Writing about Francis Schaeffer (and Reinhold Niebuhr)

By Mark Edwards

SPOILER ALERT: This is an old, old story: Impressionable Fundie falls head over heels for Francis Schaeffer’s books, Fundie confronts secular culture and academia armed with Schaeffer’s apologetic
arsenal, Fundie becomes frustrated by how quickly Schaeffer’s arguments shut down learning.  For me, my love affair with the “line of despair” began in 1991.  Schaeffer’s engagement with big philosophical and historical ideas suggested that it was right as well as safe for me to do the same.  But, like so many others, I soon learned that Schaeffer’s methods and reasoning were not those of the disciplines I was most found of.  My turn against Schaeffer came when I read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1995).  As part self-discovery, part act of revenge, I wrote my honor's thesis on Schaeffer.  I set out to write a critical intellectual biography, in which the shortcomings of Schaeffer’s thought (as I saw them) would stem from his upbringing (the same as my own).  At the time, I had as my guides a few edited collections of essays by disillusioned Schaefferites like myself, several hagiographies, Edith Schaeffer’s autobiography of her family,  Michael Hamilton’s essential essay from Christianity Today, and a wonderful 1994 dissertation from FSU graduate Daymon Johnson on the Reformed influence in the Religious Right.  My central argument plagiarized Noll’s: Schaeffer’s oppositional stance toward culture, formed during his separatist fundamentalist days, prevented him from real living of the life of the mind.  D. G. Hart was kind enough to publish an abridged version of my thesis in the Westminster Theological Journal.
What surprises me is how little critical work has been done on Schaeffer since my own feeble effort to fell the man that his publishers dubbed the most important Christian thinker of the twentieth century.  If Billy Graham was postfundamentalism’s statesman, certainly Schaeffer was its shaman—so why all the scholarly hush-hush? 

Of course, the hagiographies have kept coming, including Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway, 2008).  D. G. Hart was among the earliest to begin integrating Schaeffer into the narrative of the new evangelicalism, notably in That Old-Time Religion in Modern America (Ivan R. Dee, 2003)—the insights in Chapter 7 are still not to be missed.  And Schaeffer’s life and thought have been submitted to excellent comparative scrutiny by Scott Burson and Jerry Walls in their book, C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time (IVP, 1998): TEASER—Lewis wins.

And Schaeffer does have an exceptional critical biography now: Barry Hankins’s Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, 2008).  As Hankins summarizes:

Schaeffer’s primary significance is not in a lasting critique of western thought, nor in a reasoned apologetic that would necessarily be persuasive today.  His arguments have not stood the test of time in terms of their historical veracity or philosophical soundness.  He was not the scholar, philosopher, or great theologian that his publishers liked to claim on his book jacket.  Rather, Schaeffer is significant primarily because when he came back to the United States in the mid-1960s, most American evangelicals were still in the throes of fundamentalist separatism, in which Christian public identity manifested itself primarily in an attempt to shun the secular world.  Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes toward culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement.  At the same time, as his later years indicate, he was a culturally engaged evangelical whose fundamentalist defense of the faith blurred the bright-line distinction many would like to make between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.  What remains of Schaeffer’s influence is less the content of what he wrote than his model of Christian worldview development, compassion for the lost, hospitality, cultural engagement, and militant defense of the faith against the onslaught of theological liberalism and secular humanism (p. xv).

The questions remain as to where Hankins’s Schaeffer fits in to the postwar evangelical movement and as to what Schaeffer’s presence might tell us about that movement.

Enter Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (Oxford, 2013), where Schaeffer occupies a prominent if pernicious place within evangelicalism.  Worthen’s characterization of Schaeffer as a “brilliant demagogue (p. 212) and “conservative culture warrior” (p. 213) is harsh but compelling—especially for the many of us who remain mystified at how Schaeffer allowed himself to be packaged and sold as an intellectual giant instead of the compassionate apologetic evangelist that he was.  Here’s how Worthen summarizes Schaeffer’s impact:

Schaeffer wanted evangelical Americans to become soldiers of history rather than careful students.  He was one of a wave of gurus who, like generations of prophets and big personalities before them, offered evangelicals an alternative authority, a rubric of certainty at a time when the consensus on the Bible’s status in American culture was shakier than ever.  While he inspired some young evangelicals to get to the bottom of the stories he told by pursuing graduate degrees in history and philosophy, on a large scale Schaeffer’s ministry was a grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism.  He deployed the trappings of academic investigation—litanies of historical names and dates; an accommodating version of Enlightenment reasoning—to quash inquiry rather than encourage it, to mobilize his audiences rather than provoke them to ask questions.  To Schaeffer and his admirers, there was no dishonesty in this, but only due respect for divine authority.  The gospels do not offer a “neutral” historical account.  What is the purpose of history if not to disclose God’s intentions and displeasure?

Schaeffer’s ministry revealed what the neo-evangelical campaign to build an intellectual movement around inerrancy and the “Christian worldview” had become: an adaptable ideology vague enough to welcome believers of every theological persuasion, a substrate in which political energy could flourish—and a strategy for using the authority of history to name conservative evangelicals as trustees of Christendom (pp. 218-19).    

ASIDE: What’s interesting to me is how much the debate over Schaeffer’s status relative to the life of the mind reflects the age-old argument between the “specialist” and the “generalist.”  While working on my
honors thesis, my adviser asked me, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”  I had heard of his brother.  In grad school, when I started reading Reinhold, I saw Schaeffer on almost every page.  Not his arguments per se, but his grand sweeping style.  David Hollinger has recently invoked the specialist disdain of the generalist in regards to Niebuhr.  In his Epilogue to After Cloven Tongues of Fire (Princeton, 2013), Hollinger notes how little respect Niebuhr garnered from those with advanced training in the fields Niebuhr wrote most often about—he names Hannah Arendt and John Rawls in particular.  This was roughly the same feeling I had when, as an undergrad, I wondered why my philosophy professor had never read Schaeffer.  Even as thoughtful and devoted of a Niebuhr scholar as Andrew Bacevich has recently noted in Commonweal:

To the statesman beset with problems, Niebuhr may offer warnings, but he provides little by way of actionable guidance.  At best, Niebuhr’s counsel serves as the equivalent of a flashing yellow traffic light at a busy intersection.  Go, says the light, but proceed very, very carefully.  As the really crucial judgments—Go when?  How fast?  How far?  In which direction?—well, you’re on your own.

To sum up: Schaeffer says “go ye forth,” while Niebuhr says “hold on there” (and Schaeffer is the conservative in this story??).  My point is not that Schaeffer and Niebuhr were equivalent students of theology, history, philosophy, politics, and so on.  It is rather that they served similar functions for their respective communities of interpretation.  As generalists, they simultaneously opened up and closed down thought—and thus each made and make the specialists among us cringe.  In fact, it’s amazing how much of Worthen’s assessment of Schaeffer might also apply to Niebuhr.  Calling Niebuhr’s body of work a “grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism” would be going too far.  Still, the anti-secularist anti-modernism evident in Niebuhr’s late-1940s and 1950s writings were not intended to promote dialogue with the foes of “Christian civilization.”  Niebuhr broadened and softened in his last years –unless your last name was Graham or Nixon—while Schaeffer hardened and narrowed.  Nevertheless, their generalist cultural criticism left abundant material for us ivory-tower-types to talk about for some time.

So, am I wrong to think that scholars of American religion should be talking more about Schaeffer?  I know that, before Hurricane Sandy cancelled the event, the 2012 US Intellectual History conference had an entire panel dedicated to him.  So, what is the state of Francis Schaeffer studies today?  Or, have we gone as far as we can with Hankins and Worthen, at least until Schaeffer’s friends and family become willing to open up the reportedly vast amount of his unpublished materials (for example, even though Schaeffer burned most of his pre-1955 correspondence, his collaborator Lane Dennis has spoken of a collection of over 19,000 letters Schaeffer wrote to others).  Finally, does Schaeffer merit a “Worlds of Francis Schaeffer” conference like the excellent one just completed for Billy Graham?  All I can say is, if I had to write my thesis all over again, I would have been a lot nicer (and not named C. Everett Koop “Attorney General”).    


David Stowe said…
Great piece, Mark, and a really provocative analogy. I hadn't known about Niebuhr's second-class standing among the leaders in his fields.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, David. The critique, or rather neglect, of Niebuhr by many specialists comes from Hollinger's Epilogue--that's the really thoughtful and provocative piece!
Jonathan said…
Mark, I'll second the assertion that Schaeffer's place is worth thinking about. For those who want to follow his influence, the threads are all over the place. Schaeffer was a large influence on Os Guinness, who is still writing. And, when Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey set out to give some cultural critique, they ended up riffing on Schaeffer's _How Then Shall We Live?_

However, is it worth making the distinction between the L'Abri Schaeffer of the apologetic works and the later (maybe Franky-Schaeffer-reworked) Schaeffer as culture warrior? Are there at least 2 Schaeffers to consider?
Mark T. Edwards said…
Jonathan: Great point about the 2 Schaeffers," or at least early and later Schaeffer. I think, when I wrote on Schaeffer, I thought he was more co-opted or used by the culture warriors (Religious Right, Reagan). However, I think Worthen would locate Schaeffer's culture warriorship IN his apologetics, especially that us-versus-them "line of despair." At least, I think there's more critical biographical work left to be done here, especially if we can get access to unpublished works.
Brent Plate said…
Thanks for this, Mark. I have a past history with Schaeffer as well that I learned to cover up as I got deeper into academia. And that has been part of the neglect of him--we had to cover it up. I have really appreciated Frank Schaeffer's recent works (esp. "Crazy for God") in giving an alternative bio, and history of evangelicalism from the inside out.
And, I'd definitely attend a conference on the topic!
Jonathan said…
Mark, I think we've got consensus that Schaeffer *is* worth further study and consideration. I also have no doubt Barry Hankins would agree. So, this seems like a Conference just waiting to be held.
Mark T. Edwards said…
For starters, we need to get that Francis Schaeffer panel from the 2012 USIH conference reassembled for the 2014 conference in Indi. in October!
Tim Lacy said…

Like you and other commentators here, I agree that historians need to study Schaeffer (more) and S-USIHers need to reassemble the Schaeffer panel for this year's conference.

But I also agree with you on the complication posed in your final paragraph. We won't KNOW The Real Francis Schaeffer until those letters and other archival materials open up. Until we can understand his religious, cultural, and intellectual motivations for his work, we'll have to settle for counter-narratives on his histories. - TL
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Tim.

Just one more confirmation of Schaeffer's impact: Christianity Today readers listed Schaeffer ABOVE John Calvin in a 1984 poll regarding most influential Christian thinkers. Of course, that might say more about where CT was at in 1984 than it does about Schaeffer's long-term historical significance.
Tim Lacy said…
Wow, 1984 was a bad year: Schaeffer's popularity, on top of crack cocaine being introduced and the births of LeBron James, Katy Perry, Lindsay Vonn, Dwayne Bowe, Avril Lavigne, Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Zuckerberg. :) - TL
Tom Van Dyke said…
Wonderful stuff, Mark. Schaeffer is one of those whose emanations and penumbras are of far more interest than his actual content, which indeed doesn't hold up very well under any but the most charitable of fiskings.

Who the "real" Schaeffer was is of academic or religious interest but of historical significance is the shadow he cast.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Tom.

I'm sure Steven P. Miller will also have something to say about Schaeffer's "shadow" in his forthcoming book, THE AGE OF EVANGELICALISM: AMERICA'S BORN AGAIN YEARS (Oxford, April).