Francis Schaeffer: Fifty Years after Time

Fifty years ago today, Time magazine published an article on Francis Schaeffer, who with his wife founded “one of the most unusual missions in the Western world.” What made their ministry, nestled in the Swiss Alps, so different? They focused on intellectuals–artists, musicians, students, atheists, Jews, Catholics and Protestants–an eclectic mix of people that in 1960 the church tended to neglect.

Conversions were few. “But,” noted Time, “those who do become Christians are not likely to be superficial ones.” Schaeffer is quoted in the article as saying, “They’re no fools. . . . When they make a decision, they possess the intellectual framework to make it in.”

Eight years after that article, InterVarsity Press first published Francis Schaeffer’s books in North America–The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason. They exploded on the scene at the time and are still in print, still selling steadily today. As Jim Sire wrote in his foreword to the thirtieth anniversary edition of The God Who Is There:

Escape from Reason would have been published first, but its delivery from the British printer was postponed by a strike on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The God Who Is There was being printed in the United States, the result being that both books were released in the fall of 1968, just a few days before Schaeffer gave [a series of] lectures at Wheaton College.

Perhaps no other author set the tone for what IVP would become more than Schaeffer. While IVP was already attuned to the intellectual world of the university, the success of Schaeffer’s books (and many from other authors that followed) fixed in readers’ minds the image of a publishing house that took ideas seriously, that wasn’t intimidated by worldviews that might be encountered in the university, that understood that culture was to be engaged and redeemed rather than treated as an enemy to be defeated.

The influence of Schaeffer on an entire generation helped create the world of vigorous Christian scholarship we see today. As Linda Doll and I wrote in Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength., one of the main reasons IVP was able to undertake a serious academic publishing program in the early 1990s was the existence of a newly emerging author pool.

Many of these potential authors had been inspired as students by the books of Francis Schaeffer in the seventies (many of them published by IVP), which communicated that intellectual pursuits by Christians were a valid, viable and important enterprise to undertake. “Schaeffer was instrumental in popularizing and legitimizing the life of the mind for many
twentieth-century evangelicals” [Krapohl and Lippy, 1999, p. 298]. Thus IVP could now benefit from the effects that IVP books had had on a generation of readers who had seriously engaged the academic world, pursued higher education, received Ph.D.s, taken positions at universities and seminaries, and were now ready to start writing significant works.

Some of Schaeffer’s scholarship and viewpoints have been critiqued over the years. Many of his early disciples have moved on to other perspectives. But the courage he showed in taking the life of the mind seriously, in making it as much a part of Christian discipleship as prayer or service to the poor, has left a heritage that we can be grateful lives on vigorously in 2010.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Francis Schaeffer: Fifty Years after Time”

  1. Good stuff, Andy. How did that 1990s newly emerging author pool correlate with the publication of, and events described in, Mark Noll’s book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind? I thought this article in the Gordon College alumni magazine this month was interesting in that regard:

    I had lunch with my friend (and IVP author) Ben Lowe last week; we discussed his time at the recent Urbana conference, with its call to missions and activism, and what he perceives as “his generation’s” great need to reach out to address the great problems of his time: modern-day slavery, environmental damage, forced prostitution, etc. I know he is working on a book proposal with chapters by “under-30s” on each of several major issues such as these. I appreciate the drive to activism, which may have been a weakness of evangelicalism in the last few decades (at least the kind of social activism he means–certainly missions and evangelism have been emphasized).

    But as I expressed to Ben, a drive to activism without an underlying and informed theology and ethics leads to great effort expended, thrashing about with little direction. Certainly this is obvious in the environmental stewardship realm in which he and I are part-time experts. Sometimes I think the hearts of young people are soft and giving, but their heads are not prepared for the difficult prioritization and decision-making required for effective action: “Ready, Fire, Aim.” The recent collision in Antarctica involving aggressive anti-whaling groups ( ) to me is a good example of enormous resources, tender hearts–and poor priorities. There are so many “causes” calling people to action! The stark volume demands an ability to discriminate, as Phyllis McGinley put it so well in her poem:

    As only one example, Ben himself is part of a great “stop climate change” initiative, and would say that global warming is an enormous environmental crisis. In the long run I agree, but in the short run at least two other much more pressing, dangerous environmental issues are killing people: 1) impure drinking water and 2) poor indoor air quality, primarily cooking fire smoke inhaled by women and children. It is interesting to note that the massive decrease in the burning of fossil fuels suggested as part of the solution for climate change runs directly counter to the most immediate solution to the indoor air quality problem, which would most improve (and save lives) through the greatly INCREASED use of fossil-fuel cooking stoves. Using natural-gas or propane stoves instead of cooking fires would increase fossil fuel carbon dioxide output (vs. the burning of regenerative wood), but would save thousands (millions?) of lives due to decreased indoor-air pollution. Nuance is needed to determine what action to take.

    It would be interesting to hear what Schaeffer would have to say these days about “this generation” (an artificial definition I dislike–pace, Ben) and the drive to activism, along with Noll’s cri de coeur about the need for theoretical analysis to season our social engagement.

  2. Vince

    Mark has said that he’s changed his mind a bit–or has become a bit more encouraged about what he’s seen regarding evangelical engagement with the world of ideas and thought since Scandal was first published in 1995. And I think Schaeffer’s influence had a role in that.

    You are right that activism without a strong internal life and theological grounding is a recipe for burnout. The solution is not, however, to throw out activism. Urbana fills that role of reminding the church of its mission. It was also well grounded in John 1–4. There was plenary exposition on it everyday for all 16,000 in attendance, and students were in John 1–4 in their quiet times everyday, and they studied it everyday in groups. So I think Urbana was well grounded biblically.

    Again you are right that priorities are always a question. Wilberforce had a bit of a scattershot approach to causes–driving some of his anti-slavery allies to distraction. Was he right or not? That’s always up for debate.

    Schaeffer, of course, wrote a book on the environment–Pollution and the Death of Man. So that might give you some insight on that question.

  3. I think it’s better to be moving that not moving on questions of activism, and I have no doubt that Urbana and other similar training grounds offer Biblical bases for activism. But my impression of Urbana-type motivating sessions is that they are singularly weak at helping people prioritize which issues should be addressed first; in fact, each speaker seems to elevate his/her own cause to highest priority. Perhaps this is inevitable when they feel so passionately about the cause in which they are immersed. But the scattershot approach is at least inefficient, if not actually detrimental. (Of course, few would say the Holy Spirit’s urgings are best described as “efficient”!)

    Places like Wheaton College, where “faith” and “learning” are emphasized so much, tend to under-emphasize the third point of the triangle: “life” or engagement–putting that knowledge and belief to work. So we see that lack of official expression refusing to be bottled up and emerging in lots and lots of grass-roots student initiatives, a la the causes of the McGinty poem above, and everybody’s always raising funds for something or other.

    Thoughtful faculty, staff and administrators here at Wheaton and elsewhere are trying to figure out how to yoke the three together more deliberately, linking internships and classwork and activist clubs in ways that provide credit for activism while also informing and prioritizing such activistic tendencies. These efforts are still in the fledgling stages (and perhaps the cynic would say such a cycle is both historical and inevitable for such institutions), but we are now trying to leave the woods where Thoreau said he went to learn to live life “deliberately” and are attempting more deliberately to engage the world with the academic force and spiritual rigor that institutions like Wheaton can employ. (Maybe a book is in there somewhere? a couple of faculty members have approached me about working on a draft with them…)

    Re. Schaeffer and environment: I read Pollution and the Death of Man for my M.A. thesis (“A Christian Environmental Stewardship Ethic Based on the “Image of God” in the Doctrine of Creation”). I still think he more eloquently and briefly summarized on p. 90 in a nutshell in 1970 what so many subsequent books and articles have tried to say using much more paper and ink:

    “So man has dominion over nature, but he uses it wrongly. The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having value in itself, exercising dominion without being destructive. The Church should always have taught and done this, but she has generally failed to do so, and we need to confess our failure.”

  4. Vince

    I guess I respectfully disagree with you, my friend. Do you think every single Christian should have the exact same calling because that is the one priority we are all called to? Well, in a sense, yes, as we are all called to bear witness to the kingdom. But no in that God made us all different, with different gifts, talents, motivations, backgrounds and settings in which we find ourselves–some to follow callings in the arts, some in business, some in church planting, some in environmental stewardship, some in evangelism, some in engineering, etc. Urbana offers a variety of possible ways God might call individuals and gives them an opportunity to hear and discern what he is saying to them in the context of community. I’ve got no problem with that.

    Yes, I knew you knew the book. Just reminding the thousands of AndyUnedited readers about it! 😉

  5. Andy,

    I think you miss my point a bit; no doubt in theorizing my concerns I was not quite clear. I’m calling neither for a damper on activism nor for a monolithic approach to it. I’m simply saying we seem to be missing thoughtful rationale for some activist efforts of late, and Schaeffer himself would not likely approve.

    No question we all are called both to bear witness to the kingdom as stewards and image-bearers and reconcilers, and also to express our unique packages of gifts in different areas of service. And maybe I’m mis-reading the pleas from Urbana to different areas of service as more conflicting and tug-of-warring for time and resources than they really are. But I do see “this generation” as being more ready to wear a ribbon in support of something–anything–and act vaguely toward something before they have thought out priorities, theological underpinnings, and need. I’m not talking about the glorious diversity of giftings and expressions of grace in the Christian community; I’m talking about a whipsaw rush to the latest fad in social activism. “They” can seem equally ready to join a walkathon for (against?) breast cancer as to join a Facebook group to keep a show on MTV, or to join a one-week missions trip to Anyplace as to campaign against the use of water bottles on a campus or “for” a celebrity enterprise like Bono’s “One” campaign–whatever that is really about; each perhaps as much out of nostalgia or momentary emotion as out of a considered assessment of what it takes to commit, and to what causes one is called to commit, and whether those causes are even worthy of commitment.

    I think Schaeffer would admire their passion (as I do), while seeking to encourage them to channel it through more careful contemplation of priority needs, personal and community giftings, and time-tested theological ideas. I’m so glad to hear Urbana ’09 attempted to do so in “community,” and hope that what seems to me to be the necessarily brief, temporary and shallow nature of that five-day community life will not be reflected in the degree of participants’ commitment to their activism-du-jour.

    Upon further reflection, I guess what I’m most worried about is that these students may even be choosing their commitments to a large degree like they shape their identities–to be something OTHER than the previous generation has been. I hear students talking about how THEY care about human trafficking, or sexual bondage, or environmental stewardship, and want to start an organization to address these issues, with what seems to be a degree of disgust and aspersions cast on prior generations and “their” organizations for not having done anything about these issues–as if they and they only have thought of addressing these things de novo. Likewise they can seem to tend to avoid issues their parents and grandparents thought essential–bible translation, for instance, or medical missions perhaps.

    There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, with each generation addressing the specific cultural concerns as they intersect with Christ’s lordship in their time. Schaeffer would love that. But what he would find tragic would be if the generational choices are not being made out of the balance of need, but out of a simple desire to make a generational mark–to be different from those who went before, not because priorities have changed or issues are newly arising, but simply to avoid joining with the efforts of the previous generations–a psychological/spiritual identity crisis. Do we really need so many proposed new groups, non-profits and service organizations to address the “new” problems? Is this outgrowth of new activism unable to link well with the old organizations, or are the old organizations too unresponsive to shift priorities to accommodate the new generation and new issues?

    Perhaps I’m very wrong on this, Andy; I should be glad if that is the case.

  6. Vince

    First, thanks for your clarification. I think we are very close. Second, what a pleasure to dialogue with someone who is careful, rational, thoughtful . You are a model all should emulate.

    So, mindless or shoot-from-the hip activism? Never. But activism vs. nothing at all? Well, that’s a close call. But I suspect you aren’t calling for that dichotomy either. But as we used to say in InterVarsity (that older generation, anyway) when it came to guidance, God can’t steer a ship that’s not moving. Certainly thoughtful activism is what we both want. And I know you made a similar point in a previous comment.

    As to a generation wanting to make it’s mark–well, I think each generation is probably guilty of that. Hey, I’m a child of the 60s. I know what that’s all about. As Dave Barry called it (to paraphrase), “A decade in which we all got high and discovered some profound truths which later proved to be stupid!” So as to mark making, wanting to be different from the previous generation–it’s inevitable. Should we try to guide and help. Certainly. But to some extent everyone has to make their own mistakes. We have to give freedom to fail.

    I really believe in the value of history. More than many. Unfortunately, as Steve Turner says, “History repeats itself. Has to. No one listens.” So we do our best to guide and mentor. But there are limits those of us who are wiser and older have to recognize–from our vast experience, of course!

    Re Urbana, hey, you are absolutely right. It’s only a five-day event. It can’t do everything. It doesn’t intend to do everything. It’s got one particular gift it wants to offer to the church. It’s not saying this is the only gift the church needs or all the church needs to do. But it is one. What it does, however, within the context of all those limits, is pretty good, I think. It is nuanced, rooted and high quality. But the gift is to remind the church (and each new generation) of its call to missions. Again, that’s not all the church is or should be doing. But it’s important. Other conferences, institutions, people, movements and books can and do help round out the rest. Can Urbana be improved? Certainly. But I think it would be a mistake to move it in a direction that might broaden it too much.

    But here, let me challenge you about something you said about Wheaton trying to merge these two things–thoughtfulness and activism. Is that really what any academic institution is called to? I mean, isn’t it’s very purpose to withdraw and reflect. Isn’t that the benefit it gives to society. I would say International Justice Mission, for example, seeks to combine thoughtfulness and activism too–and does so very well.

    Should a college be totally theoretical and reflective. Of course not. But if a college pushes too hard on the activism side, doesn’t it risk muting the unique value it offers society–and its students? Might it mute the gift it has to give?

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