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Schaeffer revisited

The man who founded L'Abri 50 years ago got the big things right

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Since next month will bring the 50th anniversary of Francis Schaeffer's founding of L'Abri, his famous evangelistic haven in Switzerland, is running reminiscences by those whose lives were changed by the discussions that went on there and the personality of Schaeffer himself.

One of the blog posts is by Marc Mailloux (Andree Seu's brother), who dropped in on L'Abri as a 17-year-old agnostic in 1971 wearing the same cut-off jeans and T-shirt that he had worn for weeks. Marc notes that Schaeffer at the dinner table one evening gave a thorough answer to a question about evolution as everyone else was moving through soup and the main course to dessert.

He writes, "I wondered how Dr. Schaeffer-whose bowl of soup sat untouched in front of him-would ever catch up with the rest of us. . . . Finally he picked up his bowl of soup in one hand and gulped it down in a way that your mother would never have approved. I wanted to shout 'right on' but stifled my enthusiasm." Marc decided "to listen to someone whose beliefs didn't enslave one to Emily Post's table manners."

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Another blog post, by pastor David Hall, notes that Schaeffer's How Shall We Then Live, a book published in 1976 and then a film series, was "a turning point in evangelical political consciousness . . . the grandfather of revived American evangelical political interest."

That's true too, and if you ask why the book/film series-along with the impetus of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision-pushed many evangelicals into thoughtful political and cultural reengagement, I'd suggest putting those two blog posts together. How Shall We Then Live (being reissued this year) is a gulpable bowl of soup produced by a genius who cared more about the battle of ideas than about Emily Post footnoting.

It's also the book I still recommend to students for a quick overview of (to cite the subtitle) "the rise and decline of Western thought and culture." Schaeffer brilliantly takes readers from ancient times through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, then discusses the breakdown in philosophy and science and moves on to art, music, literature, film, and much else besides. Toward the end he touches on terrorism and points out media manipulation that some became aware of only during this year's Rathergate scandal.

Throughout, he offers telling small details: For example, before the Reformation "those who came into churches were separated from what to them was the center of worship-the altar in the chancel-by a high grill of iron or wood. . . . But with the Reformation, when the Bible was accepted in all its unique authority, those screens were often removed . . . to show that the teaching of the Bible opened the way for all the people to come directly to God."

HSWTL is also a book that, despite the subtitle, offers a bit of optimism, since we are better off now in some ways than we were three decades ago. Schaeffer wrote about "war-or the threat of war-between the expansionistic, imperialistic, communistic countries and the West," and "a growing shortage of food and other natural resources." And yet, the predictions of Ronald Reagan and Julian Simon proved accurate: The Soviet Union was heading for collapse and food supplies were undergoing expansion.

Of course, the threat of imperialism by Marxist fascists (sounds like an oxymoron but it's not) may reemerge down the road with a Chinese face, unless the growth of Christianity in China saves not only millions of individuals but perhaps a whole world. Shortages may also appear, and terrorism rages. But a big 1970s concern that Schaeffer voiced-"Modern society's inability to find a solution to the problem of inflation without causing economic recession opens the door wide for economic breakdown"-does not seem as grave now, since for 20 years we have found a solution.

Still, optimism can only be superficial as long as we kill so many unborn children every year. Other less visible indications of selfishness and more visible displays of perversity cut into any satisfaction we might have. Our fallen world reminds us that Schaeffer got all the big things right, including the biggest: our need to recognize that we desperately need God's grace and can't get it any other way than through God's graciousness.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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