I have long had a dream of visiting L’Abri, the mission project of Francis and Edith Schaeffer in the Swiss Alps. It was a work, driven both by an earnest pursuit of community and spiritual education, that formed a whole generation of theologians, apologists, and Christians. Schaeffer was a counter cultural theologian, not just at L’Abri but in all his work. Bill Edgar knows all of this personally, as a former disciple of Schaeffer, and exposes readers to it in his book Schaeffer on the Christian Life. Schaeffer models for us a Christian life that moves beyond personal piety to engage the whole world.
As part of the Theologians on the Christian Life series, published by Crossway, this particular volume continues the editors’ goal of allowing the past to speak to our present context. The task is not all that hard with someone like Schaeffer, who seems the most like a theologian of the present in his writings. Though written in the 60s and 70s they still speak to relevant issues of our own day. Readers often remark how timely his pieces still seem. The author’s own personal history with Schaeffer adds to his accessibility in this particular volume. William Edgar came to faith in Christ through the personal evangelism of Francis Schaeffer. He book ends this work with his own personal reflections on Francis (or Fran, as he prefers to call him). The personal contributions of a former student lend themselves well to making this a rather unique volume in both the whole Crossway series, and in works on Francis Schaeffer himself.
Edgar breaks his approach down into three parts. Part one covers the man and his times. In two chapters he gives us a quick survey of Schaeffer’s life, his journey to L’Abri and his other works. He interacts with some of the major biographical works here, while admitting that his goal is not to give us a full bio of the man. He does, however, help to set Schaeffer within a real-time context so that as we interact with his beliefs and writings in the rest of the work we will know the context and personal experiences that influenced them. In many ways this is a good introduction to Schaeffer, if certainly incomplete.
Part two focuses on one specific work: Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality. Edgar writes:
We are fortunate indeed that while we may and must look throughout the oeuvre of Francis Schaeffer for themes relating to the Christian life, we do have such a principal text to work with, the fruit of years of work, in which his major reflections are delivered systematically. (97)
That work is True Spirituality, first delivered as a series of sermons. To help readers grasp this content, Edgar starts first by giving us an overview of Schaeffer’s theological fundamentals, those beliefs which shaped, directly or indirectly, his work. He also points to Fran’s moment’ of crisis, his season of religious doubt in 1951 and 52. It was this struggle, and his quest for “reality” that paved the way for his later work and its emphases. Edgar boils the two parts of that book down to “Freedom in the Christian life,” and “Application.”
Part three turns our attention to Schaeffer’s lived theology of trusting God. Here readers will learn of both Fran and Edith’s approaches to prayer, seeking God’s guidance, and dealing with suffering. Edgar also ends the work by exploring Schaeffer’s engagement with the evangelical church, and his engagement with the world.
The book is really quite impressive in its scope. Because Schaeffer was not a scholar, but rather an evangelist, all his work has an eye towards real-life people and real-life application. Ever the apologist he wrote about and taught on ideas. His spirituality was often highly engaged in the life of the mind. But, “ideas have consequences,” and so readers will see how his emphasis on ideas did nothing to detract from a concern for practice. In fact Schaeffer’s whole program of Christina education was designed to help people wrestle with the implications of their beliefs, those ideas they held and the consequence that resulted from them. This is particularly seen in his critique of the American church which had, he believed, adopted too much of a consumerist mindset. They had bought into the lies of the culture and wanted merely safety and comfort. The result had been a weakening of both gospel belief and gospel life. He spoke of the bourgeois middle class, of which he was most critical. Though focusing largely on the realm of ideas, he nonetheless saw the connection to life that many others missed.
For Schaeffer, spirituality impacted all of life. It impacted our interaction with the arts, with politics, with the lost world, and even the environment. His writings reflect this as they cover a broad array of topics. Edgar reveals to us not just a countercultural spirituality in Francis Schaeffer – as the subtitle of the book suggest – but a broadly cultural spirituality. That is, a spirituality engaged with the world. Edgar is not naïve about Schaeffer’s weaknesses, nor does he cover over the legitimate criticisms that some have raised about his work, but for all his faults, Schaeffer was a great model and a great teacher. Edgar helps us, then, to learn afresh from Schaeffer in this fantastic work. I highly recommend Schaeffer on the Christian Life to all believers.