Monday, August 17, 2009

Hankins, Marsden, Noll and Schaeffer

Over the past couple of days I have been reading parts of BarryHankins's recent biography of Francis Schaeffer.

I do not consider myself a disciple of Schaeffer, though I know many of his followers and former followers. I have read How Shall We Then Live, The God Who is There, and A Christian Manifesto, but do not remember being particularly moved or inspired by any of these books. About twenty years ago I bought a five volume paperback (multi-colored!) collection of Schaeffer's works, but I do not think I ever cracked it. (In fact, it is still sitting on a bookshelf at my parent's house in New Jersey).

I am, however, interested in the way Schaeffer's life serves as a window into twentieth-century evangelicalism. This is probably why I felt compelled to read and blog about Frank Schaeffer's (Francis's son) memoir Crazy for God and pick up Hankins's book in the first place.

I am intrigued by Schaeffer's life for two main reasons. First, I wrote a M.A. thesis on Carl McIntire, the arch-fundamentalist who led the denomination (Bible Presbyterian Church) and seminary (Faith Theological Seminary) that nurtured Schaeffer. In 1994 I wrote an article on McIntire in The Journal of Presbyterian History and have been collecting materials to someday write a biography of the man.

Second, Schaeffer was a leading force behind the emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was influential in promoting the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

It is on this latter point that Hankins really shines. His chapter on this subject is worth the price of the book. Hankins had access to a series of letters written between Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Francis Schaeffer on the topic of whether or not America was a Christian nation. Schaeffer chided Marsden and Noll for showing too much respect for secular scholarship and Marsden and Noll tried to convince Schaeffer that his view of the founding was utterly wrong. These letters provide the context for Marsden and Noll's book (with Nathan Hatch) The Search for Christian America.

Hankins's biography makes for a quick and informative read. It is a book worth spending an evening or two with.