Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Current Reading

Ten years ago (can it be that long?) we moved to St. Louis, MO for my husband's studies in theology at Covenant Seminary. Part of what drew us to that particular school was the existence there of the Francis Schaeffer Institute. We didn't know a lot about Schaeffer, but Scott had read a book of his in College and I think had a professor who spoke highly of Schaeffer's writings.

During our time in St. Louis, we were privileged to benefit from (and sometimes help with) the offerings of the Institute, including: lecture/discussion nights at the corner Borders bookstore, several lecture series held at Covenant and various local churches, art exhibits hosted at the Institute, and a Life and Writings of Francis Schaeffer class taught by Professor Jerram Barrs, who knew Francis and Edith Schaeffer and worked for many years in L'Abri, the unique Christian work the Schaeffers pioneered in Switzerland in 1955.

What perhaps influenced us most profoundly, though, was our brush with the L'Abri workers and former students who inhabited or passed through Saint Louis' Presbyterian community (the seminary and its supporting churches are members of the PCA denomination). In these people there was, among other things, a willingness to face non-Christian culture instead of running from or merely condemning it. This was something I thought should be true of Christians, but had never seen in the environment of my Christian upbringing.

Five years ago, at one of life's low points, our family experienced L'Abri for ourselves, when we traveled to England and stayed at the Manor, where some friends from St. Louis had moved to work.

I returned to L'Abri, alone, several months later to study and recover from a serious crisis of faith and life. While there I made friendships with lots of other "L'Abri People" and since then Scott and I have attended several L'Abri conferences and visited L'Abri friends.

It may surprise most of you, then, that I have never actually read one of Francis Schaeffer's books. I've read several of Edith's and two of Susan's (the Schaeffer's daughter) and quite a few others by authors in the wider L'Abri community. But every time I have tried to read Schaeffer himself, I've been bogged down by his writing style. Even when I took the life and Writings class at Covenant, I only dabbled in the books instead of reading them through (I could do this because I was auditing the class).

The truth is I'm a C.S. Lewis kind of gal. I like everything about Lewis: his knowledge of literature, his love of mythology, his command of and playful fiddling with the English language, his clear-headed understanding (and exposition) of many great truths, and - perhaps most of all- his ability to create music with his words while employing metaphor as if he'd invented it.

Francis Schaeffer is a very different kind of writer. His choice of words is almost incidental; a lackluster vehicle for transporting his ideas. He doesn't draw word-pictures; he draws diagrams. He rarely illustrates his point with story; his works read like a history textbook or a philosophical treatise. And I suppose they should, since they are, in large part, histories and treatises.

Maybe my preference for Lewis is as simple as my preference for fiction or other creative literature, over academic works. But I don't think academic work is the only thing Schaeffer was shooting for, any more than I deem Lewis an irresponsible scholar. So I guess it just comes down to style. Someone who likes to get right to the meat will no doubt love Schaeffer's carnivorous style, whose language excuses its self politely while Content takes the stage, alone. Me, I like my meat with hearty potatoes, the poetry of wine and the verve of bright, tender greens.

However, being that I've heard so much talk over the years about Schaeffer's ideas- and especially his incisive look at contemporary culture- I started to feel a little bit guilty for throwing around his terms and analyses, without going to the source; water downstream from the fountainhead is always muddier. So about a week ago I pulled out an old copy of "How Should We Then Live" and began to read.

I'm about 4/5 of the way through it now. Yesterday afternoon as I read, I had that sneaking suspicion I always get, when I read something life-changing, that this book was going to be, well, life-changing. I picked it up again last night in bed, and read straight into the wee hours of the morning.

I've heard Francis Schaeffer criticized for his (mis) understanding of individual philosophers, but praised for his steady finger on the pulse of society, including his distillation of particular philosophies to their logical conclusions. I admit my relative ignorance of philosophy and philosopher, alike. But what I'm finding in this book is an uncluttered summary of the major movements of human thought (and its trickle down into art and popular culture), beginning with the Roman Empire right through to the 20th century.

This is proving unbelievably helpful for me, because I often have a vague sense of something looming beneath the surface of my discontents and disabilities, but I am never sure what it is. I point to personal habits or social tendencies or the changing nature of the world- but most of my accusations are hurled at a giant, shapeless monster, for which I have no name.

In reading How Should We then Live, I am finding, at every turn, another key to the room of myself. I laughed out loud yesterday, and said to my self, "the entire history of Western thought can be demonstrated on the microcosmic level of my own thought!" This, of course, isn't to say that I somehow intuited, by sheer genius, the thought processes of the most influential minds of the past 2,000 years. Rather, I inherited, by some strange anthropology, all the inconsistencies and dead-ends that their philosophies carried internally. (And, since I was born into a Christian sect that ruled with an iron hand and claimed absolute, divinely appointed authority, I started in a place not altogether dissimilar to Rome.)

So, my personal journey echoes the journey of the Western World, following the fall of Rome (and my personal Rome did fall in a devastating manner, like it's prototype). I'm not certain where I stand at present or how much weeding out of error I still need to do. A lot, for sure. None of us is born into a vacuum. We've got to look at our presuppositions up close and personal, to determine which are true and should be kept, and which should be thrown to the swine.

This process is harrowing, and an uncertain science. But I'm starting to see that, alongside the rope which ties together the history of human thought, is a smaller but much stronger thread of Christian truth, which stands out more clearly to me now, against the backdrop of human mistake.

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