Francis Schaeffer, Eric Metaxas, Two Great Books, and The Great Evangelical Disaster Revisited

By John West Published on May 15, 2024

Forty years ago today, evangelical Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer died after a long battle with cancer.

A few months before his passing, Schaeffer published his final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster. Many of his last weeks were spent promoting its message.

Schaeffer indicted evangelical leaders for abandoning historic Christianity in a quest for cultural acceptance — especially in the areas of biblical authority, the value of human life, sex and gender, and politics. He ended his book by calling for a new generation of Christians willing to confront the world rather than embrace it.

I was an undergraduate at a state university when I first read Schaeffer’s book. It inspired me to be part of the solution. It’s a testament to Schaeffer’s influence — and the influence of some other evangelical leaders of his era — that a new generation of biblically faithful Protestants did arise in America. They were joined by a new generation of faithful Catholics. Together, these Protestants and Catholics helped stave off a complete cultural collapse — for a time.

Eric Metaxas’s provocative new book, Religionless Christianity (2024), reminds me a lot of Francis Schaeffer’s last book. The message is both timely and sobering.

Not Just in It, But of It

Like Schaeffer, Metaxas indicts Christian leaders today for being shaped by the secular culture rather than trying to transform it. He asks: “How much of the secular cultural narrative have we accepted without realizing it, such that we are no longer the prophetic voices of God in our generation and are therefore a mere shadow of the true Christian faith?”

In his own book, Metaxas wisely warns against what he calls the “idol of respectability,” the tendency of many Christians to self-censor in order to seek the approval of the secular world.

I can already predict some of the criticisms that are likely to be leveled at Religionless Christianity: It’s too harsh. It’s too political, taking sides on issues where Christians can legitimately disagree. It overplays the analogy between what happened to the church in Germany in the 1930s and what is happening to the church in America now.

I’m sympathetic to some of these concerns. But I think Metaxas’s book is spot on in its central message: Many American Christians have been secularized to the point of insipidity. If we want to prevent the complete collapse of our society in our own day, Christian churches need to reform themselves from within.

Schaeffer was known for insisting that Christianity is applicable to all of life, not just “religious” issues. Metaxas echoes this. In his words, the “Christian faith cannot, under any circumstances, confine itself to sermons or to Sunday mornings or to particular buildings — or to merely ecclesiastical or ‘religious’ issues. It will inevitably touch on everything.”

The Idol of Purity

In Schaeffer’s time, some evangelicals were reluctant to become involved in politics. They thought it was a distraction from the Gospel, or they were repelled by its dirtiness and pragmatism. So when some Christians formed groups like the Moral Majority to push back against public policies they thought were anti-Christian, other Christians turned up their noses.

Because the Moral Majority was imperfect, they justified doing nothing. They did not want to soil their hands by supporting something imperfect. Schaeffer argued otherwise.

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Metaxas writes about a similar phenomenon, what he calls the “idol of purity.” This “is the temptation to say that above all else, I must keep my hands clean. I must not allow myself to become soiled in any way… It matters more that I am ‘pure’ than what might happen to others if I do something I think might ‘dirty my hands.’”

Metaxas gives the example of Christians who refrain from voting in an election because no candidate is good enough, even though one flawed candidate may be much better than another. Not voting for either candidate may make us feel good, but it is a cop-out, according to Metaxas.

Timeless, Not Trendy

Schaeffer’s final book did not win him praise from the cultural elites of his day, and Metaxas’s current book likely won’t win him praise from them either.

In his earlier years, Schaeffer was considered a hip evangelical. He attracted many by his wide-ranging discussions of racial equality, ecology, avant-garde art and philosophy, and the compassionate use of wealth. Living as a missionary in the mountains of Switzerland, he had an undeniable mystique.

But when Schaeffer saw the cultural collapse in America accelerating in the early 1970s, he made a fateful choice. His final books expressed with increasing clarity social and political views that weren’t hip at all.

Schaeffer’s book and film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979) offered a full-throated appeal to evangelicals to join the battle against abortion and euthanasia alongside Catholics. And his final book critiqued evangelicals who were becoming entranced by socialism, feminism, and the devaluation of biblical authority. As a result, he was accused of getting taken in by right-wing politics, and a growing number of both secular and evangelical elites soured on him.

Schaeffer’s rise and fall among the cultural elites is neatly bookended by two articles. In 1960, TIME ran a largely favorable profile titled “Mission to Intellectuals,” which described his growing outreach to the future shapers of culture. Two decades later, Newsweek ran its own profile of Schaeffer. But this time the assessment was no longer positive. Derided as the “Guru of Fundamentalism,” the piece dripped with hostility and condescension.

Inconvenient Truths

In his own book, Metaxas wisely warns against what he calls the “idol of respectability,” the tendency of many Christians to self-censor in order to seek the approval of the secular world. “Are we afraid to be called ‘divisive’ or ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘unsophisticated’ for saying what we know the Bible makes clear?” he asks.

Francis Schaeffer gave up his respectability when he entered the cultural fray in the late 1970s. To his credit, Eric Metaxas has chosen the same path.

Like Schaeffer, Metaxas developed a reputation as a culturally hip evangelical who had connections with thinkers, artists, and pundits across the political spectrum. But then came the further disintegration of our culture.

Rather than play it safe, Metaxas chose to take a stand. Like Schaeffer, he decided to speak inconvenient truths many evangelical and secular elites would rather not hear.

It’s a worthy choice. Schaeffer’s life shows how powerfully God can use us when we spurn the “idol of respectability.” Scorned by the elites of his day, Schaeffer’s writings, lectures, and film series mobilized thousands of evangelicals to enter academia, the arts, politics, law, journalism, and the nonprofit world. I don’t have space here to describe all the things that were somehow influenced by Schaeffer’s willingness to stand for truth, but his work inspired efforts to defend biblical authority, broaden the pro-life movement, defend free speech and religious liberty, promote a compassionate use of wealth, and preserve historic Christian sexual ethics.

Metaxas has issued a powerful plea to mobilize Christians in our own day. The question now is: How will we respond?

 

Dr. John West is vice president and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, where he also serves as managing director of the Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

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