A Schaefferian Sociology: The Social Thought of Francis Schaeffer

03.22.11 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Douglas Groothuis | by James Henson

    Douglass Groothuis reviews A Schaefferian Sociology: The Social Thought of Francis Schaeffer for the Denver Journal

    James Henson, A Schaefferian Sociology: The Social Thought of Francis Schaeffer. (Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2009). 104 pages. Paperback. $63.00.

    Books and monographs on theologian, pastor, philosopher, and social critic Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) are becoming rare a quarter century after his death. Yet given the significance of this man for evangelicals, and for later twentieth century culture in general, and given his deep and abiding influence in my own life and ministry (although we never met), I keep a keen eye out for anything published about him. Therefore, this obscure book caught my attention; I thought I might gain some new insight into Schaeffer’s thoughts on sociology. But that was before I knew of its tasteless cover art, which depicts a woman being crucified.

    This short and vastly overpriced book is a Master's Thesis in sociology. Henson tries to locate Schaeffer's significance for the religious right, but knows very little about Schaeffer himself or the religious right. For that matter, no substantial discussion of Schaeffer appears until one-third of the way through the book. This comes after a prodding, prosaic, and one-sided (negative) discussion of the religious right in America, which studiously avoids insights from important and more sympathetic commentators such as the late Richard John Neuhaus (see The Naked Public Square [1984]). Neither does Henson’s discussion take into account the earlier conservative movement (inspired by the likes of religious thinkers such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley and supported by magazines such as National Review), which had no small effect on the religious right. Worse yet, the author lumps some aspects of the New Right in with neo-Nazis and other fascist groups. This is oxymoronic (although sadly common among the ignorant), since Nazism and other forms of fascism are not conservative in philosophy, but deeply statist and totalitarian. Nazism was, of course, “national socialism,” and all those on the right are hostile to all forms of socialism. (For more on this, see Erik von Kuenhelt Leddin, Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse [1974].)

    Henson’s thesis, taken from James Davidson Hunter’s book, Culture Wars (1990), and applied to Schaeffer’s work, is that the new cultural struggle pits the progressives (who are relativists on morality) against the orthodox (who are absolutists). This division cuts in interesting ways, since some religious people (of a liberal bent) are “progressives” and not “orthodox,” as Hunter explains these terms. Henson rightly sees Schaeffer as orthodox (in Hunter’s terms), but wrongly claims that Schaeffer’s views were “Fundamentalist.” In fact, Schaeffer left Fundamentalism in the 1950s and is better described as a conservative Evangelical. Henson is also wrong in claiming that Schaeffer adopted a hard-line and unnuanced conservatism as he joined the culture wars later in his career. On the contrary, Schaeffer addressed social political themes long before A Christian Manifesto (especially in Death in the City, How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?). Instead of closing ranks and adopting a scorched-earth policy given the exigencies of “the culture war,” Schaeffer prophetically addressed the major crises of our time—the breakdown of moral authority, statism, gutless forms of Platonic Christianity, the loss of respect for human life evidenced in abortion on demand—in a manner completely at one with his previous ministry. Since A Christian Manifesto is a manifesto, we cannot expect detailed arguments. Schaeffer gave such arguments in his earlier books.  Colin Duriez makes this point compellingly in his superb study, Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life (2007), particularly in chapter eight, “Last Battles.”

    Surprisingly, Henson cites only one of Schaeffer's own works, A Christian Manifesto (1981). But Schaeffer wrote over twenty books and his collected works run to five thick volumes. The author attempts to analyze A Christian Manifesto in some depth, but a discussion of "Schaefferian sociology" should appeal to the entire corpus of his works, not merely to one short book. Further defects in research are revealed by the author's over-reliance on a sensational and often unreliable memoir by Schaeffer's disaffected and histrionic son, Frank Schaeffer, titled Crazy for God (2007). This is not a scholarly source, nor does the younger Schaeffer (who has renounced evangelicalism and has made a new career of lampooning his famous family in a series of novels and other books) even claim objectivity for his reflections.

    In surveying the elder Schaeffer's life, the author relies too on Crazy for God and ignores Edith Schaeffer's book, L'Abri (the story of the Schaeffer’s internationally influential ministry) and her longer biographical treatment, The Tapestry: the Life and Times of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Seldom does Henson bother to give us page references for his sources, particularly to Hunter's work, Culture Wars (1990), from which the author derives his key sociological ideas about the New Right and its battle with the Left. Dozens of times we read, "(Hunter, 1990)." That is little help for someone who wants to check the original source for a particular claim. One needs page numbers for that! Worse yet, many of book’s references are plainly wrong. Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto is most often documented as being published in 1982, while the book’s bibliography claims it was published in 1981. 1981 is the correct date of publication. Why did not an editor or academic committee member catch an error so blatant?

    Further, this book is very poorly written. One stumbles over a number of awkward and even outright ungrammatical sentences. Henson has a strange and strong aversion to commas. (One wonders if the book was edited at all.) Periods are placed outside of quotation marks—which is wrong usage unless you are publishing in the UK—and the writing is generally lackluster and lacking in clarity. Worse yet, there are many embarrassing typos and misspellings (Henson writes of C. Everett Coop in stead of C. Everett Koop, for example). Facts are flubbed, too. Schaeffer died at age 72, not 62, as the book claims.

    Using but one secondary source, the author dismisses Schaeffer's worldview as self-contradictory (concerning predestination and human choice), claiming that Schaeffer himself admitted that it was contradictory. As one who has read all the Schaeffer books, and many of them several times, I find this claim nothing less than absurd. One may wish from Schaeffer more philosophical analysis of divine providence and human agency in his work (as R.K. McGregor Wright points out in No Place for Sovereignty [1996]), but it is not obvious that Schaeffer contradicted himself, let alone that he admitted as much. Schaeffer viewed internal consistency as a necessary test for a true worldview (see The God Who is There), and he did not exempt Christianity from this rational test, which would have been a flagrant case of fallacious special pleading. Henson also wrongly asserts that Schaeffer argued for a generic monotheism, thus weakening his apologetic for Christianity in particular. But Schaeffer, to the contrary, always appealed to the hypothesis of a triune and incarnational God as the best explanation for reality, as opposed to some nondescript monotheism. (More serious assessments and criticisms of Schaeffer’s apologetics can be found in several sources, such as Thomas Morris’s Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetics: A Critique [1976], Ronald Ruegsegger, ed., Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, and Lane Dennis, Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work [1986]).

    Oddly, in one mercifully short chapter, Henson explains what study methods he used to read the one Schaeffer book he bothered to cite, A Christian Manifesto, telling us that at first he thought Schaeffer, "a little crazy." This autobiographical and opinionated upsurge has no place in a scholarly analysis. Perhaps a discussion of reading method was required for Henson’s Masters thesis in sociology, but it serves no purpose in a monograph. We are then given an outline of A Christian Manifesto wherein the general themes are categorized and exposited. This effort amounts to little more than a long and dreary book report.

    All in all, this may be the most overpriced and underachieving book I have ever read, which, given my thirty-five years of intensive reading, is no small achievement.  It is certainly not well-versed in the subject matter of its title: the life and work of Francis Schaeffer. It does not make use of the better secondary material on either Schaeffer or the religious right. It is not a sympathetic or systematic assessment of the thought of a complex and influential man. Rather, it is a kind of pseudo-academic hatchet job, which, somehow, pleased an academic committee sufficiently to grant its author a Master’s degree. Even more amazingly, the book made it into print by an obscure (print-on-demand) publisher. As such, it adds nothing constructive to the understanding of Francis Schaeffer or of the religious right.

    Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
    Professor of Philosophy
    Denver Seminary
    March 2011

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