Schaeffer, Franky, and Bachmann

This month there have been three articles published, each of which deals with three persons, one of whom—the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer—was a friend and teacher of mine. The articles in order appeared in The New Yorker (“Leap of Faith” by Ryan Lizza), NPR (“The Books and Beliefs Shaping Michelle Bachmann” by Terry Gross; interview audio too), and First Things (“A Journalism Lesson for the New Yorker” by Joe Carter). All are available online; let me encourage you to read them.

The first two are extraordinarily similar. Each presents its reporting as an expose of the beliefs of Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann and of the ideas and books that shaped those beliefs. Mr. Lizza’s article set the tone of both, proclaiming

“Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared.”

Chief among those leaders who shaped her “extreme” views, at least in Mr. Lizza’s opinion, was Dr. Schaeffer. By any measure Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was one of the most influential evangelical figures of the 20th century. He was a writer (he authored more than 20 books), a Presbyterian minister, and the founder together with his wife Edith of L’Abri Fellowship, a study center high in the Swiss Alps where thousands of members of my generation, including me, found hospitality, sympathy, and answers for our questions.

Only two of Dr. Schaeffer’s books were mentioned in Mr. Lizza’s article: How Should we Then Live? (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981). In the former, according to Mr. Lizza, Schaeffer “condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism.” In the latter he “argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.” It’s unfortunately obvious that Mr. Lizza never read either of the books he cites for neither book says anything like what he suggests.

I grew up in a pietistic background in which art and philosophy were considered worldly activities that needed to have religious trappings added to them to justify their existence. In many of his books, especially How Should We Then Live?, Schaeffer taught me and a generation of believers to see them differently, as deeply valuable human activities that should be understood, appreciated and critiqued in their own right. Did Schaeffer “condemn” the eras that shaped western civilization as Mr Lizza asserts? Read his own words:

“When we approach the Renaissance we must not make either of two mistakes. First, as we have seen, we must not think that everything prior to the Renaissance had been completely dark. This false concept grew from the prejudice of the humanists (of the Renaissance and later Enlightenment) that all good things began with the birth of modern humanism. Rather, the later Middle Ages was a period of slowly developing birth pangs. Second, while the Renaissance was a rich and wonderful period, we must not think that all it produced was good for man.”

Unless damning the Renaissance with faint praise counts as condemnation, then this is hardly extreme.

A Christian Manifesto, in my humble opinion, isn’t Dr. Schaeffer’s best book, but to assert that in it Schaeffer advocates the violent overthrow of the US government is nothing short of absurd, as even a casual reading of the book would have shown. The word “violence” only appears once in the book, in this statement:

“Two principles, however must always be observed. First, there must be a legitimate basis and a legitimate exercise of force. Second, any overreaction crosses the line from force to violence. And unmitigated violence can never be justified.”

I think it fair to say that the first two articles were less interested in what Schaeffer actually said than how what he said might be manipulated for political purposes. Sadly the source of the twists of Dr. Schaeffer’s ideas in these articles is evidently his son, Frank Schaeffer.

Frank, or Franky as he was known when I first met him, is at the same time a sympathetic and shameful figure. Growing up in the chaos of L’Abri during the 60’s was hard for all the Schaeffer kids, but especially hard for Franky. The fame of his father was something he both adored and resented. My Dad wasn’t famous, so I never experienced what Franky did, but I can imagine what it would be like and I don’t envy him his father’s fame. However, Franky’s recent attempts to capitalize on his father’s fame by distancing himself from it – e.g., his book Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back – strike me as the kind of thing I’d expect from a high school sophomore, not a grown man. If you want the history of L’Abri, read Edith Schaeffer’s, The L’Abri Story. If you want to understand Franky better, read his book.

I said in paragraph one of this essay that it was about three persons. Thus far I’ve talked about only two: Francis Schaeffer and his son. What about number three?

The character of Michelle Bachmann as presented in the first two articles I’ve listed is by no means an attractive picture, but it is not meant to be. Unlike Francis Schaeffer and Frank, I have not met Mrs. Bachmann, and if there’s anything I’ve learned by reading the press over the years it’s not to believe everything that’s written about any politician. So I’ve no intention of commenting upon her or her politics here except to say one thing. Towards the end of his life I once asked Dr. Schaeffer, “If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently this time?” His answer surprised me. He said, “I’d like to write about the compassionate use of accumulated wealth.”

Does that mean Schaeffer, if he were alive today, wouldn’t be a Tea Party activist? I can’t say so for certain, to be sure, but I am certain that he would have spoken the truth of the scriptures in love across the political spectrum in a fashion that would have won him more enemies than friends and my continued admiration.

If you are interested in knowing more about Dr. Schaeffer and his work, take a look at How Should we Then Live? I’ve a copy you can borrow.