Why Francis Schaeffer still matters

A few years ago I wrote an article in Christianity Today about the late Francis Schaeffer. Today’s Catch is edited from that article because I believe the sensitivity he modeled is much needed today in this mean-spirited, take-sides culture that only stands to get worse in America as a Presidential election approaches. True followers of Christ need to avoid joining in the bashing, and here is a good reason why.

He was a small man — barely five feet in his knickers, knee socks, and ballooning white shirts. For two weeks, first as a freshman, and then again as a senior, I sat in my assigned seat at Wheaton College chapel and heard him cry. He was the evangelical conscience at the end of the 20th century, weeping over a world that most of his peers dismissed as not worth saving, except to rescue a few souls in the doomed planet’s waning hours.

Francis Schaeffer was hard to listen to. His voice grated. It was a high-pitched scream, and when mixed with his eastern Pennsylvania accent, resulted in something like Elmer Fudd on speed. As freshmen, unfamiliar with the thought and works of modern man, we thought it was funny. As seniors, it wasn’t funny any more. After we had studied Kant, Hegel, Sartre, and Camus, the voice was now more like an existential shriek. If Edvard Munch’s The Scream had a voice, it would sound like Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, who died in 1984, understood the existential cry of a humanity trapped in a prison of its own making.

Schaeffer was the closest thing to a “man of sorrows” I have seen. He could not allow himself to be happy when most of the world was desperately lost and he knew why. He was the first Christian I found who could embrace faith and the despair of a lost humanity all at the same time. Though he had been found, he still knew what it was to be lost.

Schaeffer was the first Christian leader who taught me to weep over the world instead of judging it. Schaeffer modeled a caring and thoughtful engagement in the history of philosophy and its influence through movies, novels, plays, music, and art. Here was Schaeffer, teaching at Wheaton College about the existential dilemma expressed in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blowup, when movies were still forbidden to students. He didn’t bat an eye. He ignored our legalism and went on teaching because he had been personally gripped by the desperation of such cultural statements.

Schaeffer taught his followers not to sneer at or dismiss the dissonance in modern art. He showed how these artists were merely expressing the outcome of the presuppositions of the modern era that did away with God and put all conclusions on a strictly human, rational level. Instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep for the lost person who created it. Schaeffer was a rare Christian leader who advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them.

The normal human reaction is to hate what we don’t understand. This is the stuff of prejudice and the cause of hate crimes and escalating culture wars. It is much more Christ-like to identify with those we don’t understand — to discover why people do what they do, because we care about them, even if they are our ideological enemies.

Anyway, Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Part of loving is learning to understand. Too few Christians today seek to understand why their enemies think in ways they find abhorrent. Too many of us are too busy bashing feminists, secular humanists, gay activists, and political liberals to consider why they believe what they do. It’s difficult to sympathize with people you see as threats to your children and your neighborhood. It’s hard to weep over those whom you have declared as your enemies.

Perhaps a good beginning would be to more fully grasp the depravity of our own souls, and the depth to which God’s grace had to go to reach us. I don’t think you can cry over the world if you’ve never cried over yourself.

To be sure, Francis Schaeffer’s influence has declined in recent years, as postmodernism has supplanted the modernity he dissected for so long. Schaeffer is not without critics, even among Christians. But perhaps, in the end, his greatest influence on the church will not be his words as much as his cry. The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day need to make us cry in ours.

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50 Responses to Why Francis Schaeffer still matters

  1. Nick Thummel says:

    excellent blog post from brianzahnd.com about “rules” for christians during this election season …… LOVE

    • jwfisch says:

      This is excellent. Every Christian in America should read this. Thank you so much for making us aware of it.

  2. Mark S. says:

    i’ll like to add an Amen to and 2nd what Nick wrote, plus what I need to do sooooooooo much better is love them that do not love me – even love them better that do love me – i NEED the Holy Spirits help and thx Pastor John for today’s Catch to remind me!

  3. Gary says:

    For a number of years I’ve read your call for Christian civility toward their ENEMIES. If I as christian have purposely made anyone my enemy, for what ever reason, I should be taken out and hung upside down from my cross. For me enemy is the label put upon me for the purpose of justifing the attacks on the values and charater traits I hope for from the Word of God. Love the ones who make you their enemy. Making someone your enemy is not loving them. Retribution would not be required from you if you stand Lovingly on the Word of God

  4. Thanks, John. I had someone else that I respect recommend Schaeffer to me this week, so I plan on reading him.

    The assumption here, as with all “weeping prophets,” is that we have never walked in the shoes of those we are critical of. Some of us have. CS Lewis walked in the shoes of the atheist, and therefore has every right to criticize atheists, if he likes. Paul walked in the shoes of the Pharisee, and therefore had every right to be critical of that sect. I was something – albeit worthless – before I came to Christ, for which I have every right to be critical. You have your former self.

    Before we condemn everyone who has the courage to “judge righteously,” as scripture puts it (John 7:24), perhaps we should put ourselves in THEIR shoes. Perhaps they have removed the log (beam) from their own eye, and now see clearly to remove the spec of dust from their brother’s. (Matthew 7:5) Rather than saying, as the skeptics in Jesus’ day did, “Physician, heal thyself,” we should admit that God has indeed placed some physicians in the Body of Christ. There are those who are very good at ministering to people who are still trapped in the lifestyle that they once were.

    Perhaps people who were once involved in a certain lifestyle are very good at spotting the tricks and deceptions used in that lifestyle to snare the unsuspecting. Why do we disparage them? I remember in the movie The Miracle Worker, about deaf-dumb-and-blind Helen Keller, that her teacher wanted to be almost merciless with her; but Helen’s mother wanted to be sympathetic and put up with her shenanigans. But her teacher, who was also partially blind, knew what Helen was up to and knew that if Helen was ever going to be able to function as a normal human being, the teacher and her parents would have to be tough on her.

    It seems to me that there is a portion of the church today who wants to sympathize with the sinful, rather than help them. It seems to me that those of us who have been down a particular road and understand where others on that road are coming from, are better equipped to help them, and should therefore be supported by the rest of the church, rather than be undermined by misplaced sympathies. Patting a sinner on the back – unless that pat is located about 3 feet from the ground – is not going to help them. Yet, that seems to be what the church has become best at: patting sinners on the back as they head for hell.

    It is possible to love and also confront. It is possible to love and to discipline. It is possible to love and to cause division. It is possible to love and to make enemies. Christ was a master at all those.

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  6. Keep up the good work of spreading Schaeffer’s works!!!

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