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).
This is a very readable book, especially in its narrative, biographical passages, charting the life and ideas of Schaeffer and describing their religious, cultural and political effects on evangelicalism, particularly in the USA.
Hankins has researched his subject, and the context of Schaeffer's times, thoroughly and gives every sign of being factually sure-footed. Schaeffer's major writings and his films are each given full discussion in turn.
However, Hankins' superior attitude to his subject will not endear him to all readers: his description of Schaeffer as a 'pop evangelical intellectual' sums up his condescension; in Hankins' view Schaeffer tended to be superficial in his understanding and analysis of the philosophy against which he made his polemic.
The book's discussion of fundamentalism, and of evangelicalism, is coloured by the author's pretended neutrality; his own position appears to be that most kinds of Christian profession are validly Christian. The position for which he shows most sympathy and respect is that exemplified by George Marsden and Mark Noll; readers who have their own view of these writers will know what presuppositions may lay behind this book.
Francis' son Franky features largely towards the end of the book; the author shows a significant weakness in his uncritical retelling of Franky's cynical and jaundiced (fictional) account of life in the Schaeffer home. At the same time he shows little awareness of the sadness and disappointment that was the probable result; that in itself is a disappointment. Together with the author's assumption of a de haut en bas attitude to his subject, this limits the enjoyment to be had from this well-written book.
There is an index, but no bibliography. At least a bibliography of Schaeffer's own works would have been welcome.