the gap between the Brethren belief in a sacred/secular division to life and our growing conviction in Christ’s Lordship over all of life and culture reached a breaking point and we left. It was not hard leaving the less than biblically orthodox doctrine, while the breaks in relationships—with both friends and family—have never fully healed.

Years later someone who has honestly grieved my movement away from the Plymouth Brethren forwarded to me an email written by one of his friends, also in the Brethren. They commented on something I had written, expressed sadness on its evident “worldliness,” and reflected on how far I had strayed from the way I had been raised. In his email my friend’s friend commented on “the poisonous influence of Francis Schaeffer.”

I did not respond.

I have, however, often thought of that remark.

From their perspective, of course, if life is divided between the spiritual (the good, the best) and the physical (less good or even bad), Schaeffer’s teaching is to be regretted. If doubts about Christian belief are illegitimate for true believers, if engaging art and culture is a sign of nagging worldliness, if asking hard philosophical questions is evidence of a mind that is less than spiritual, then Schaeffer’s legacy is unfortunate. But the truth is that their perspective is wrong. I’m not going to defend that assertion here—if you have questions about it, please read Being Human: the nature of spiritual experience.

(to be continued)

This entry was posted at Thursday, June 23, 2011 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



I quite enjoy Schaeffer, and as a Communication major I find that he addresses much that not only is considered poisonous to a fundamentalist, but also to liberals and specifically in my case the theories of Communication. Perhaps in a way Schaeffer is "poisonous" or more accurately - lethal - that is, lethal to narrow thought, whether in the liberal or conservative camp.

I have a feeling Jesus is quite similar (or rather schaeffer is reflecting Christ!) in that beautiful disregard for angry rules and stiff policy.

June 26, 2011 at 1:36 PM

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