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Finally, Objectivity: A Review of Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, by Colin Duriez

fs As an admirer of Francis Schaeffer, one of the saddest things I have witnessed during the last few years is the attempts by both his own son and by other detractors to impugn his integrity or, at least, to redefine him as something he was not.  Reading son Frank Schaeffer’s memoir, both father and mother are portrayed negatively, Francis as a reclusive, depressed, sometimes suicidal man and Edith as a perfectionist nut.  Well, perhaps the title says it all --- “Crazy for God.”  This book by biographer Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, should set the record straight. 

Colin Duriez is sympathetic toward the Schaeffers and deeply appreciative of the time he studied under Francis, yet at the same time he is engaged in writing an authentic and carefully researched biography, of telling “true Truth” (to use Schaeffer’s nomenclature) about this extraordinary pastor, author, apologist, and founder of L’Abri, a worldwide ministry to seekers of truth.  While noting Frank Schaeffer’s very subjective memoir, and even quoting from it on occasion, he acknowledges that it added little to what he already knew (little, that is, that can be documented, that actually squares with reality).  What he takes issue with is Frank’s contention that his father kept up a “facade of conviction” in his latter years, something he says is not borne out by the evidence.  And that’s about all we hear of the strange memoir until near the end of the book where, in a footnote, Duriez cannot seem to restrain his feelings, noting that “he [Frank] is at times in error over fact or interpretation . . . in his unashamedly subjective and at times bizarre memoir.”  That’s a restrained critique by a historian. 

But enough of what the book is not.  What it is is the best biographical treatment of the man and his mission that has ever been written --- scholarly, without being pedantic or lifeless; sufficiently nuanced, without chasing every thread of the man’s life and work; sympathetic, and yet not avoiding the truth about the man’s weaknesses and struggles.  If you want to feel what animated Francis and Edith Schaeffer, to be caught up in the emotion of what they felt, read Edith’s Tapestry and L’Abri.  (Set aside sufficient time for their combined 906 pages, however!)  But this is the biography for most to read, as it is concise and yet comprehensive enough not to miss any important detail of their story.

In eight chapters and a total of 208 pages, Duriez covers Schaeffer from birth in 1912 until death in 1984 from cancer.  Along the way he speaks of his conversion, his years as a pastor, his involvement with the separatist movement and subsequent divergence from it, the L’Abri years, and the latter years of films and more political involvement.  What emerges is a portrait of a man who, like any Christian, matured in faith and whose understanding of scripture and culture developed.  And yet, looking at Francis Schaeffer’s whole life, there no sense that he was a wholly different person in 1975 than in 1955.  What comes across is his integrity and consistency.  And while Duriez acknowledges Schaeffer’s occasional anger or impatience, and even his depression, none of this does anything to damage his reputation.  They endear him to us, demonstrating his humanity and his honesty (as these failings and struggles were acknowledged by him to those who knew him).

For most who are familiar with the Schaeffers and who have, perhaps, read Tapestry and L’Abri, much of what is written here will be familiar and unsurprising.  What Duriez’s succinct book does, however, is provide a kind of condensation for those much longer stories.  I found myself drawn back into memories of some details contained in those books that were not included here, a very helpful effect.  But the book is more than a revised Tapestry.  It also contains excerpts of fresh interviews with the daughters of Francis and Edith Schaeffer: Priscilla, Susan, and Debbie.  Once again, there are no surprises, and yet it is helpful to hear their memories and to hear the respect they had for their parents.  Then are many other interviews as well, with L’Abri workers like Os Guinness and Dick and Marti Keyes, and perhaps going back farther than any other, with Hurvey and Dorothy Woodson (who actually had a L’Abri in Italy in the late 1950s).  Dorothy said that “When Mr. Schaeffer would talk to you, there was nothing else in the world that was going on.  He was totally focused on you and what you were talking about. . . .”  Great comment.  And that’s how it goes.  Real insights are given into the character of the man.  Much is there to emulate.

I recommend Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic LifeIf you think you already know him, this summary study of his character will sharpen your appreciation for him.  If you don’t know much about him, you’ll meet someone you want to know better.  And if all you’ve read is Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, remedy ignorance: get the “true Truth” here.

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