Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Review: Francis Schaeffer by Colin Duriez

Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008. Jacketed Hardcover, 240 pages. $24.99

(Review copy courtesy of Crossway Books.)

Reviewed by Peter Sanlon, Cambridge University, England. Peter holds degrees in theology from Oxford and Cambridge University. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Augustine's expository preaching. He also blogs at Grace City and Still Deeper.

Purchase: Crossway | WTS | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 1581348576 / 9781581348576

Published: June 30, 2008

Excerpts: Preface and Chapter 1

Colin Duriez has appeared as a commentator on several mainstream documentaries, has authored biographies of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and studied for several months under Francis Schaeffer in Swiss L’Abri before reading English and philosophy at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. He writes books, edits, and lectures.
The thesis of this biography is that the extraordinariness of Francis Schaeffer lay to a great extent in an ordinary virtue – authenticity. It is a compelling portrait. It gives the contours of Schaeffer's life accurately and makes one wonder what it would mean for us to follow the implications of the Bible's teaching so relentlessly.

The central theme of authenticity ensures that this biography is not hagiography. While not dwelt upon, struggles with depression, anger and sharpness of expression are mentioned. The real critic of Schaeffer was himself; upon this much of the narrative turns. Duriez takes time to explore Schaeffer's growing doubt about the reality of his Christian living. In Schaeffer's own words, "I really feel torn to pieces by the lack of reality, the lack of seeing the results the Bible talks about, which should be seen in the Lord's people. I'm not only talking about people I work with – I'm not satisfied with myself" (p. 109).

Schaeffer saw fruit in his ministry, but was troubled by his lack of love and holiness. His poverty stricken upbringing clearly made him sensitive to suffering. His temperament was clearly one directed towards fair play and rectitude. Yet, he increasingly became convinced that it took a supernatural work of God to produce love and holiness simultaneously in a person. Perhaps prompted by a falling out with Karl Barth (pp. 97-101) and disillusionment with tendencies to rely on human methods in ministry, Schaeffer embarked on a personal quest for spiritual reality.

The results of this quest were both dramatic and pedestrian. The former was seen in Schaeffer parting company with fundamentalist separatist ministers; the latter in developing the gift of listening. "One might say that Schaeffer was developing a listening attitude, one of the most important gifts he offered to those who later studied under him" (p. 107). Further, he began to write with more warmth and turned to prayer with real belief. The sheer ordinariness of these changes in Schaeffer, and the self-criticism that prompted them, is a humbling commendation of spiritual authenticity.

This authenticity is developed well by Duriez through the biography. It is presented as one of the linchpins of what became L'Abri – the shelter in the Swiss Alps where Schaeffer talked and shared his home with anybody who sought spiritual reality. Perhaps the authenticity of the venture is best demonstrated by the way it is revealed that the ministry was built upon prayer and sacrifice. One guest commented, "L'Abri was very poor. We prayed for money, there were times when we just didn't have anything. I remember Mr. Schaeffer going through the dead ashes to get out the pieces of coal that might be remaining, so that we could use those again" (p. 141). Prayer was taken to lengths some would view as extreme, but the refusal to advertise for staff or request donations was another facet of authenticity. It was a stand against what Schaeffer had come to perceive as models of ministry which owed more to the spirit of the age than the Holy Spirit for effectiveness. Schaeffer preferred the sacrifice of welcoming any and all who wanted to spend time in his home. "In the first three years all our wedding presents were wiped out. Our sheets were torn. Holes were burned in our rugs. Drugs came in and people vomited in our rooms" (p. 148). Such was the reality of authentic evangelism.

Authenticity became part of the efforts Schaeffer made to convince people to submit all parts of their lives to the reign of Jesus Christ: intellect, social ethics, music, the arts and politics. As one reads of his whirlwind attempts to speak out on a range of social issues (pacifism, abortion, environmentalism, and racism) the challenge of his life becomes painfully clear.

The challenge is this: Francis Schaeffer lived his life as described in this biography simply because he remained convinced of the fundamental principles of Biblical Christianity. He felt depressed about his quality of Christian experience, made sacrifices, risked his family's well being, opened up his home, and spoke out on social issues simply because he realized the Bible demanded it. The uncomfortable question readers of this book are left with is simply, Why would Christians stop far short of the living out of Christian faith that Schaeffer engendered? He wondered the same thing, often seeming all the more compelling for appearing "quietly spoken and sad-faced" (p. 185). In an interview towards the end of his life he said,

It is hard to put this into words, and yet I think it is crucial. I think there are many Christians – I mean, real Christians, real brothers and sisters in Christ, people who I'm really fond of – who believe that certain things in the Christian faith are true, and yet, somehow or other, never relate this to truth… the truth of what is. (p. 207)
A few intriguing comments are made by Schaeffer about why English Christians in particular have been slow to follow through on the implications of Biblical Christianity. The best explanation is perhaps found by reading how one man struggled through to an authentic expression of Christian living and reflecting on the personal pain, sacrifice, repentance and loneliness which, frankly, not many of us care to experience.

The biography finishes with a moving presentation of Schaeffer's response to his impending death. There was a refusal to give in to death, as he endured chemotherapy and painful suffering. His goals were to testify to Christ and to oppose death. This he did by continuing to speak to large audiences, occasionally stretchered between venues or even addressing the hospital staff. Yet there was still that concern for the individual, as he sought to encourage others in their suffering. He insisted that it was right for a Christian to live, and so he continued to enjoy the arts and reading as long as possible. When his daughter spoke with him in a moment of consciousness, she asked him, "Is it true?" His reply, "It is absolutely true, absolutely true" (p. 204), was borne out by his life. Christianity is absolutely true – not for a part of life, not for a part of the world, not for a part of the person. For all of it. The sort of authenticity that flows from such an insight is perhaps best communicated through another Christian's living of it. This biography from Colin Duriez helps those of us who never met Francis Schaeffer to benefit from his painful struggle towards authentic Christianity.

The strength of this biography is its concise threading of a life upon one central theme. There is clearly not only room for, but a need of, a further, more comprehensive, historical study of Schaeffer. One hopes a reader of this volume will be motivated to undertake such a work.