He was a small manbarely five feet in his knickers, knee socks, and ballooning white shirts. For two weeks, first as a freshman and then again as a senior, I sat in my assigned seat at Wheaton College's chapel and heard him cry. He was the evangelical conscience at the end of the 20th century, weeping over a world that most of his peers dismissed as not worth saving, except to rescue a few souls in the doomed planet's waning hours. While Hal Lindsey was disseminating an exit strategy in The Late Great Planet Earth, Francis Schaeffer was trying to understand and care for people still trapped on the planet in The God Who Is There.
Francis Schaeffer was hard to listen to. His voice grated. It was a high-pitched scream that, when mixed with his eastern Pennsylvania accent, sounded something like Elmer Fudd on speed. As freshmen, unfamiliar with the thought and works of modern man, we thought it was funny. As seniors, it wasn't funny any more. After we had studied Kant, Hegel, Sartre, and Camus, the voice sounded more like an existential shriek. If Edvard Munch's The Scream had a voice, it would have sounded like Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, who died in 1984, understood the existential cry of humanity trapped in a prison of its own making. He was the closest thing to a "man of sorrows" I have seen.
I grew up with a Christianity that was predisposed against sorrow. To be sad was to deny your faith or your salvation. Jesus had made us happy, and we had an obligation to always show that happiness. Then Francis Schaeffer came along. He could not allow himself to be happy when most of the world was desperately lost and he knew why. He was the first Christian I found who could embrace faith and the despair of a lost humanity at the same time. Though he had been found, he still knew what it was to be lost.
How different from the perception of conservative Christians held by so many people today! Today, the Religious Right is caricatured in society as a theocratic movement with no concern for the poor and downtrodden. Of course, such an ugly stereotype, presented as fact in a spate of pre-election books ranging from American Theocracy to Thy Kingdom Come, overlooks crisis pregnancy centers, humanitarian work, and generous giving to causes sacred and secular by members of the Christian Right.
However, like most stereotypes, this one of politically engaged conservative Christians contains a painful element of truth. Too often we confuse our agendas with God's agenda and demonize our opponents in a desperate attempt to score political points. What's ironic is that many of today's culture warriors look to Schaeffer as the man who fired the first shot.
Yes, in two of Schaeffer's later works, How Should We Then Live? (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981), he took a strong stand against abortion and euthanasia and even called for serious measures, including political intervention, to stop what he saw as impending cultural suicide. But to conclude that this invocation to war was Schaeffer's crowning achievement is to truncate the man and his work.
Though his last words may have resounded like a battle cry to the next generation of Christians locked in a culture war, everything leading up to them said something else. Schaeffer's work is ultimately not a call to arms, but a call to care. Those who have taken up arms and claimed him as their champion have gotten only part of his message.
Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place. Those who go back only as far as A Christian Manifestowithout also understanding Escape from Reason (1968), The God Who Is There (1968), and Death in the City (1970)are doing Schaeffer's life and work a great disservice. The later Schaeffer cannot be divorced from the former.
Weeping over the World
Schaeffer was the first Christian leader who taught me to weep over the world instead of judging it. Schaeffer modeled a caring and thoughtful engagement with the history of philosophy and its influence through movies, novels, plays, music, and art. Schaeffer was teaching at Wheaton College about the existential dilemma expressed in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, Blowup, when movies were still forbidden to students. He didn't bat an eye. He ignored our legalism and went on teaching, because he had been personally gripped by the desperation of such cultural statements.
Death in the City is the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament applied to America. It is all about weeping over the death of a culture. Schaeffer saw the most brilliant thinkers and artists of his day as trapped under what he called a line of despairin a lower-story hopelessness without any access to upper-story revelation. Schaeffer taught his followers not to sneer at or dismiss the dissonance in modern art. He showed how these artists were merely expressing the outcome of the presuppositions of the modern era that did away with God and put all conclusions on a strictly human, rational level. Instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep for the lost person who created it. Schaeffer was a rare Christian leader who advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them.
Francis Schaeffer was not afraid to ask why, and he did not rest until he had an answer. Why are our most brilliant thinkers in despair? Why is our art so dark? Why have abortion and euthanasia become so easy on the conscience of a generation? What process of thinking has led to this ultimate denial of the value of human life? Though some may disagree with his answers, no one can gainsay the passion with which he sought them.
The normal human reaction is to hate what we don't understand. This is the stuff of prejudice and the cause of hate crimes and escalating social evil. It is much more Christ-like to identify with those we don't understandto discover why people do what they do, because we care about them, even if they are our ideological enemies.
Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Part of loving is learning to understand. Too few Christians today seek to understand why their enemies think in ways that we find abhorrent. Too many of us are too busy bashing feminists, secular humanists, gay activists, and political liberals to consider why they believe what they do. It's difficult to sympathize with people we see as threats to our children and our neighborhoods. It's hard to weep over those whom we have declared enemies.
Perhaps a good beginning would be to more fully grasp the depravity of our own souls and the depth to which God's grace had to go to reach us. I doubt we can cry over the world if we've never cried over ourselves.
To be sure, Francis Schaeffer's influence has declined in recent years, as postmodernism has supplanted the modernity he dissected for so long. Schaeffer is not without his critics, even among Christians. But perhaps, in the end, his greatest influence on the church will not be his words as much as his tears. The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day should make us cry in ours.
Singer-songwriter John Fischer has recorded 12 albums and is the author of 15 books.
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In 1955, Schaeffer founded L'Abri fellowship, "where individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life."
Other Christianity Today articles on Schaeffer's influence include:
The Book Report: Things We Ought to Know | Charles Colson's apologeticand call to actionis in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer. (January 10, 2000)
The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer (Parts 1 and 2) | Thirteen years after his death, Schaeffer's vision and frustrations continue to haunt evangelicalism. (March 1997)
Inside CT: Midwives of Francis Schaeffer | March 3, 1997
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