Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life
By Colin Duriez
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 262-264
The legacy of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) has left an indelible mark on evangelicalism. From the founding of L’Abri in Switzerland, to his writings on thought, spirituality, and culture, Schaeffer’s ideas have shaped an entire generation of Christian leaders. Few evangelical leaders have had the intellectual impact that Schaeffer had in the twentieth century. Sadly, this legacy is slowly becoming lost to the current generation. Variously described as a prophet of the culture and philosopher of the modern times, Schaeffer embodied the voice of thinking evangelicals when evangelicals were often silent and should have spoken to culture and society. Schaeffer’s contribution to the stream of evangelical thought flowing into the twenty-first century should be carefully preserved for future generations.
In this context, Schaeffer’s life and teachings have gained in anticipation of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. Such biographies have a way of introducing a new readership to the work of this important man. Hearing from Francis Schaeffer’s son-in-law, Udo Middelmann, that a new biography by Colin Duriez was in final editing, this reviewer immediately pre-ordered a copy.
Duriez is the former general book editor for Inter-Varsity Press and currently offers consulting services through his business, InWriting. As an author, his research and writings focus on the Inklings, which won him the Clyde S. Kilby Award in 1994 and considerable notoriety concerning C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, including commentary on the recent films based upon their writings. His biography flows out of his own studies at L’Abri with Schaeffer. Readers interested in Duriez publications and activities should visit his website (web.mac.com /colinduriez).
Duriez’s treatment of Schaeffer is balanced and even-handed, avoiding the frequent critiques of Schaeffer’s apologetic method. The author also avoids defending Schaeffer as a philosopher (a concept Schaeffer himself was careful to avoid), but rather presents him as he was—with all his humanity and compassion. The work is a quality biographical introduction, particularly for those unfamiliar with Schaeffer’s life and ministry. The book is structured chronologically, well-written, and offers a balanced presentation of each stage of Schaeffer’s life and development. The work avoids slipping into hagiography and is honest in its assessment of Schaeffer’s strengths and weaknesses.
Several points should be noted. First, the biography relies heavily on secondary sources in its compilation. The numerous citations of Edith Schaeffer’s The Tapestry, particularly in the early chapters, left this reviewer with the sense he was reading an abridged and updated version of this early work. It had been hoped that any new biography would draw from the archival materials collected in numerous repositories since Schaeffer’s death. This in view, Duriez work is a popular treatment of Schaeffer’s life and ministry. Readers conversant with The Tapestry or L’Abri will likely be disappointed if they are hoping to gain new insights on Schaeffer’s life and ministry, particularly up to the concluding point of The Tapestry. Having said this, the author’s personal interview with Schaeffer in the appendix, and interviews with various L’Abri workers, was a welcomed inclusion.
Second, readers unfamiliar with the intellectual, social and cultural milieu of Schaeffer’s time may not appreciate the struggles that fomented much of his thinking. Important to Schaeffer’s contribution is the context in which it occurred. For the generation unfamiliar with Schaeffer, such a context is requisite to appreciating his contribution.
Third, the biography avoids follow-up discussion of some of the issues surrounding changes at L’Abri since the death of Schaeffer. These issues were recently raised in a Christianity Today March 2008 article entitled, “Not Your Father’s L’Abri.” Though many young people are unfamiliar with Schaeffer’s ministry, many older individuals assume the L’Abri of today is the same as it was during Schaeffer’s life.
Finally, a review of literature pertaining to Schaeffer’s literary and speaking corpus would have been a helpful inclusion for the new readership. The breadth of Schaeffer’s writings, to say nothing of the L’Abri tape ministry (available through Sound Word at www.soundword.com), deserves a navigational map for the novice.
Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Lifeis a solid, popular biography that will introduce a new generation to the writings and thought of this pivotal twentieth-century evangelical thinker. It provides an excellent framework and introduction for the uninitiated prior to making a foray into his formidable body of literature and speaking materials, as well as an introduction to the ministry of L’Abri generally. Readers looking for an alternative biography might consider Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, 2008). Also, those interested in Schaeffer’s life and ministry should consider Jerram Barrs extensive online courses, Francis Schaeffer: The Early and Later Years (www.worldwide -classroom.com). Barrs has graciously made his notes and lectures available to the public. Schaeffer’s legacy to thinking evangelicals will not be soon forgotten. This contribution from Duriez does much to keep that memory alive to a new generation.