Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008
Pbk, 288pp, £14.99.
Hankins, a historian at Baylor University, has provided an excellent, critical, but not unsympathetic, intellectual biography of L'Abri's Francis Schaeffer. We see here the journey of Schaeffer from fundamentalist to cultural critic and back again as he embraced, or rather was embraced by, the Christian Right.
Hankins seems ambivalent towards Schaeffer, on the one hand he recognises the impact he has had on evangelicals in helping them to be more culturally and intellectually aware and on the other he sees the weaknesses in Schaeffer’s position. Schaeffer was good at painting the large picture but was weak and even wrong on some of the key details.
Schaeffer’s strength was that he was a populariser; his weakness was that he was a populariser. This comes through clearly in Hankins biography.
Hankins provides a helpful overview and critical assessment of most of Schaefffer’s works. He shows that “Schaefer's analysis of western history was compelling in its broad outlines, but problematic in its details” p96. Schaeffer’s analysis of the Renaissance didn't acknowledge the difference between the Italian and the northern forms. He was reliant on the now discredited approach, popular at the time, of Jacob Burkhardt's approach to the Renaissance.
Nevertheless, Schaefer struck a chord with modernist Christians. He was the man for that time. But it Is clear that the time for him is not now, as Hankins shows the sales of C.S. Lewis’s far outstrip the sales of Schaeffer’s books today.
Hankins has performed an excellent job of placing Schaeffer in context and showing how he could be so influential and so flawed. The latter comes out clearly in his exchanges with Mark Noll and George Marsden over Schaeffer’s claims in A Christian Manifesto that the US was founded as a Christian country. Hankins insightfully points out:
It seems that for Schaeffer, when a Christian utilised non-Christian thinking [eg Aquinas], the product was sub-Christian, but when a non-Christian [eg Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers] used Christian influences, the product was thoroughly Christian. (p 170).