Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Francis Schaeffer: Fundamentalistic Evangelical

Now that I am on break, I have been plowing through my pile of books. Today, I finished Barry Hankins's Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. This is a very good intellectual biography of a leading twentieth-century evangelical.

Hankins shows that after his conversion to Christianity, Shaeffer quickly bonded with outspoken fundamentalists like Carl McIntire. Along with many other fundamentalists, Shaeffer urged conservative Christians to separate from the world, and even from other believers (if necessary) who did not hold the same values. But Shaeffer's views changed when he moved with his family to Switzerland and started L'Abri. There he and his family welcomed 60s hippies, regardless of their sexual orientation, abuse of drugs, and religious views. Schaeffer would give informal talks in the evenings in which he fielded questions from the group about issues pertaining to the current culture. Eventually, these lectures were taped and disseminated throughout America and the world. Schaeffer's willingness to tackle an impressive array of cultural topics led to his popularity in America, where he was invited to give lectures at various colleges, including Harvard, Wheaton, and Calvin. Hankins argues that when Schaeffer returned to America from L'Abri in order to lecture more frequently, he regressed to his fundamentalist side by insisting that Christians hold to a no-nonsense definition of inerrancy and joining Jerry Falwell in promoting the politics of the Religious Right.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the last chapter in which Hankins described the intense correspondence between Schaeffer and his son Franky, on the one end, and Mark Noll and George Marsden, on the other. Noll's tempered replies to Schaeffer's letters did not surprise me, but I was taken back by some of the quotations from Marsden (a few which were hilarious), who implemented sarcasm quite effectively and made it clear that he was unwilling to back down from his criticism of certain aspects of Schaeffer's scholarship.

I found Franky Schaeffer to be a very interesting character as he became a more frequent fixture in the latter part of the book. Hankins gives the impression that young Franky grew up undisciplined and unsupervised at L'Abri and was crucial in convincing his father to fight in America's cultural wars. The irony is that Franky eventually denounced much of his religious upbringing and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. Someone should write a critical biography of him.

Along with his new book, Jesus and Gin, Hankins has established himself as a premier historian of twentieth-century religious history. I look forward to reading his next book.


don bryant said...

I became very aware of Francis Schaeffer when I was a freshman in college and embarking on studies in philosophy. He was of immense help. I often passed on his books to my profs. Schaeffer's turn to the fundamentalism of Falwell, etc., was a stunner for me. I remember watching the first of his films, How Should We Then Live? I watched the first one and was pretty much done. I grew up with the fundamentalist mindset and can smell it a long way off. Schaeffer had been a part of my way out. Now he was leading the way back in. And now this is what I mostly remember about him. He did not have enough strength to keep those cords cut.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Your diagnosis of Schaeffer is very interesting Don. Hankins argues that much of Schaeffer's return to fundamentalism (especially the more visible aspects like his films and politics) were due to his son Franky's influence.