If my house were burning to the ground and my family was safely outside, there’d be one book in my library I’d most hope to save from the fire: a paperback of Edith Schaeffer’s 1975 book What is a Family? Mrs. Schaeffer (as she’s still known in L’Abri circles) signed this particular edition for me when she was in the States visiting friends nearly ten years ago. In her characteristic fashion, she’d drawn mountains in the background with birds flying over them and wrote a brief personal note for me beneath it. The picture below makes an interesting contrast to Francis Beckwith’s signed book, which was given to him 19 years before and was written with a far steadier hand.
Receiving a book signed by Mrs. Schaeffer was, for me, like coming face-to-face with a hero from another world. Meeting the Schaeffers ranked in my mind alongside meeting C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, so the thought of actually receiving a book signed by one of them addressed to me… it meant more than I can say and still does to this day. I first discovered the Schaeffers’ books when I picked up Francis’s Escape from Reason in 8th grade in the church library. Even though I didn’t get much, what I got was opened doors I’d never known existed. Having grown up in a fundamentalist dispensational church, the Schaeffers were the ones who introduced me to the fullness of the Gospel, to the idea that (as a friend would later explain it to me) the scope of God’s redemptive work is just as broad as the scope of his created work. There’s nothing in creation left untouched by the Gospel. Additionally, the Schaeffers taught me to love the beauty of God’s creation and about our responsibility to steward it with affection. They gave me license to love the world, to love the good things that God had made and to recognize that there was no conflict between loving creation and creator.
Additionally, as one of the many millennials to grow up in the church and become disillusioned with it, the Schaeffers, along with C.S. Lewis, were the orthodox voices that stayed with me as I studied more liberal brands of Christianity (I entered college in 2007 right as Brian McLaren was becoming a prominent figure in Christian circles) and even considered abandoning the church entirely during my late high-school and early college years. In fact, it was two summer terms spent at the Rochester L’Abri with two couples that had lived with and been mentored by the Schaeffers that were pivotal in my remaining in the church and finding my way to the Reformed stripe of evangelicalism that continues to be my church home to this day. My debt to the Schaeffers is immense.
Of course, I’m not alone in that respect. The Schaeffers’ influence on evangelicalism as a whole was enormous, which explains the multitude of tribute pieces being published since Edith’s death last Saturday at age 98. However, most of the people influenced by the Schaeffers are quite a bit older than me. Since Francis’s death in 1984, the Schaeffers have been largely forgotten by younger evangelicals. Schaeffer’s books have grown increasingly neglected (though a few have been reprinted in the past few years), and L’Abri, though it continues to function (and thank God for that) does not have nearly the recognition and cache within evangelicalism that it did 30 years ago. Perhaps the best way to capture the decline of the Schaeffer’s popularity is to compare their current name recognition to that of C.S. Lewis. It was only 15 years ago that two Methodist scholars wrote a book comparing and contrasting Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis while claiming that the two men were the most important apologists of the 20th century. 15 years later, Lewis’s name still commands enormous respect in evangelical circles. Schaeffer’s, in contrast has been largely forgotten. I suspect that when most people heard of Edith’s death last week they were thrown back 30 or 40 years to the first time they read a Schaeffer book before thinking “I didn’t realize she was still alive.”
So while my story of being influenced by the Schaeffers is common amongst American evangelicals, it’s markedly less common among millennial evangelicals, most of whom were (like me) born after Dr. Schaeffer succumbed to cancer nearly 30 years ago. If evangelicals my age know anything of the Schaeffers, it’s more likely to be what’s told in Frank Schaeffer’s memoirs Crazy for God and Sex, Mom, and God. In those books, Frank paints a picture of his parents that is a striking contrast to the picture many older evangelicals had of the remarkable couple. Frank describes his father as a verbally and sometimes physically abusive man tortured by his religious convictions while Edith becomes a neurotic self-righteous religious nut obsessed with keeping up appearances. Regarding the accuracy of those memoirs, I can do no better than Os Guinness’s definitive takedown published in Books & Culture when Crazy for God was first published.
But even so, as Guinness himself notes, the books have struck a nerve amongst evangelicals and been received much more warmly by younger Christians, a fact that I find extremely sad. Of course, understanding that positive reaction is not difficult: There are few things we enjoy more than seeing through a person we once thought virtuous and discovering that they’re just as flawed and broken as we are. And millennial evangelicals who have been burned by the church tend to be especially fond of such narratives because they confirm our already-held suspicion about the virtue of church leaders. And when those fallen heroes are people that were especially revered by the churches we grew up in…well, even better.
As a result, Frank’s memoirs leave younger Christians us with an uncomfortable dilemma–what do we make of the lives and works of Francis and Edith Schaeffer? It’s true, I’m afraid, that boomer evangelicals often revered them to the point of setting them on an unrealistic pedestal as the perfect, flawless great white hope of the Christian faith. Yet if we allow Frank’s books to so color our perception of them that we see nothing of what our parents saw in them then we will have robbed ourselves of the chance to be helped and mentored by two people who God clearly blessed and who he used to accomplish great things for his church.
Without the Schaeffers, I sincerely wonder if we’d have magazines like Relevant and Cardus or journals like Books & Culture or the Mars Hill Audio Journal. I know that the nonprofit Ransom Fellowship, run by two very dear friends of mine, would not exist as it does. And even as some of the work they inspired has fallen out of favor in recent years (most notably the Christian worldview movement spearheaded by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey), I suspect its critics would not be nearly so well equipped to address the movement’s shortcomings were it not for the trailblazing work of the Schaeffers. After all, the worldview movement’s most astute critic, Jamie Smith, is drawing from the same (reformed) theological well as the Schaeffers.
The Schaeffers made it possible in a way it had not been before to be thoughtfully engaged with (and even delighted by) much of popular culture while still holding to Christian orthodoxy. That is a tremendous accomplishment when one considers that today’s evangelicals are, by and large, the theological descendants of fundamentalists who emphasized separation from the world. When Francis Schaeffer first came to Wheaton in 1968, he spoke on the music of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and Pink Floyd. He talked about the films of Bergman and Antonioni–and at a time when Wheaton’s honor code forbade students from seeing any movies at all! That the Schaeffers accomplished such an enormous cultural work while also modeling a tremendously generous, sacrificial hospitality at L’Abri that imaged the Gospel to thousands of guests over nearly 30 years is nothing short of remarkable.
What I saw in the Schaeffers, and what I hope many of my peers will come to see as well is that the Schaeffers were imperfect people who God used in great and significant ways to train his church in a greater fidelity to the Gospel, a deeper love of creation, and a deep, profound desire to create places of warmth and hospitality where friends and strangers alike can be received as loved and honored guests.
Recommended reading: If you want to learn more about the Schaeffers’ life and work, you’ll do no better than to begin with Edith’s book L’Abri, which tells the story of how L’Abri began. You should then move on to True Spirituality by Francis, which describes the spiritual underpinnings that formed their lives and work at L’Abri. Francis’ trilogy–The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent is interesting and useful in a general way, although Schaeffer was addressing the 1960s counter-culture so some of the material is quite dated at this point. Additionally, Schaeffer did not have access to a regular library at L’Abri because they couldn’t afford books and he was not an academically-trained scholar by any stretch, so some parts of the book are problematic and may drive a specialist up the wall. (I’m thinking particularly of his treatments of Aquinas and Kierkegaard.) Even so, the most instructive aspect of the Schaeffers’ life and work may not be the specific components of their thought so much as their orientation toward those outside the church–warm, welcoming, yet uncompromising in their commitment to Christian orthodoxy. It’s a rare combination that might best be described by borrowing John Piper’s wonderful phrase he used to describe John Newton: “the tough roots of habitual tenderness.” Beyond those four books by Francis, I’d also warmly commend Death in the City and The Mark of a Christian. (There never has been and never will be a book that so radically changes my life as The Mark of a Christian.) Additionally, Edith’s books on prayer and creativity (The Life of Prayer and Forever Music, respectively) are very good. If you’re interested in hospitality, you should also read The Hidden Art of Homemaking while doing your darnedest not to be put off by the title. And if you really want to learn more about the Schaeffers, you can read The Tapestry, which is an autobiography written by Edith two years before Francis’s death in 1984.