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Book Review – Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life

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I think it is safe to say that, of all theologians contemporary or ancient, few have had as profound an affect on my life as Francis Schaeffer. Though I’ve read little of what he wrote, though he died when I was only a young child, and though I have never heard even one of his sermons, I know that my faith has been shaped by him. He was, after all, a major influence on my parents and on so many of their friends. Shortly after their conversion, my parents went three times to various European L’Abri locations, spending upwards of a year at them. In so many ways Schaeffer shaped their fledgling faith just as they later shaped mine. I am indebted to him as I am to them. And in this I am hardly the only one. Though it has been almost twenty five years since his death, Schaeffer’s impact is still felt throughout the Christian church.

Despite my indebtedness, and despite his influence over me, I know so little about Francis Schaeffer. Though widely admired, it seems that few people have taken on the challenge of documenting his life (his son’s recent attempt notwithstanding). It was with great interest, then, that I turned to Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, a new biography written by Colin Duriez, who has previously written accounts of the lives of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The publisher’s description aptly summarizes the content. “From his working-class childhood in Pennsylvania, to the founding of L’Abri, his personal crisis of faith, and his latter years as a compassionate controversialist in the worldwide spotlight, all the eras of Schaeffer’s life unfold within these pages. But Duriez, who studied under and interviewed Schaeffer, also takes a deeper look, revealing those distinct life phases, as well as Schaeffer’s teachings and his complexities as a person, within their historical context so that contemporary readers may better understand all of who Schaeffer was—and why he still matters today.” Duriez depends largely on oral history he gathered—upwards of 150,000 words of it, to describe the life of this great Christian.

I find that there are at least two kinds of biographies. There are some where the reader closes the cover and feels as if he now knows a lot about the book’s subject; then there is the occasional sublime biography where the reader closes the book and feels as if he truly knows the subject. While I wanted this biography to fit in the latter category, I feel that it fits instead in the former. This is not meant as a critique as much as an honest assessment. Though the book has undoubtedly increased my knowledge of Francis Schaeffer, my respect for him, and my understanding of his impact on the church, I do not feel as if I really know him, as perhaps I did with Jonathan Edwards after reading Marsden’s great account of his life or with Whitefield after enjoying Dallimore’s two-volume masterpiece.

Yet the book stands on its own merits and it stands well. It is thorough without being burdensome and grapples well with the complexities of Francis Schaeffer, his life, and his ministry. It describes a man who had a unique gift for teaching and a deep, reverent love for his Saviour.

The best and, to my knowledge, the only full-length biography of Schaeffer available today, this one is well worth the read. I do not think it will stand in history as the definitive account of Schaeffer’s life, but it is still a very good account and one that will bless you as you read it. If you have been influenced by Schaeffer or if you have sought to understand his ministry, you will want to secure a copy for yourself.

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