Monday, May 25, 2009

At L'Abri: Mercy for Doubters

When I read Colin Duriez’s biography of Francis Schaeffer, a number of things struck me about the life of this extraordinary man: I was impressed by his intellectual devotion to orthodox and reformation theology and his sincerity in evangelism and ministry. What struck me most, however, was the impact Schaeffer had on doubters and agnostics; the impact stems from Schaeffer’s commitment to the historical reality of the Christian faith in the past, future and PRESENT. Throughout Schaeffer’s ministry, he emphasized the reality of Christianity in time and space, not merely intellectual propositions, but true, tangible reality.

He came to understand this reality during the period in Schaeffer’s life that he referred to as the crisis. In 1955, Schaeffer was serving as a missionary while living with his wife and family in Switzerland. He was struck by the incongruity between the power spoken of in the Scriptures the lack of power experienced in his own Christian life. He was also distressed by the seeming impotence of the Christian church in general. Despite the devotion to truth and doctrine, the most disturbing observation Schaeffer made about Christianity was the lack of love shown by many professing believers for each other and for the lost. It seemed to him that intellectual ascent to purity of doctrine did not—by mere default—lead to God honouring lives in practice. Something more is needed. If the Bible is true, then it must be true in reality, not just in the realm of the abstract. The Bible speaks of “power” in the lives of believers, but why was there so little power evident in real life? He spent many months hiking the roads and trails in the Swiss Alps, as well as pacing the upper floor hay loft of his chalet, pondering the reality of Christianity. He returned to a state of agnosticism. Edith was distressed by this, but she prayed fervently for her husband during his time of doubt.

Thankfully he came out of this period of doubt with a deeper understanding of Truth. After reflecting on Christianity, he concluded that it is truth; what he also discovered was the reality of this truth. Christianity is more than doctrine, intellectual suppositions, theological musings… it is reality…. Later in Schaeffer’s ministry, his own experience of honest doubt would make him well suited in addressing---with compassion and love---the doubts of hundreds of Christians and non-Christians who would visit L’Abri. In Jude, Paul writes, “Be merciful to doubters”---this verse encapsulates Schaeffer’s ministry. It calls to mind the way Christ handled Thomas’s doubt---with compassionate but unwavering truth, real truth, truth in space and time, truth in the PRESENT---“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” This is how Schaeffer spoke to the doubts of so many people. He compels people to come to terms with the historical, future and present reality of God in the universe. Christianity is not just a philosophy, a moral compass or a collection of “good ideas” to guide us through life. God is real in space and time and His power and presence can be experienced in space and time.

When I pondered the impact Schaeffer had on doubters, I became aware of how little the evangelical church openly addresses doubt. Doubt is certainly something we must overcome, but in order to do so, doubt should not be ignored; doubt must be addressed, prayed about and preached on. It takes faith to address doubt; we need to believe that God will answer doubters. Even though Christians may question their faith, He will not remain silent. The end result is always a deeper faith.

Schaeffer’s thoughts on spirituality materialized in a series of talks centred on the Book of Romans. He shared these reflections with the many visitors who came to L’Abri. Later, he organized the talks into a taped lecture series, and eventually, a published book entitled, True Spirituality. Although this book was published later in his ministry, the ideas in it form the heart of his work and the raison d’etre for L’Abri. For those interested in discovering the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer, this book is an excellent place to start.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Abortion is still an issue

A student recently sent me this YouTube clip; it is an excerpt from a sermon by John Piper. I am reminded that Christians cannot remain silent about the millions of unborn children who have perished in Canada and the US since the decriminalization of abortion. Abortion is still an issue. Abortion is still wrong.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Teaching 21st Century Novels

I just finished a novel that I was previewing as a possible text to teach next year. It is called, Water for Elephants. It is a New York Times best seller and was highly recommended by a number of avid readers. In the past, I have taught The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Old School by Tobias Wolff. I make a point to include 21st century novels on my reading list for Senior English, but alas, I am often disappointed with the trite, anachronistic, and unauthentic content of post-modern literature. Protagonists are spineless at the beginning, and they remain spineless at the end. They resolve the crisis of their "spinelessness" by simply embracing it. They lack moral fortitude when it comes to the “conventional” morality, but they are stalwart defenders of political correctness. Water for Elephants was no different. The captions on the cover say things like, “I couldn’t put it down for one minute.” I must admit, there were times I couldn’t pick it up… even for a minute. The novel is set during the Great Depression. It begins with a slighty contrived crisis in the life of a young man about to graduate from Veterinary program at Cornell. His parents are suddenly killed in a freak car accident and he is left penniless because the bank---unflinchingly---foreclosed on his entire inheritance. So, he runs off with the circus… (I know… THE CIRCUS…?). In truth, that is the most interesting part. The author researched extensively the American travelling circus in the twenties and thirties. The circus is a fresh and interesting setting, full of possibilities for examining the strange and bizarre behaviour of human beings---both those who go to the circus, and also those who run a circus. Unfortunately, the author fails to develop, with any authenticity, a single believable human being in the story.

The protagonist, Jacob, was a man ahead of his time... Way ahead. In fact, it seemed as though he just entered a Vancouver Star Buck’s and was inadvertently sucked into a trans-temporal worm hole, thrusting him into the previous century. I may have bought into the tribute to post-modern relativism and egalitarianism if I could have seen some growth in the character caused by relevant experiences. The novel begins like a Bildungsroman, but the protagonist never really comes-of-age. His character is static---other than loosing his virginity; he doesn’t really learn anything or change. Even when the novel alternatively flips from the 1920s circus to a 21st century nursing home, we see no real growth in the elderly Jacob compared to the youthful Jacob. And, as a result, the reader experiences no growth either; we are simply served up another helping of the bland post-modern, 21st century tofu and rice cakes we get from media like un-real "reality" TV.

Political correctness seems to be the backbone of the novel. The most glaring anachronism is the fact that the protagonist is innately unprejudiced toward people groups who have been historically discriminated against: women, prostitutes, Jews, short people, stout people, labourers/working class, and so on. No classicism and no prejudice. I am not upset with the values he holds; however, as a reader, I am disappointed with the unjustified presence of late 20th century values. His resolution to adhere to political correctness (while still damning the sinister bourgeois) comes without any catalyst. In contrast, Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, demonstrates the reality of how values are formed; Huck undergoes conflicts between experiences, his conscience and external pressures. Through a series of incidents and personal struggles, Huck eventually overcomes the social and societal prejudices instilled in him and he realises that Jim is truly human being… truly the best of men. In Gruen’s novel, however, the protagonist starts the novel fully acclimatised to modern values. He is an egalitarian who has more in common with the likeminded working class than he has with upper management of the circus. The irony is, of course, he comes from an upper middle class family (his father is a veterinarian) and he attended a veterinary program at Cornell. While rubbing shoulders with the elite at Cornell, in a professional program, with peers who are rich enough to be studying at a prestigious school during a depression… it is unlikely he would be sympathetic to the poor, working class. Yet, lo and behold, when he finally meets poor, working class people, it turns out they are all decent people. Even the “rough” security personnel do their job reluctantly. I also get the impression that Jacob is a feminist (who although tempted to objectify women, resolves—inexplicably in the novel—to treat women with equality and respect); in addition, he is an animal activist, engineer of social welfare and a moral relativist. Very modern indeed. I am surprised Jacob isn’t also a vegetarian who decries the amount of garbage the circus creates. That would be going too far, perhaps. In the ending of the novel, Jacob takes on a very 21st century demeanour when he refuses to grow up (even though he is now 93 years old) and he opts [spoiler] run away with the circus... again.

What I did like about the novel is the vocabulary. Gruen has clearly researched the vernacular of the circus and she uses vivid precision in her diction. At times, though, it seemed she was using a thesaurus too often, when simpler words would do, in an effort to present a high-brow façade to divert the reader’s attention from the contrived storyline: an orphaned veterinarian running off with the circus, falling in love with a show girl who is already married to a mean and nasty man, and ending up adopting a pet elephant, marrying the girl and working at a zoo. I am very surprised the publishers accepted this pitch. A vet, the circus, an elephant and a happy ending… perhaps they were confusing the pitch with a James Harriot novel.

After finishing the novel, I turned back to Homer’s The Iliad to finally draw to a close my reading of this epic poem. It was like going from a lunch of instant microwavable mac ‘n cheese and no-name pizza pops to an evening dinner of steak, baked potatoes, sautéed mushrooms and red wine. Why can’t we write stories like Homer anymore?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

At L'Abri: Schaeffer for Today

I recently read Colin Duriez’s biography of Francis Schaeffer (Francis Schaeffer: An Authenitc Life). In the preface he states that his biography is the first comprehension survey of Schaeffer’s life. Providentially, it was published last year, just as I planned to explore the works of Schaeffer.

Many Christians I have spoken with have never heard of Schaeffer; I find this fact bewildering. Granted, I first heard of Schaeffer when I was 18 years old, but it wasn’t until years later that I heard more about Schaeffer during an Apologetics course. The appearance of Duriez’s book is timely, then, in reviving interest in the contributions and thought of Francis Schaeffer. Duriez is already well known among Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fans. Duriez’s biography of Schaeffer will no doubt segue the 21st century reader to Schaeffer’s works, especially for those readers already familiar with Duriez’s contributions on Lewis and Tolkien. There is a need to bridge the gap for many Christians who have not read or heard about Schaeffer. His insights on the state of the world at the end of the 20th century is even more relevant today, as much of his “prophesies” about the coming decline of Western civilization is a striking reality in the 21st century.

His name was first mentioned to me by a Youth Pastor, Calvin Russell, who was giving me some tips on an up-and-coming backpacking tour of Europe I was planning for the fall of 1994. Russell recommended that I stop by L’Abri in Switzerland. As it turned out, I only made it to Geneva during my three month, eleven country tour of the old country. For whatever reason, the Lord did not lead me to L’Abri that year. Now, fifteen years later, I am encountering Schaeffer. The timing couldn’t be better.

I am currently reading True Spirituality. I hope to post a little about Duriez’s biography on Schaeffer and explain why I am starting with True Spirituality.