In April of 2007, I published an article about Francis Schaeffer in Christianity Today magazine. For our younger readers, Francis Schaeffer had a unique ministry to young intellectuals graduating from college in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Many of them were from evangelical homes with bigger questions than their churches or Christian colleges could handle. Schaeffer was the first Christian leader I encountered who was passionate about a biblical faith, but connected as well to the prevailing secular culture, and intelligent enough to speak into it.
From their chalet in L’Abri Switzerland, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, held court as students from all over the world came to study and seek a meaningful faith. I wrote this article because I felt that in all the things that have been written about Francis Schaeffer I’ve noticed that not many people talk about his compassion for the lost, and that was his greatest impact upon me. Every few years I bring this article up again because of its timelessness and its emphasis on what continues to be missing in much of Christian mission in the world. So it’s time, again …
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 tears. The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day need to make us cry in ours.