N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living

I kept seeing this book pop on Twitter and the blogosphere and finally decided to give it a shot.  VERY glad I did.  Wow!  Honestly, this is a fantastic piece of work.

I’m pretty hard on books, and I’m particularly hard on books that I think are trying to be provocative.  I do not like the feel of “manufactured-incindiary,” and I do suspect that a new generation of writers is becoming convinced that this kind of writing is the way forward.  You likely know what I mean:  the intentional employment of provocative, random concepts intended, as I see it, to communicate that the writer (in Christian books anyway) does not inhabit the fundamentalist ghetto, that he has considered unorthodox things.  It’s a literary attempt at garnering street cred.  It is a form of literary posturing, usually, and is a way of saying, “Let me prove to you that I can be shocking and dangerous before I feed you a Sunday School lesson.”

After reading the first page of N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living, I had a vague suspicion that this was going to be one of those kinds of books.  Make no mistake about it:  Wilson is eclectic and provocative in tone.  However, I very quickly figured out that he wasn’t posturing.  Rather, there is deep content beneath the provocations and idiosyncratic meanderings.  More than that, there is a stridently Christian view of the world woven in a tapestry of powerful stories and images by the hands of a skilled storyteller.

The book is hard to describe.  In a sense, it is a meditation on life via a meditation on death.  Wilson tells the stories of his family, primarily of his grandparents, and even more primarily (if you’ll allow it) of the life and death of one of his grandfathers.  Interspersed throughout are tales of his children and his wife.  More than that:  theological musings, deductions, and – a rarity among many young Christian writers – conclusions are allowed to arise from the familial tales.

My attempt at a summary statement will sound pedantic and shallow:  we are dying, therefore we best be about living…and the life we are living is a purposeful story to which we are privileged to contribute despite our not being the primary author.  That really does not do justice to what Wilson has done in this book.  Along the way we find insightful and moving discussions of time, existence, life, death, physicality (in a nice swipe at neo-gnosticism) and a couple of compelling critiques of the new atheism.  (These musings on atheism were particularly poignant and helpful.)

To be perfectly frank, it’s a tough book to review precisely because of how it is structured.  I will simply say this:  Wilson’s musings are worth the time it takes to consider them.  You will be touched, inspired, intellectually stimulated, and challenged by what you find in this book.

WELL worth reading!

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

If any writer can be truly said to have taken up where Faulkner let off, it would be Cormac McCarthy.  All the Pretty Horses is but one example of why this is so.  Simply put, this is a phenomenal novel.  That does not mean it is always pleasant.  Often times its power comes in its bleakness and its shocking brutality, and this is because neither of those two attributes are arbitrary or gratuitous.

This is the story of John Grady Cole, his cousin Rawlins, and the young drifter, Blevins, who takes up with them and who inadvertently involves them in the great conflict that rests at the center of the story.  There is a love story here as well, also wrapped in tragedy.  Above all else, in my opinion, the story is about the human search for transcendence and the war that the brutalities of life wage against that search and hope.

Now, that is my opinion.  It is based not only on my own reading of this novel but also on my reading of McCarthy in general.  I believe that the tension between the seeming purposelessness of life and the human awareness of some transcendent truth or reality beyond this theatre of the absurd is one of McCarthy’s great explorations and contributions.

All the Pretty Horses fairly teems with this tension.  One can feel the struggle in the repeated conversations between John Grady and Rawlins over issues of transcendence.  Consider, for instance, their conversation about judgment.

You think there’ll be a day when the sun won’t rise?

Yeah, said John Grady.  Judgment day.

When you think that’ll be?

Whenever He decides to hold it.

Judgment day, said Rawlins.  You believe in all that?

I don’t know.  Yeah, I reckon.  You?

Rawlins put the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lit it and flipped away the match.  I dont know.  Maybe.

I knowed you was a infidel, said Blevins.

Or consider their discussion on the possibility of Heaven.

You ever think about dyin?

Yeah.  Some.  You?

Yeah.  Some.  You think there’s a heaven?

Yeah.  Don’t you?

I don’t know.  Yeah.  Maybe.  You think you can believe in heaven if you dont believe in hell?

I guess you can believe what you want to.

Rawlins nodded.  You think about all the stuff that can happen to you, he said.  There aint no end to it.

You fixin to get religion on us?

No.  Just sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I did.

Or consider their conversations on the possibility of providence.

You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.

Yeah.  I guess He does.  You?

Yeah.  I do.  Way the world is.  Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some d— place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell.  You dont know what’s goin to happen.  I’d say He’s just about got to.  I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

John Grady nodded.

Or consider their conversation about prayer.

You ever pray?  said Rawlins.

Yeah.  Sometimes.  I guess I got kindly out of the habit.

Rawlins was quite for a long time.  Then he said:  What’s the worst think you ever done?

I dont know.  I guess if I done anything real bad I’d rather not tell it.  Why?

I dont know.  I was in the hospital cut I got to thinkin: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be hrere.  You ever think like that?

Yeah.  Sometimes.

The topic of God comes up even between John Grady and the kidnapped captain.

The captain nodded at the wound in his leg, still bleeding.  The whole trouserleg dark with blood.

You going to die, he said.

We’ll let God decide about that.  Let’s go.

Are you no afraid of God?

I got no reason to be afraid of God.  I’ve even got a bone or two to pick with Him.

You should be afraid of God, the captain said.  You are not the officer of the law.  You dont have no authority.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the brief but telling comment made by an old man to John Grady as John Grady is making his way back to Texas.  In the scene, the two are watching a young and newly-married bride and groom emerge from the church building.

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

There you have it:  “the truths of life” (i.e., the reality of evil, the struggle for survival), God (i.e., the great transcendent reality Who is there if seemingly distant at times), and “or else they’d have no heart to start at all” (i.e., the struggle to reconcile these two realities).  I believe McCarthy’s novel The Road is about the exact same thing.  So is No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy is a breath-takingly good writer.  Truly.  And All the Pretty Horses is a serious and important novel.  It is what a great book should be.  It tells a great story in a masterful way struggling with fundamental issues of existence along the way.

Read it.

Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

This odd and eclectic little book contains a series of brief vignettes Vonnegut did for New York radio some years back.  The basic premise is that Jack Kevorkian takes him almost to the point of death (in a Huntsville, TX, death chamber) so that Vonnegut can go and interview dead people.  Each presentation reveals the upshot of these conversations.

The interviews are often humorous and sarcastic.  They usually wish to make a general point about this or that particular issue in American society.  They all reflect Vonnegut’s own interesting but usually leftist takes on American culture.

The book is intended to be a collection of witty social commentary, not a reflection on theology.  Even so, Vonnegut does explain his personal views on the afterlife:

About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”

The question from Vonnegut’s grandfather is tragic, for, of course, it matters a great deal whether or not Jesus was God.  Regardless, it is a helpful insight into Vonnegut’s mind.  He appears to foster a respect for the historical figure of Jesus while harboring none for the identity of Jesus.  As a Christian, this is a fatal misstep, but it likely describes the position of many Americans who seek to hold to the teachings of Jesus (selectively chosen, of course) while eschewing orthodox Christianity.  (C.S. Lewis, among others, dealt, in my mind, a definitive death blow to this kind of attempted end-around run in Mere Christianity.)

Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s book (as he points out more than once) so even Hitler is in Heaven.  Some of the people don’t really even want to be there.  Regardless, Vonnegut’s encounters are thought-provoking at best and mildly irritating at their worst.

To give you a taste, here is Vonnegut’s interview with Karla Faye Tucker:

It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.

Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. “He’s a murderer, too,” said Karla Faye. “He murdered me.”

Clearly, the intent is to use Tucker as a vehicle for Vonnegut to stress his disapproval of the death penalty.  As a literary device, it really is quite effective, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vonnegut’s views on this or that issue.

So here is my own take on this book:  if you’d like to kill a little time by observing the musings of an interesting, often short-sighted, occasionally insightful and frequently humorous humanist, check it out.  Christians will find some aspects of the book disheartening and sad, and they should.  There is limited value in the work.  It does show the inner mental workings of one of America’s more interesting writers.  For a Christian, though, the book oftentimes lapses into the kind of modernistic and vapid platitudes one may encounter on any street corner on any given day.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the truly compelling (and oftentimes satirical) commentaries on the horrors of World War II.  I have been intending to read Vonnegut’s classic work for a good bit of my life now and regret that it took me this long to do so (actually, my Kindle read it to me on a trip to Memphis and back).

The book follows the story of a young World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut himself (who appears in his own novel), survived the hellish firebombing of Dresden by American and British forces in 1945.  As a prisoner of war assigned by the Germans to a construction detail in the city of Dresden, Vonnegut and other American soldiers survived the firebombing while holed up in an underground German slaughterhouse (#5).

Vonnegut’s approach to explaining and describing the horrors of Dresden through the experiences of Billy Pilgrim is masterful.  The book has rightly taken its place as a modern classic.

Pilgrim, Vonnegut tells us, has become “unstuck in time.”  It’s the late 1960’s and Pilgrim, now a widower in his 40’s, begins to tell people, much to the chagrine of his embarrassed daughter, that he was once kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  So the story is essentially Pilgrim bouncing from one point of time to another, including the war, his childhood and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.

As the tale progresses, Pilgrim reveals a mind that has resigned itself to a kind of fatalism concerning the fallenness of humanity, though he seems to want to hold on to free will as a principle.  He has fascinating conversations with the Tralfamadorians concerning free will, concerning the nature of time, concerning the elusiveness of peace and concerning life itself.  He shows an amazing and often humorous sense of detachment and disinterest in the events of the war, to the great irritation of the other American soldiers and the general amusement of his captors.

Vonnegut uses the character of Billy Pilgrim in profoundly effective ways to offer observations and hints concerning his own resignation to the maddening absurdity of war and the vicious cycles in which humanity finds itself.  Though an agnostic/atheist/humanist (depending on which of Vonnegut’s statements you read), he makes frequent and (apparently) positive references to Jesus, most interestingly when he mentions that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in studying Charles Darwin (who, Vonnegut tells us, saw dead bodies as an inevitable reality of existence) than Jesus Christ.  In another instance, Pilgrim chooses to read a science fiction book about a man who decides to go back in time 2,000 years to the events of the crucifixion to see if Jesus really died.  Pilgrim is depicted as a Christian, though he possibly loses his faith.  It is hard to tell.

Again, the book’s designation as a modern classic is well deserved.  Slaughterhouse Five is a thought-provoking discussion of human nature, life, death (every death scene in the book is tellingly followed by the refrain, “So it goes.”), sin, virtue, war, society and human nature.  It is a helpful, interesting and, in many ways, saddening glimpse into one agnostic’s efforts to make sense of the depravity of man.


Some Reflections on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Last week I had to go out of town and found myself with an eighteen-hour road trip (round-trip).  So, to kill the time, I routed my Kindle through my car stereo speakers and downloaded a free copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to listen to on the way.  Why?  I have no idea, really, other than that I wanted to listen to something fictional, something that I had never read before, and something that would not require much thought.  For some reason, I thought of Frankenstein, downloaded it, hit text-to-speech on the Kindle (which worked well with this book, with the speech setting on “Slower”), and headed on down the road.

In summary, it was amazing and, frankly, very thought-provoking.

I am used, of course, to the pop culture Frankenstein, he of the bolts-in-the-neck.  I suppose I’ve seen two or three versions of the story on film.  None of them match the book.

The book has stayed with me a bit, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this amazing story in no particular order.

  • I KNOW that the monster is not named “Frankenstein.”  Frankenstein is the doctor: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.  But man, oh man, it’s hard to break that habit, isn’t it?  The monster has no name, other than “monster” or “demon” or somesuch.  But I suspect that battle is lost, as far as popular culture is concerned:  witness the name on the bobble-head picture fronting this post.
  • I was surprised at how little the book actually says about the actual means of creating the monster.  The actual act of creation is passed over very quickly.  There are hints earlier, of course, of harnessing electricity for reanimation, but the act is never shown.  In fact, when the captain of the Arctic-bound ship asks Frankenstein how he did it, Frankenstein grows utterly incensed at the question and refuses to say (since he never wants it done again).
  • That story really is a brilliant example of how to elicit conflicting emotions: you simultaneously sympathize with the monster, even as you loathe his cold blooded-ness.
  • Ditto for Dr. Frankenstein.
  • I was surprised at the eloquence of the monster, even to the point where Dr. Frankenstein has to warn the captain not to be swayed by his eloquence.
  • Mary Shelley’s writing really is beautiful.
  • The interplay between the story and the Genesis account of creation really is fascinating, if you think about it.
  • I was really hooked when the monster describes to Dr. Frankenstein his sensations on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (what a fascinating picture), and his perceptions of how he is like and unlike Adam and Lucifer.
  • In doing some follow-up reading on Shelley, I was amazed to find how much the book really is an interaction with Paradise Lost.  (i.e., God is referred to as “the Victor” in Paradise Lost, etc.)
  • The book is a powerful and damning indictment on the cruelty of man.
  • The book is a probing exploration of the limits of man’s knowledge and the limitations of the natural sciences.
  • I kept wandering if Shelley was making some commentary on the Christian story in this book:  i.e., man is created, abandoned and cursed by his creator, who he is simultaneously drawn to and hates (I’m not saying that is the Christian story, of course.  I’m just wondering if Shelley was trying to summarize her own take on Christianity through the character of Frankenstein.)  Maybe not, but I think it likely.
  • I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be hunting down a biography of Shelley now to figure this out.
  • Shelley’s description of the physical features of the monster are more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in the movie renditions (i.e., yellow skin, watery eyes, etc.)
  • Oddly enough, it was wonderful hearing the story read.  There’s just something about hearing scary stories, no?
  • The book is amazing.  Read it (or, as I did, listen to it).

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz


I’m still reeling from this book, so you will have to be patient.  Mrs. Richardson and I finished it last night, and I found it to be, in a word, astounding.  Of all the novels we’ve read together, this will go down as one of the most memorable.

Originally published in 1959, the late Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most profound, unsettling, haunting, effective, and brilliant novels I have ever read.  It’s a scifi cult classic, and with good reason.  I think I agree with Time magazine’s initial assessment of the book as “Extraordinary…Chillingly effective.”

I should probably call my father and apologize to him, for he has been telling me for years that I really need to read this book.

He was right.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future and tracing the events of the human race primarily through the lens of a monastic community in the deserts of western North America called The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz. The book consists of three movements dealing with three different periods of time:  the 26th century, the year 3174 A.D., and the year 3781 A.D.

The first period deals with the resulting dark ages of ignorance, savagery, and brutality following nuclear holocaust (the “flame deluge” in Miller’s memorable terminology).  The Order of Leibowitz is a monastic community determined to preserve “the memorabilia,” or the remains of the past society of men.  The second movement finds the order dealing with an increase in scientific knowledge, the beginning emergence of the human race out of the long darkness of its own ignorance, and the reconstruction of the basic contours of society.  It is, however, a time also of great strife and war.  The final movement finds the human race in a state of great technological advancement but plagued by the old, consistent malady of man’s moral, societal, and ethical corruption.

In truth, the common thread throughout each epoch, and, in my opinion, the primary concern of Miller’s novel, is precisely the problem of original sin and man’s refusal to recognize that all political and social attempts at reestablishing Eden on the earth inevitably dissipate into barbarism and, ultimately, self-destruction.

Miller was a tail-gunner in WWII, and he knew well the ravages of war.  He participated in the bombing and destruction of a famous monastery in Italy, an event that had a dramatic impact on his life and, obviously, his writing.  He converted to Catholicism (a point that must be grasped if the novel is to be understood) but later lived in adultery, became extremely reclusive, and, finally, died at his own hand in 1996.

Miller understood theology very, very well, and the book is marked by both theological depth and, at times, density.  Some readers may find the copious Latin references burdensome, but they are quite germane to the story and helpful in creating mood and context.

Miller is thoroughly Augustinian in his view of the sinfulness of man.  More than once the abbots of the Leibowitzian order pontificate on the disastrous effects of both the Fall of Man and man’s refusal to see and understand the radical implications of that Fall.  This aspect of the novel reaches its apex in the concluding thoughts of Abbot Zerchi during the second nuclear holocaust as he lay dying.

“The trouble with the world is me…Thee me Adam Man we.  No ‘worldly evil’ except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies….’Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me; Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me,’ he said aloud.” (330)

In truth, Miller’s handling of harmatology, soteriology, and theophany in this novel are quite impressive.  Along the way, the novel also offers powerful reflections on war, technology, and euthanasia (particularly in part 3).

In many ways, it’s harder to describe an overwhelming book than a lesser one, and I find that I’m experiencing that even now.  So perhaps I should simply end with this:  A Canticle for Leibowitz is everything a great book should be.  It is thought-provoking, psychologically and emotionally engaging, challenging in the various dilemmas it offers the reader, memorable in its descriptive force, and, ultimately, expressive of the grand verities of the gospel.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and I intend to read it again.

A great, great read.

Highly recommended.

Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, A Christian Manifesto

[The following essay explores the role that Francis Schaeffer played in the rise of the pro-life movement.  It examines the place of How Should We Then Live?Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto in that process.]

One of the most enigmatic, controversial, and influential figures in the growth of the “pro-life” movement was Francis August Schaeffer.  It was the issue of abortion in particular that drove Schaeffer to shift his later work in the direction of political involvement and mobilization.(1)  Yet, despite the enormous impact of his books and films on the public, it was in his influencing of key individuals that Schaeffer made his greatest contribution.
The most effective way to understand Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life movement is to consider the appearance and influence of his 1976 book and film How Should We Then Live?, his 1979 book and filmWhatever Happened to the Human Race?, and his 1981 book A Christian Manifesto.  These three works represent an important evolution in both Schaeffer’s and a large part of American Evangelicalism’s understanding of and willingness to participate in the abortion debate.

Schaeffer’s Shift to Political Activism

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was becoming apparent to many of Francis Schaeffer’s followers that he had made a rather substantial shift in his work.  Whereas he had previously focused on merely critiquing and explaining philosophy, culture, and the church, he was now seen to be flirting too much with political activism.  Ronald Wells bemoaned in 1983 that Schaeffer’s “present fixation is with political action and social protest” and that what was damaging to Schaeffer and his followers was for them to “embrace and baptize the Christian Right.”(2)  Regardless of Schaeffer’s efforts to downplay any idea of his having abandoned his earlier focus, it was apparent to all that a shift had indeed taken place.(3)

Yet the presence of Schaeffer’s voice in the growing political activity of fundamentalist Christians, and particularly in the fight against abortion, was seen as a truly powerful catalyst for and in the growth of the movement.  So great was Schaeffer’s influence and so early was it recognized that Newsweekmagazine wrote a full page article on him in 1982 and declared him “the newest celebrity in the fundamentalist firmament.”(4)  Richard Pierard would later declare that the “coopting” of Schaeffer’s voice with the growing movement of political activism among fundamentalists was “the Right’s biggest coup by far.”(5)

While the recognition of Schaeffer’s influence among certain circles of Christians was correct and justifiable, the failure of the above-mentioned sources to understand Schaeffer as a cause of the rise of the Christian Right is mistaken.  He was not merely “coopted” into the movement, he was a major cause of it.  The beginning of his influence in the rising political activism of fundamentalists, and in particular in their efforts against abortion, is found in 1976 and the introduction of the film and bookHow Should We Then Live? to the public.

How Should We Then Live?

It is difficult to imagine How Should We Then Live? as a book which took a prominent place in the growth of a “grass-roots” movement such as fundamentalist political activism.  The book seeks to trace the historical, philosophical, and cultural events in which an “existential methodology” entered into society and into the hearts of modern men and women, detached the culture from its previous anchoring in an objective source of truth (the Bible), allowed for the growth of humanism, and susequently allowed morality and ethics to be defined in a purely arbitrary and relative way.(6)  While the book does not really differ from his earlier work in regards to its discussion of humanism and its effects, it did vary greatly in its discussion of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision concerning abortion as a product of humanistic ideology.(7)  Even more substantial is the fact that Schaeffer’s first plea for Christian activism against abortion is found in this book.(8)

While the discussion on abortion does not take up a major part of the book, How Should We Then Live?must be seen as the work in which the public was first introduced to Schaeffer’s view on the subject.  Had the book received little attention, then it would have to be considered largely irrelevent in the formation of the Pro-Live movement.  Yet the presence of an accompanying film and lecture tour, however, helped to make it a major factor indeed.

In 1976, the year of the book’s release, Schaeffer went on an eighteen city tour in which he showed the ten-part film version of the book.(9)  The response was overwhelming.  Forty-five hundred people viewed the film in Oakland, thirty-one hundred in Chicago, sixty-six hundred in Los Angeles, and forty-four hundred in Toronto.(10)  It was also shown in England and much of Europe.(11)  The film broke the all-time “booking” record for Gospel Films.(12)

The book, undoubtedly helped by the film, sold forty thousand copies in its first three months.(13)  Three years later, in 1979, it was still selling fifteen-hundred copies a month.(14)  These numbers alone seem to lend credence to L.G. Parkhurst’s suggestion that the book and film “had a remarkable effect upon Western culture and Christian leaders in various governments around the world.”(15)

Through this medium, then, Schaeffer’s assessment of abortion and the need for Christian opposition gained a wide audience.  One important figure in this audience was John W. Whithead, the founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.  The Rutherford Institute has become a major vehicle of Christian political activism as well as a strong voice against the practice of abortion.  It seeks to battle in the courts over free speech and religious issues.(16)

Whitehead notes that How Should We Then Live? was “an important catalyst for me and other Christian lawyers interested in seeing society positively influenced by Christianity.”(17)  He was similiarly moved by the book’s claim that abortion was a violation of the sanctity of life.  After making the important point that Schaeffer was the first main Protestant leader to launch a strong attack against abortion, he notes that “Schaeffer’s critique of the abortion issue was the initial impetus for my own defense of the sanctity of human life.”(18)

How Should We Then Live? takes its place as the starting point of Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life Movement.  First, it introduced a unique critique of abortion as well as the suggestion that the church should raise its voice against the practice.  Second, by the use of film, Schaeffer reached an extremely large audience, widened his influence, and drew national attention to the issues he raised.  And lastly, the book and film inspired John Whitehead to steer The Rutherford Institute  (an institution which is still very important to many in the Christian Right and Pro-Life movement) in the direction of free speech issues, religious issues, political activism and opposition to abortion.

Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

While How Should We Then Live? introduced Schaeffer’s views on abortion and Christian activism, his 1979 book and film series entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, co-authored with soon-to-be Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, catapulted the subject of abortion as an evil to be opposed into the middle of the evangelical mind set.  The book suggests that abortion has become possible because America has released itself from its “Judeo-Christian moorings.”(19)  It then suggests that abortion naturally leads to infanticide and euthanasia.(20)  Lastly, Schaeffer appeals for Christian involvement in the fight against abortion.(21)

The film version of the book would prove to have a tremendous impact on the Pro-Life movement.  In September, 1979, Schaeffer and Koop began a film/lecture tour in Philadelphia and travelled west showing it in other major cities of the country.(22)  In February, 1980, Schaeffer showed the film to a group of Congressmen in Washington, D.C.(23)  Schaeffer, Dr. Koop, and an English doctor then sparked a great deal of attention as they showed the film throughout England.(24)  While this tour drew smaller crowds than the How Should We Then Live? tour, it is widely agreed that its impact on the Pro-Life movement was even greater than that of the first tour.(25)

The film was also shown on various television stations throughout the United States and other countries.  The Humanist magazine, in an extremely critical article, would later call Schaeffer a “prominent figure in the Pro-Life movement” and suggest that the film was “seen by millions” on television. (26)

It also gained national attention, as well as criticism from Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and the National Abortion Rights Action League, when a group of Pentecostal Christians bought air time at a Washington, D.C., television station and showed Whatever Happened to the Human Race? during the confirmation process of C. Everett Koop as the Reagan Surgeon General.(27)

The impact of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? on the Pro-Life movement was enormous.  Harold O.J. Brown suggests that “nothing has had an impact across the board that compares to the Schaeffer-Koop series.”(28)  Historian William Martin notes that the book, film, and tour are “often credited with having been the single most important factor in bringing evangelicals into the fight against abortion.”(29)  Denis Haack suggests that, while Schaeffer and Koop were not the first evangelicals to attack the issue, the book and film were instrumental in bringing more evangelicals into the fight against abortion.(30)  Feminist author Rosaling Petchesky also revealed the importance of the film when she condemned it as “a major ‘right-to-life’ propaganda piece.”(31)

The most important contribution that the book and film made to the Pro-Life movement, however, was in its influencing of a young man at Elim Bible Institute.  It was there that Randall Terry would seeWhatever Happened to the Human Race?.(32)  Terry points to his viewing of the film as the defining moment in his life and as the point of awakening in which he realized that he must do something about abortion.(33)  He would later use this conviction to found Operation Rescue, undoubtedly the most well known and controversial wing of the Pro-Life movement.(34)  In the case of Randall Terry, as in the case of John Whitehead, the assertion that Schaeffer’s greatest impact on the Pro-Life movement was in the people he influenced is proven true again.

A Christian Manifesto

How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? were powerful in convicting the Evangelical community about the need to combat abortion.  It was in A Christian Manifesto, however, that Schaeffer gave his clearest, and most controversial, call to political activism.  Schaeffer considered A Christian Manifesto to be “the next logical step” in his call for Christian involvement against abortion.(35)

In this important book, Schaeffer begins by condemning the Evangelical church for its apathy about issues such as abortion.(36) He then makes his most blatant call for political action by showing that there is “a window of opportunity” open to the Christians in the conservative Reagan administration.(37)  He concludes with his extremely controversial suggestion that, if “the window” closes, Christians must consider civil disobedience and possibly even the use of force to oppose “authoritarianism” and the promotion of humanistic practices such as abortion.(38)

While the book proved to be extremely influential in bringing Evangelicals into the political arena, it also served to polarize Schaeffer from many in the Christian community.  Ronald Wells suggested that the book should have been entitled “A Fundamentalist Manifesto,” “because it bears all the marks of that unfortunate movement.”(39)  W. Merwin Forbes wrote of his uneasiness with it and suggested that, after having read it, he was sure that a true “Christian manifesto” had not yet been written.(40)

Regardless of these and other criticisms, the book exploded onto the scene.  It sold two hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first year.(41)  Newsweek reported that Schaeffer spoke to an audience consisting of Sen. Paul Laxalt, Rep. Jack Kemp, and various other government officials in the winter of 1981 about the book and its contents.  Conservative columnist Cal Thomas praised the book as a “a battle plan for the rest of the century” and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ praised Schaeffer as “one of the greatest men of our times.”(42)  Pat Robertson was also greatly influenced by it.(43)  Furthermore, Randall Terry suggested that, while Whatever Happened to the Human Race? convicted him about abortion, A Christian Manifesto gave him instructions on how to act out his convictions.

The greatest impact of the book, however, was found in the figure of Jerry Falwell.  Falwell notes that he was early on convicted by the writings of Schaeffer and Dr. Jack Wilke concerning abortion.(44)  Despite being moved by their arguments, his convictions concerning Christian exclusivism left him with “terrific problem”  concerning how one could go about mobilizing a large enough group of people to make a difference.(45)  It was Schaeffer’s call for Christians to cooperate with non-Christians in social causes that gave Falwell a peace about founding such cooperative efforts as The Moral Majority.(46)

Falwell took a particular interest in A Christian Manifesto.  He purchased sixty-two thousand copies of the book and distributed it over his television show, “The Old Time Gospel Hour.”(47)  Furthermore, Falwell began following Schaeffer’s advice to him that he use “The Old Time Gospel Hour” as a political action vehicle.(48)  Through Falwell, then, Schaeffer was able to have a tremendous impact on the rise of the Pro Life movement and on Christian political action in general.

The cumulative effect of How Should We Then Live?Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto on the Pro-Life movement is certainly significant.  The three works constitute a progression from the initial introduction of the practice of abortion as it fits within humanistic ideology (HSWTL?), to a passionate description of the practices and results of abortion (WHTTHR?), to an appeal for Christian political involvement in the fight to stop abortion (Manifesto).  Most important of all is the fact that these three works directly influenced the growth, development, and direction of Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute, Terry’s Operation Rescue, and Falwell’s Moral Majority.

How Schaeffer is Remembered

Another way of understanding Schaeffer’s impact on the Pro-Life movement is to view how he is remembered by both his followers and his critics.  Denis Haack views Schaeffer as a “champion” of the sanctity of human life.(49)  Earl Lee, an opponent of Schaeffer, referred to him as a “prominent figure in the Pro-Life movement.”(50)  Schaeffer’s obituary in The New York Times referred him as an author and as an architect of “a much publicized crusade against abortion.”(51)  Marian Faux called Schaeffer the “philosopher-king” of Pro-Life leaders such as Randall Terry.(52)  Ronald Nash remembered Schaeffer as one who “captured the spirit of millions of evangelicals” concerning the abortion issue.(53)  Lastly, while suggesting that Schaeffer’s followers have possibly overstated his importance in other areas, Richard Neuhaus does praise him for bringing the issue of abortion into the discussions, minds, and hearts of Protestants.(54)

But Schaeffer’s influence on the Pro-Life movement must undoubtedly return to a consideration of those he influenced.  Nash rightly considers Schaeffer’s influence over others who would carry on the work as his “greatest accomplishment.”(55)  The list includes: Harold O.J. Brown, Os Guinness, Jack Kemp, C. Everett Koop, Randall Terry, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.(56)

1. Michael S Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer,” Christianity Today, 3 March 1997, 30.
2. Ronald Wells, “Whatever Happened to Francis Schaeffer?,”  The Reformed Journal 33 (May 1983): 11,13.
3. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1984), 185n16.
4. Kenneth Woodward, “Guru of Fudamentalism,” Newsweek, 1 November 1982, 88.
5. Richard V. Pierard, Religion and State: Essays in Honor of Leo Pfeffer, ed. James E. Wood, Jr. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 1985), 400-401.
6. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, Co., 1976), 255-256.
7. Hamilton, 28.
8. Schaeffer, HSWTL?, 256.
9. Hamilton, 28.
10. Stephen Board, “The Rise of Francis Schaeffer,” Eternity, June 1977, 40.
11. D. Keith Mano, review of How Should We Then Live?, by Francis Schaeffer, National Review, 18 March 1977, 345.
12. Philip Yancey, “Francis Schaeffer: A Prophet for Our Times?,” Christianity Today, 23 March 1979, 17.
13. Mano, 345.
14. Yancey, 17.
15. L.G. Parkhurst, Jr., Francis and Edith Schaeffer (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), 115.
16. John W. Whitehead, Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work., ed. Lane T. Dennis (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1986), 177.
17. Ibid., 181.
18. Ibid., 182.
19. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis A. Schaeffer, vol.5, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, with C. Everett Koop (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 284.
20. Ibid., 308,329.
21. Ibid., 405-410.
22. Parkhurst, 124.
23. Ibid., 125.
24. Parkhurst, 126.
25. Hamilton, 28.
26. Earl Lee, “Francis Schaeffer: Prophet of the Religious Right,” The Humanist, September/October 1988, 27.
27. C. Everett Koop, M.D., Koop: The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor (New York: Random House, 1991), 130.
28. Martin, 194.
29. Ibid., 239.
30. Denis Haack, “Francis August Schaeffer, RIP,” National Review, 15 June 1984, 20.
31. Rosaling Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice (New York: Longman Inc., 1984), 339-340.
32. Marian Faux, Crusaders: Voices From the Abortion Front (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990, 133.
33. Martin, 321.
34. Faux, 138.
35. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis A. Schaeffer, vol.5, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 417.
36. Ibid., 454-455.
37. Ibid., 457.
38. Ibid., 475-482, 483-491.
39. Ronald A. Wells, “Francis Schaeffer’s Jeremiad,” The Reformed Journal 32 (May 1982): 19.
40. W. Merwin Forbes, review of A Christian Manifesto, by Francis Schaeffer, Grace Theological Journal 4 (Fall 1983): 309.
41. Woodward, 88.
42. Ibid., 88.
43. Hamilton, 29.
44. Jerry Falwell, Strength for the Journey:  An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 335.
45. Ibid., 361.
46. Ibid., 361-362.
47. Woodward, 88.
48. Martin, 197.
49. Haack, 20.
50. Lee, 27.
51. The New York Times (New York), 17 May 1984.
52. Faux, 134.
53. Ronald Nash, Evangelicals in America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987, 105.
54. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Schaeffer Legacy,” First Things, June/July 1993, 64.
55. Nash, 92.
56. Michael G. Maudlin, “Midwives of Francis Schaeffer,” Christianity Today, 3 March 1997, 6.