Can you give us a bit of information about your background and how you came to interview Schaeffer in 1981?
It's funny for me to look back on this interview and see how green I was in those days as a writer, editor, and novice Schaeffer initiate. The publication, Commonlife: A Magazine Concerning Church Reform, was the product of a ministry in north-central Ohio, then called Grace Haven Fellowship, which was greatly influenced at the time by L'Abri. Despite my poor editing and interviewing skills, I was the magazine’s editor. I was fresh out of college, worked part-time on the magazine staff, and part-time on the campus ministry team. The director there had been to the Swiss L'Abri and knew Francis. So when we heard about L'Abri having a conference in Rochester he sent me to meet and interview Francis, Edith, Ranald, and Udo. The magazine had a tiny audience of less than 2000 readers and was principally aimed at a circle of house churches that called themselves the Assembly of Covenant Churches.
From the article we can see this interview took place after Schaeffer's A Christian Manifesto was released. Edith released her book, The Tapestry, in 1981 as well. Also, I understand that at this time Schaeffer was working on the compiling of his complete works. Can you add to this information a little about the historical context of this interview?
Francis actually announced the publication of his collected works at this conference. I was there when he explained he’d been working on reviewing and updating his works. He lamented that he wished he could update some of the language to be more inclusive, but that it was too massive an undertaking to thoroughly revise so many volumes.
Schaeffer had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1978. How did his health seem at this time?
At that time he appeared healthy and in good spirits. As you can see from the picture I took of him, he had even put on some weight.
I will never forget the lunch I had with Francis and Edith in preparation for the interview. We were standing in line at the cafeteria of the school where the conference took place. Edith chirped in: “Fran! We forgot our name tags! They won’t feed us without our name tags!”
“Edith,” Francis replied, with an air of assurance and authority, “they will feed us. We’re the reason all these people are here!”
“But Fran!” she shot back, “These cafeteria workers don’t know that. They don’t know us from a hole in the ground.”
“Edith,” he said, raising his squeaky voice, “if they don’t know us from a hole in the ground then there’s no hope, no hope!”
We laughed and, sure enough, the cafeteria workers posed no problem to getting our food.
We sat down to eat and Edith noticed Francis wasn’t eating everything on his tray. No doubt his cancer treatments were affecting his appetite.
“Fran!” she exclaimed. “The doctor says you have to eat!”
“Edith!” he said. “Will you let me do it my way!”
What was your impression of Schaeffer upon talking to him in person?
They were both so real and down to earth! It was amazing to me that I could feel so instantly comfortable with these famous authors I’d admired for so long from afar. As you can see by the conversation at lunch, they were sometimes comical and they possessed a great sense of humor; they were very real people.
A month or two later, when the Schaeffers were back in Switzerland and I was preparing an excerpt from one of Edith’s books to run in Commonlife, I needed to ask Edith a question. My publisher gave me a phone number to call and I dialed it expecting to talk with an admin, a secretary, or some kind of housekeeper. Francis picked up the phone! Here I was on an international call with the man I considered a living legend, and I had to say, “Hi Francis … is Edith home?”
Francis was again as down to earth and authentic as it gets. He explained to me that Edith was up in the mountains working on her next book. “We have a cabin up there,” he explained. “Whenever one of us is writing, we find it’s best to go there away from telephones and interruptions.” Then he made a remark I will never forget, because it hit me as an aspiring writer.
“Ironically,” he said, “we’ve found we have to remove ourselves from the Christian life in order to write about it.”
We laughed. We both knew that one does not stop being a Christian by seeking solitude. But I understood what he meant. The inference was that without Christian community the Christian life is incomplete. That is how they lived.
In the interview, Schaeffer seems chiefly concerned with Evangelical "accommodation" across the board, where the church has failed to stand on issues from scripture to politics, to human life. Noting the accommodation in the crisis in the Liberal/Modernist controversies of the 30s, he saw it still at work in the 1980s. Do you think he would be stronger on this point today?
Personally, I think he’d say we’ve lost ground in many ways today. He was indeed concerned about the compromise of Christian truth and values. But in my opinion he was just as concerned about Evangelicals falling short in regards to love—balanced love that confronts as readily as it comforts. He saw loving, Christian community as a kind of apologetic in itself that couldn’t be replaced by intellectual arguments—not that arguments didn’t have an important place. But I think he’d be concerned about the state of community in Evangelical churches today as much as our role in the broader world community. I also suspect he would lament the lack of intellectual development or progress among so many of those who have waved the Evangelical banner in politics over the past few years, and the reduction of that word to a political term in the minds of so many Americans today.
With regards to the abortion issue, I have a friend, Christa March, who is the founding president of Teen Mother Choices International. She tells me that TCMI is the only international Christian organization that works specifically with Evangelical churches in providing teenage moms assistance in keeping and raising their babies. I think Francis would weep with Christa over the lack of love-in-action ministries like this one. I think he would say being pro-life is more than being pro-birth and that Evangelicals still have a long way to go with regards to making this kind of biblical compassion the norm of our communities.
In spite of the accommodation that Schaeffer saw, his prescription seemed to convey a theme that was a regular part of his works, indicating a constant need for truth and love. He noted that in the 1930s, there was a failure to love in the midst of controversy. He states, "If you believe these things are true, then truth brings confrontation and it must be with love. And the separatists forgot the love part and it wiped us out. We've paid a price for 30 years for that. But while if you leave out the love you lose, and you are not what you should be in the world, on the other hand if you forget that truth brings confrontation it is equally destructive. So I think this is the real problem." How important do you think Schaeffer's emphasis on truth and love is today, 31 years after this interview?
I think it is more critical than ever. It seems to me we keep repeating the same mistakes. Our infighting and our partisanships in the political arena, in the blogosphere, and on social networking websites, for example, make us a spectacle for skeptics to use against the gospel. Our accommodation to secular political philosophies and agendas divides us, mitigating against the love we should have for each other, and therefore keeping us unprepared for effectively reaching those who don’t know Christ. How can we lovingly confront an atheist or a Muslim or any unbeliever when we have yet to learn how to treat each other as Christians in ways that bear fruit? As a result, we come across as hostile to each other and we have not begun to love our unsaved neighbors because we let worldly political passions get in the way.
Francis knew well how stinging the criticism of fellow believers could be—even before Facebook! As I outline in my book, Presupposing, Schaeffer struggled continually with criticism, even from Christians in his own denomination and tradition, men like Cornelius Van Til, whom he respected and whose insights he sought. He kept trying to build bridges, not burn them down. Even so, early in his ministry he realized he would have to go forward at times regardless of how others might try to knock him down, even if it meant going it alone at times.
You asked Schaeffer about the Moral Majority, and although he felt they were "coming from the right side" and were "providing a good mentality" he did not agree with everything they had said and done at that time, and he did feel that there were some shortfalls in the area of balance. Do you think Schaeffer was seeing the limitations of the movement even though it was just two years old at the time?
I think he knew better than to give blind allegiance to any political movement. I have always admired his earlier position of being a selective cobelligerent in matters of social action with regards to potential allies we might find in the political arena. It seemed to me, though, that he felt the options were limited at that time. If there was any hesitation on Schaeffer’s part when it came to becoming identified with the Moral Majority, I think this too flowed from the logical outworking of the foundations he’d laid in his earlier works.
Schaeffer's statement, "you are not a New Testament church if there isn't community" is rather moving. He seems to take a good deal of time and labor to carefully define what he means by this. How important do you think this concept was to him?
Part of that emphasis in this interview was because the magazine that sent me had a strong interest in intentional Christian community. But then, I’ve never seen Francis be less than passionate about any of his convictions.
One of the things so amazing about L’Abri in those days was that it offered a living model for how Christians might live in biblical community. Some groups that sought to imitate L’Abri had been part of a Jesus Movement mentality that sometimes experimented with communal practices bordering on—and sometimes crossing the line into—being communes. He didn’t want to be mistaken as endorsing that. Yet, he lamented the lack of biblical community in the mainstream churches. Many “doctrinally correct” churches lacked love between members, let alone love for the lost. As in all his convictions, Francis stressed a radical balance that carefully traversed an isthmus between errors.
Schaeffer, although seeing a lot of despair coming through the 60s, sees a good degree of hope in the 80s. Yet he also has some reservations about a dominant question on his mind. He seems to be asking, "Will Christians actually do anything about the understanding and comprehension they have gained in the Christian worldview? Will they truly act upon it? Has Christianity been stirred sufficiently?" Here again we seem to be seeing some of the near "prophetic" perspective that Schaeffer had. How did this aspect of the interview strike you?
How it struck me then and how it strikes me now are quite different. At the time I was a wide-eyed 21-year-old kid who couldn’t believe he was talking with Francis Schaeffer. If I hadn’t taken a tape recorder, I doubt I’d have remembered key parts of the interview ten minutes after it was over. Nor do I think I fully understood everything he was saying while he was talking.
Looking back, however, I think Schaeffer would say I was no exception when it came to the church’s deficient understanding of how it should be involved in the world. Like me, the church had a long way to go in comprehending our needed role in social justice and political action. I think we all still have a long way to go. After all, we have an investment in not understanding, as it seemingly let’s us off the hook and allows us to remain either uninvolved or involved in the wrong things.
What saddens me most, and what I suspect would sadden him, is that the church today rarely seems to be speaking prophetically to the politics of the world. We are shaped by, rather than shaping, the political arena. Instead of being selective about whom we become cobelligerents with (and when), so many Christians uncritically embrace the political rhetoric of the right and the left, allowing themselves to be shaped and swept up in unloving behavior rooted in partisanship and worldly philosophies. I think Schaeffer would urge us instead to start from and be guided by the scriptural principles of a thoroughly Christian worldview, rather than swallowing secular ideologies whole or in part and then baptizing them as “Evangelical.”
What do you think we should take away from this interview with Schaeffer?
Let’s get back to being the New Testament church. Let’s stop compromising and accommodating to fit in politically or culturally. Let’s get back to binding truth to love, and faith to practice.