Francis Schaeffer is founder of the L’Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland, and a widely known lecturer and author. His latest project is a ten-episode film series, “How Should We Then Live?,” which will be released next year by Gospel Films. A companion book is being published by Revell. He was interviewed byCHRISTIANITY TODAYeditors. A review of a new book examining Schaeffer’s apologetics appears on page 42. In “Witness Stand” (page 32) Edith Schaeffer gives some further background information about the film project.
Question. You have been described in many ways. How do you view yourself, as a theologian, a philosopher, or a cultural historian?
Answer. My interest is evangelism. To evangelize in the twentieth century, one has to operate across the whole spectrum of disciplines and have answers for the questions. I think we often sell Christianity short, not putting forth the richness we have in Christ for the total culture and the total intellectual life. Evangelism, then, is two things: first of all, giving honest answers to honest questions to get the blocks out of the way so that people will listen to the Gospel as a viable alternative, and then secondly, showing them what Christianity means across the whole spectrum of life.
Q. What is the first hypothesis for evangelism?
A. That God is there, and is the kind of a God that the Bible says he is, and that he has not been silent but has given us propositional truth.
Q. Do you ask people to assume that, or do you try to persuade them to accept it as a self-evident presupposition? In other words, where is your starting point?
A. I could not accept entirely the way you have put the question. I think Luther was right. You have to have the law and the Gospel, and the law has to come first. For the twentieth century, the preaching of the law is showing the natural results of where humanism goes. This should be the first move on the board. As far as I’m concerned, it’s only the preaching of the law for a different framework of thought. This film series and the companion book are committed to show where humanism has taken us. After people see that humanism—man’s starting from himself alone—does not have the answers, they should be. and often are, ready to listen to the alternative that does have the answer. In his speech on Mars Hill, Paul was doing exactly what we need to do today. This is where I begin.
Q. Many people see L’Abri as a family ministry. Is that what it is?
A. Yes, it began as a family, and there is still a strong emphasis on community. It’s based on a certainty that Edith, the children, the other L’Abri workers, and I hold that the New Testament church was more than merely a place where people went and heard preaching and sang songs on Sunday. It was a real community, up to the high level of caring for one another’s material needs. I think L’Abri has given many people a concept of community that would be practiced differently in other situations than we practice it at L’Abri. For example, seeing that the local urban church must also be a community as well as a preaching point, they are able to transfer that concept. Every Christian group ought to have the two elements: a presentation of the truth without compromise, and an exhibition of community which substantiates what is said. I visualize these as two sides of a Gothic arch, one supporting the other.
Q. How do you distinguish between this kind of family community and a commune?
A. A commune by definition today has more to do with the sharing of goods in an enforced sort of way. We wouldn’t hold to this. We believe that the New Testament church sets a standard, with people having their own things but sharing them in love and by choice. We don’t hold things in common in the sense of a community owning people’s personal property. I do believe the Church has been very, very weak in the matter of a compassionate use of accumulated wealth. This has opened the door to the rather left-wing swing among some of the younger evangelicals, some of whom are beginning to equate the Kingdom of God with an almost socialistic program.
Q. What is your emphasis in this area?
A. In the film series and the new book I stress that the Reformation didn’t bring forth a golden age and that as the centuries passed various weaknesses developed. Two outstanding ones would be a twisted view of race and lack of attention to a compassionate use of accumulated wealth. What we try to show in L’Abri is that in love we share what we have because we believe that’s what a Christian community ought to do. This has been a very, very large part of L’Abri’s ministry.
Q. How do you deal with people from Marxist lands or with a Marxist outlook?
A. I’ve dealt more with Marxism in this new book and the film series than I have in any of my other writings. These people go into two categories. You have to see that there are two Marxisms, and they must not be confused. Do you remember “Danny the Red” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit), who led the May, 1968, Paris riots of the New Left? An interview with him was published recently, and he’s still a Marxist. He has a Marxist bookstore in Frankfurt. He says there are two Marxisms today: the idealistic Marxism and then the hard-line, orthodox, bureaucratic type. Most of the young Marxists in the West today are attracted in the same way they were attracted to the drug trip. It’s an existential dichotomy in which their reason does not enter in. In other words, they’ve accepted Marxism-Leninism as a different kind of trip: I think these kids have deliberately shut their minds to the fact that wherever Marxism has come to power it has always been with oppression. I think the only way to understand this kind of idealistic Marxism-Engelism is to understand that it’s a Christian heresy. Christians have the basis of why man has dignity: he’s made in the image of God. Marxism is built on materialism and offers no reason for the dignity of man. But the Marxists have reached across and taken our terminology and attracted the idealistic Marxist on the basis of what belongs to us. The danger as I see it is that at a certain point of history, with or without pressure from the imperialist, expansionist Communist countries, these two lines of Marxism-Engelism will flow together in a certain geographical location and bring Communism to power. Then it will be irreversible. Those who would go against the wall first would be these idealistic Communists. And this makes me very sad. These kids don’t understand what they are into. On the other hand, hard-line Marxist-Leninists really know what they stand for. They’re the ones with the apparatus.
We have lots of people who come out of Marxism. The first thing one has to do is to try to figure out through a rather lengthy conversation which class they fall into. I would talk to them in entirely different ways depending on whether they are in class A or class B. If they are in class A (the idealistic Communist), I would try to show them that Marxism-Leninism has no basis for the dignity of man and that it carries with it, as an intrinsic part of the system, oppression. In the film series we have a section on the French Revolution. The French Revolution is often taught as being related to the American Revolution, but it is not really related. The American Revolution is related to the English bloodless revolution under William and Mary because it was inside of a Christian consensus. In the film I show pictures of Washington and Voltaire and say these two revolutions are not the same by any means. I pick up Washington’s picture and put it beside William and Mary’s. Then I ask: Where does Voltaire belong? I pick up his picture and put it beside Lenin’s. And then I say: The French revolution ended with the massacre of 40,000 or more people under the guillotine, a lot of them peasants; oppression was a natural part of the system. Then I point out that it brought in an elite, a Napoleon. I pick up a picture of Napoleon and put it down beside one of Lenin and say: The same system when tried in Russia brought forth an elite within a few months under Lenin.
Q. The film series is quite a different kind of project for you. Was this a conscious decision to go to a secular audience through television, or do you think you will reach mostly Christian people?
A. My son, Franky, is an artist. He came to me one day and said, “Dad, I have two little children, and if what you say is right, and I believe you’re right, then we have a responsibility to try and change the flow. You have spent years and years studying all of this, and I think you have to be willing to take on a new project—even if it kills you.” I backed off and thought about it, and I decided Franky was right. So I said yes. Then Billy Zeoli of Gospel Films caught a vision of it, and we just went from there. Franky is the producer of the films. Our hope is that with the book and the ten episodes of films we will reach a wider spectrum than we have in the past. When my first books were written, the editors all said that they wouldn’t sell because the audience was not defined clearly enough. They thought you couldn’t talk to a Christian audience and a non-Christian one simultaneously. The God Who Is There and Escape From Reason are for both, specifically, and the editors were proven wrong. There have been literally thousands of people saved by reading these books. At the same time, the books emphasized the Lordship of Christ over the whole spectrum of life for the Christian as well as the richness of life. Our hope is that the new book and the films will once again speak to both audiences. All we can do is pray. I worked for a year and a half to try to remove all technical language from the book and from the film script. It was hard going to remove philosophical terminology and still have philosophical concepts! I’m not saying I was successful. We’ll have to wait and see. If I’m right that the shipyard worker has the same questions as the intellectual, and if I’ve been able to get rid of the technical language, then perhaps this message will get to a wider audience than anything we’ve done so far.
Q. How was the subject matter of the films chosen?
A. It was a hot summer night up in my study, and Franky asked me, “What would you do if you did it?” Without meaning to, I talked to him for an hour and a half, and he took notes, and at the end of the time we had an outline. There are only a couple of choices you can make. You can either do it by subject matter or you can do it historically. We chose to do it historically but not slavishly so.
We start with the Roman Empire, then go on to the Middle Ages, then the Renaissance. Parallel to the Renaissance we treat the Reformation in both its religious and cultural aspects. We also show that the Reformation brought forth certain political results, giving tremendous freedoms without leading to chaos because there was a Christian consensus. We mention weaknesses, however, in the areas of race and the compassionate use of wealth. However, we also point out that Shaftesbury. Wilberforce, and some other Christians, as Christians, did speak out on these issues. We then show the humanist base of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and their results.
We go back and pick up the birth of modern science to show that Christianity was not a hindrance but really gave the basis for modern science. We show the breakdown in philosophy as it came through Rousseau and others, and the shift to materialistic science. Then we move into Paris, to the café Les Deux Magots, where Sartre got his hearing, and show how people gave up the hope of a unified field of knowledge and what the existentialist philosophers, the drug people, the occult people, and the existentialist theologians made of it. From there we show how these same concepts have been carried into the culture in painting, music, the novel, and the cinema. That brings us up into our own society and the 1964 Berkeley watershed. Finally the seventies are presented, with the alternatives which we think confront our society. So you can see the subject matter was arranged rather automatically.
Q. What is your budget for this?
A. It is $1.17 million.
Q. Why was such an expensive film project necessary?
A. If a film was going to be made to show Christianity as a viable alternative, then it technically had to be equal in quality to those series which have been given from a non-Christian, humanist viewpoint.
Q. Don’t you think that form and content need to match?
A. In good art the vehicle and the message must match. I think this film does that. We have a script plus the visuals that do it. My personal opinion is that we have something really good technically. I think it works.
Q. Your colleague Hans Rookmaaker once said it is impossible to tell the truth and to preach the Gospel on television. Do you expect this series to be televised?
A. So far we have a few commitments. The Dutch network helped with production and has committed time for the telecasts, for instance. We have contacts with some other networks, and there are individual stations which have shown an interest.
As far as telling the truth is concerned, I think television has to lean against telling an untruth. For instance, we shot a riot scene in San Jose two different ways to show how television is open to manipulation. We demonstrate that you can tell two different stories. You ought to be able to lean against manipulation and tell the truth.
Q. Isn’t that the case in every medium?
A. I think so.
Q. Do you expect to get more attention or a more dramatic effect by using television?
A. One problem with my books has been that when I talk about art there have been no illustrations to show it. This new book has over one hundred illustrations. Even so, when I was reading the book galleys I thought, “I wish people who are reading the book could see the film because they could understand even better than with a still photograph at this point.” Both vehicles have their limitations, and we have to live with them and fight against the misuse. The entire unit—the film, the book, and a study guide—makes a much stronger case than any one of them isolated from the others.
Q. Do you see any real potential for a reformation now, or are you just acting as if this could happen and conceding to yourself that it really won’t?
A. I wouldn’t for a moment say that it won’t happen, because God is God. But if you ask me, “Do you see any signs of a reformation?,” then I would say no. I simply don’t see it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t give my whole life to fighting like mad in the hope and prayer that, God willing, we will see it in my day and in my children’s day.
Q. What about the “evangelical boom” that is apparent in many places, with more people reading the Bible, being converted, and meeting together? While it doesn’t seem to affect the life-styles of some, don’t you see encouraging signs in this?
A. This falls into two halves. In the first half there are the experientially oriented. Anyone who knows anything about our ministry at L’Abri knows that I am not against experience, and I’m not just an intellectual machine. However, there is an awful lot of diminishing of content in our generation. I believe that as content is diminished force is diminished—even where there are true conversions.
The other half is that many of these people get little emphasis on the Lordship of Christ in the whole of life. Being a Christian means accepting Christ as Lord as well as Saviour. Whether it is L’Abri or the local church wherever it is, every Christian group on its level ought to be an exhibition of community in the wholeness of life.
Q. What can be done about the lack of content?
A. The answer to the humanist flow is not simply to say, “Accept Christ as your Saviour.” Of course. I don’t minimize the necessity of saying that in its proper place. However, the basic answer is that we have knowledge, propositional knowledge that cannot be generated out of a humanist stream. Humanism as I see it has a mathematical built-in guarantee of failure—and I don’t care whether it’s religious humanism or secular humanism. Mathematically, beginning from a finite person you cannot project an absolute. So all humanism is mathematically projected to fail. There is only one basic issue, and that is whether there is another source of knowledge which can tell us what we can’t find out for ourselves. Historic Christianity believes there is. We believe the Bible and the revelation of God in Christ are united and give us knowledge, not only “religious” knowledge but a key to understanding the universe and history. The Bible gives us absolutes by which to help and by which to judge society.
Q. What do you say to the critics who charge that you are dividing the evangelical community by making the Bible the watershed issue?
A. I think Elijah gave the right answer when Ahab accused him of being the troubler of Israel. The people who are taking a weak view of Scripture are the ones who are troubling evangelicalism today. I say this with gentleness and love toward these people. The people who are making the difficulty are the people who have demoted Scripture from what it has been understood to be in the evangelical world until the fairly recent past.
Paul D. Steeves is assistant professor of history and director of Russian studies at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. He has the Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and specializes in modern Russian history.
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