Lately with all the talk of “Dominionism” and the scary religious right and Frank Schaeffer chiming in, I feel the need to draw attention to a biography of Francis Schaeffer that I think really portrayed him fairly and without the usual political histrionics. I wrote the following review (which appeared in Themelios) of Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life back in 2009.
As a PhD student, I provided research assistance to the Baylor historian Barry Hankins as he wrote his biography of Francis Schaeffer (Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]). At the time, I remember asking Professor Hankins if the family had been cooperative. They had not. Having read Colin Duriez’s treatment of Schaeffer, I think I know why. The family was cooperating with him, so much so that this book could be considered an authorized biography. Duriez’s portrayal is very powerfully personal, more so than anything I have read save Schaeffer’s own books, which are self-revelatory to some degree.
An Authentic Life features a number of unforgettable scenes from Schaeffer’s life. The reader who has a jaundiced view of Schaeffer as some kind of plastic-mold religious right stereotype will encounter a complex man who had a powerful instinct for justice. As a teenager, young Fran had a job with RCA Victor where he worked in the factory. The women posted along the production line were mistreated and overworked. One day, a woman stopped her work and began calling for a strike. She was soon joined by Schaeffer, who jumped up on a counter, yelling in his piercing voice, “Strike, Strike” (p. 24). This was, after all, the same man who would one day criticize comfortable American Christians for their addiction to personal peace and affluence and their non-compassionate use of wealth.
The pioneer of Christian worldview had a hard road to ministry. His father asked to speak to him at 5:30 a.m. on the morning he was to leave for college and pre-ministerial studies. When they met, his father bluntly told Schaeffer that he did not want a minister for a son and did not want him to go. The young man asked to go pray about it. Tearfully, he tossed a coin three times with each outcome landing in favor of going on to college at Hampden-Sydney. He informed his father, “I’ve got to go.” Just before slamming the door on his way out, his father promised to pay for the “first half year” (pp. 25–26). Time would bring the father to share his son’s beliefs.
Duriez’s book is full of similar interesting vignettes from Schaeffer’s life. One theme stands out very clearly. Francis Schaeffer was a man filled with love for the so-called “little people” who were not valued by the world. While he was still a young minister, we discover that he tutored a young boy with Down Syndrome twice each week and took great delight in every increment of progress. He felt the boy’s forward steps were just as important, in his wife Edith’s words, “as talking to any university student about his intellectual problems” (pp. 50–51). This event perfectly foreshadows his later powerful insistence upon the importance of the sanctity of life, an area in which he was far ahead of the main body of evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Connecting the young Schaeffer to the more famous, older man is a great strength of Colin Duriez’s book. It has become well-accepted to break Schaeffer’s life up into segments and to characterize him as three different people. There is the young, fire breathing fundamentalist eager to “be ye separate” from the impure compromisers; the artsy, compassionate, bohemian founder of L’abri in Switzerland; and then the old man, brushing off his best instincts and returning to his fundamentalist roots to fight for the doctrine of inerrancy and “Christian America.” While it is possible to reach such a conclusion by looking at his early career and then considering the chronological development of his publications, this book rejects that approach by portraying Schaeffer as a consistent personality throughout.
The man who cared enough to tutor a little boy with Down Syndrome is also the man who told his church in St. Louis that he would resign if a black person ever came to his church and felt unwelcome. The budding intellectual who answered the existential questions of college students in Europe is also the agitator who took up the cause of the unborn and became arguably the finest shaper of and advocate for a potent evangelical critique of modern culture. Two sentences in the book make this point about Schaeffer brilliantly: “It was not a new Schaeffer that was emerging. His theology, honed over many decades since the passionate articles of the later forties and early fifties, was that of the lordship of Christ over every area of life—the womb as well as the university seminar room” (p. 182).
If one could ask for anything more from this book, it would be on the subject of Frank (AKA Franky Schaeffer). As Francis Schaeffer’s son has aged, he has increasingly distanced himself from his father’s legacy. First, Frank converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. More significantly, he wrote thinly disguised novels about his family life that were unflattering to his father and then made a massive turn left politically, ultimately supporting Barack Obama despite his laissez faire policies on abortion. One suspects this topic was left alone for two reasons. The first is that, as I wrote above, this book feels like an authorized biography with the family’s full cooperation. They probably did not want this story to include the later years of Frank Schaeffer. The second is that the book very likely neared completion during the time of Frank’s increasing heterodoxy. Regardless, readers hungry for more on this front should look to Os Guinness’s powerful rejoinder to Frank in the journal Books and Culture (March 1, 2008; available at http:// www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2008/marapr/1.32.html).
Duriez’s book is an important contribution to Schaeffer scholarship and will challenge those who have portrayed an interesting Schaeffer with a unique voice who morphs into a conventional Christian rightist over time. Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life deserves a wide readership and may well be the standard in the field for some time to come.
Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism