So I finally read Francis Schaeffer…

I don’t keep count of how many times people recommend books to me (I never have the presence of mind to start the count on the first instance, and three or four in, I figure I won’t be able to keep an accurate number), but in the case of Francis Schaeffer’s How Shall We then Live?, I can remember when someone first recommended it.  I was home in Indiana on summer break from my first year at Milligan College, where I’d taken two semesters of Humanities (Milligan’s interdisciplinary history/literature/philosophy/art-history core course sequence) from a mostly-conservative English professor and two semesters of Bible survey from a moderate-to-conservative New Testament professor.  While I was talking to the owner and manager of the local Christian bookstore in Indiana about both (and noting that, as someone who was more than a little conservative, he was more than a little concerned about some of the things I was reporting to him as things I’d learned), he noted that they had a video series that I could rent (these were the days when some physical structures kept collections of VHS tapes for people to take home on a nightly-rental basis) by someone called Francis Schaeffer.  It sounded interesting, but since I was on my way back to Tennessee in a short while, I declined to rent it.  Over the years, in online and in-person contexts, several folks have recommended Schaeffer, but until this summer, fifteen years after the first recommendation, I’d never had occasion actually to buy and to read it.  Since it would be more than a bit daft to write a review of a thirty-five-year-old book, I’m going to write a bit about some of the surprises that met me and some of the questions that occurred to me as I read this much-recommended volume.

Two things stuck with me most as I finished the book.  The strangest thing about this book is its central rhetorical contradiction.  Schaeffer clearly knows that he is not writing the first cultural history of the Western tradition: by the time How Then Should We Live? hit the presses in 1976, William Fleming’s Arts and Ideas (which my college used as our art-history textbook) was more than twenty years old and in at least its fourth edition.  I note this not to say that no history is worth rewriting (that’s the point of the discipline of history, as far as I’m concerned) but to note that, when he undertook to write an arts-and-ideas sort of history, he wrote such a history with a particular perspective and for particular purposes.  I knew that’s what he was doing when he attacked Dante and Caravaggio for failing to be good Protestants, and I knew that’s what he was after when he excused the destruction of ancient artworks by over-zealous iconoclastic Protestants as the ill-informed but understandable reaction to a culture of idolatry.  Those sorts of moves, the new assignments of blame and the exoneration of old accusations, is the stuff of revisionist history (which, as Donald Kagan notes in his lectures on Thucydides, gets entirely too bad a rap), and I expect it.

When I got deeper into the book, therefore, I was more than a bit disturbed to see Schaeffer issue a rather panicked assessment of television as a cultural force.  His take was not McLuhan’s, the media-ecological project that would become the nucleus of Neil Postman’s career assault on the tube.  Instead, the television news program is the artistic vision of human beings, something perspectival:

The physical limitations of the camera dictate that only one aspect of the total situation is given.  If the camera were aimed ten feet to the left or ten feet to the right, an entirely different “objective story” might come across.

And, on top of that, the people taking the film and those editing it often to have a subjective viewpoint that enters in.  When we see a political figure on TV, we are not seeing the person as he necessarily is; we are seeing, rather, the image someone has decided we should see.  (240)

I’ll admit that I reread that passage a couple times to make sure I’d read it right.  After all, by that point in this brief book, the reader has gotten a 239-page treatment of Western cultural history as Francis Schaeffer has decided that we should see it.  And given the definite limitations of a brief book on 3000 years of history, Schaeffer’s book is a picture of an account facing physical limitations and therefore giving a partial picture.  I would not attribute such a strange disconnect to willful deception–after all, I never met Francis Schaeffer, and every account I’ve read of the person points to a person with a great concern for the truth–but I do see in this contradiction a suspicion of rhetoric that ignores its own rhetorical project.

The other oddity of the book is its reliance on underdeveloped post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments.  Over and over Schaeffer points to post-Darwinian, mechanistic accounts of human life (Skinnerian and otherwise) as resulting from the humanism of the Italian Renaissance (164 and others).  He likewise credits (without much explanation) the brutal violence of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, as compared to England’s almost-bloodless Glorious Revolution or the relatively subdued American Revolution, to France’s and Russia’s failures to become Protestant (124).  Beyond the grand regional generalizations to which one must consent for these to make sense, one must also agree that there are two sorts of people in the world, namely Protestants and everybody else.  That much one might be able to swallow if one’s reading of Augustine identified civitas dei with Protestantism, but even granting that, Schaeffer never accounts for historical phenomena like the large number of Lutherans that were German citizens and National Socialist party members in the thirties; the fact that the Glorious Revolution happened scarcely a generation after the brutal Civil War in England (whose regicidal faction was unmistakably Protestant); and that the ideas of the Italian Renaissance and the French/German/Swiss Reformation were scarcely easy to separate either in seventeenth-century England or in eighteenth-century America.  That Schaeffer finds Protestant theology more faithful than Catholic or that Schaeffer thinks that certain ideas make other ideas more plausible I can applaud; that he makes complex historical events the simplistic results of sectarian differences I have a harder time with.

Still, several pleasant surprises made this book a fun read.  Although, in the waning years of the Cold War, he’s careful never to issue criticisms of “Capitalism,” Schaeffer does exhibit a nuanced sense of the dangers of economic ideologies, naming “the lack of a compassionate use of accumulated wealth” (114, 116, among others) as a genuine systematic problem that even Protestant regions face and advocating, among other things, universal state health care (116) as policies that only an atheistic/social-Darwinian ideology could imagine opposing.  (I wonder whether the prominent GOP pundits who blurbed my edition of the book–published in 2005, when GOP pundits weren’t nearly as skittish about “the government”–regret that now.)  Moreover, Schaeffer names with delightful clarity why I can’t stand certain films that “the cultured” hold up as unassailable masterpieces, making the distinction between a genuine work of art, which speaks to the whole person, and a “bare philosophic, intellectual statement” (197).  Finally, Schaeffer names well, twenty-five years before such things unfolded in Washington, just how societies without a sense of what the political means, would respond to terrorism.  Such societies, Schaeffer writes, because they do not have any sense of liberty as a genuine political good, will “give up liberties” and welcome “a manipulating authoritarian government” (248) when decades of comfort get disturbed and the government promises to destroy evil (a strange promise for a government to make, as I tried to say even back in the last decade, but then again, it was the folks who recommended Schaeffer who seemed most convinced that a government could do just that).

In other words, this oft-praised book is neither an utter disappointment nor entirely convincing but, as far as my reading is concerned, an interesting possibility that didn’t quite live up to what such a project could be.  That’s nothing to sniff at, of course; I’m sure that my own writing has all of these sorts of flaws without many of its virtues, and although I try to be more forthcoming about the rhetorical quality of my own writing (and even about my own ideologies), there’s nothing here that I can name as willfully deceptive.  Granting that, I still see this book as an attempt to bite off too much subject-matter in too brief a volume, and the writing sometimes shows.  Such a brief book (not even a third of the length of Fleming’s Arts and Ideas) should stay utterly focused on the historical arc, but Schaeffer often breaks off into preacherly anecdotes that never get explained.  Moreover, sometimes the prose style entirely breaks down, most notably when Schaeffer writes about the rise of rock and roll:

This emphasis on hallucinogenic drugs brought with it many rock groups, for example, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix.  Most of their work was from 1965 to 1968. (170)

Whether one likes Schaeffer’s ideas or not, the syntax of this sentence, not to mention the location of Pink Floyd’s and the Grateful Dead’s main work in the mid-sixties, are hard to call anything but sloppy, and one ought not to deny such.  Even so, I do have to tip my hat to any book that mentions the Incredible String Band.  I thought the Gilmour family might be the last place that the Incredible String Band lives on, but here it is, in the textbook of a dozen evangelical colleges.  At any rate, the point here is that this book is a mixed bag of a short volume, at turns nuanced and reductionist, sometimes exhibiting the lifelong teacher’s way with words and sometimes breaking down into freshman-comp prose.  Like many such books, the sorts that get held up as cultural monuments by some and dismissed as hack-jobs by others, it’s probably a bit of both.

I suppose, fifteen years later, I can live with that.

 

14 thoughts on “So I finally read Francis Schaeffer…

  1. Wow, that is an excellent summary of “How Should We Then Live!” I think that your statement “In other words, this oft-praised book is neither an utter disappointment nor entirely convincing but, as far as my reading is concerned, an interesting possibility that didn’t quite live up to what such a project could be” is probably the best description of this particular Schaeffer work that I’ve seen.

    Having said that (spoiler alert! you’re about to have more Schaeffer recommended to you), this is easily Schaeffer’s weakest work. The snarky person in me wants to follow that with “hence its inclusion as a textbook in so many Evangelical colleges”, but I won’t…

    Instead, I’ll suggest a future reading of his Trilogy (“The God Who Is There”, “Escape From Reason”, and “He Is There And He Is Not Silent”). This is, I think, where Schaeffer really shines as he engages with modern philosophy, theology, and culture.

    If you consider it an endorsement, I once had a professor call Francis Schaeffer “the Christian Voegelin.” If that’s not an endorsement (I’m not convinced it is), then feel free to ignore it 🙂

  2. Nathan, a very good post. I read all of Schaeffer’s books in the mid-seventies. I grew up and became a preacher in the non-instrumental Chuch of Christ, and Schaeffer was my “first true love” as a writer outside the Church of Christ.

    I have progressed past him now. I do respect his labor to think through the perils of modern society, but many of the “monsters” of modernity he pointed to are now enjoyed without apology by those who still hold him high, such as TV and rock & roll. Cable and the internet would have horrified him. Most of his admirers who still read his books must speed read through certain sections, or just pretend they did not read what they just read.

    Still, I have fondness for him because he was the first writer that made me feel comfortable thinking outside the box…as small as the box was.

  3. Sure, John. As I note deep in the post, I don’t mean to attribute bad motives to him; on the contrary, I come away from the book thinking, “Wow. This could really have been dynamite if only…”

    Of course, if Coyle is right, then Schaeffer probably did do some of the things I wish he’d done here. (And I’m sorry, Coyle, but I already spend too much time away from my dissertation to put three volumes of Schaeffer on my bedstand! 🙂 ) Incidentally, I’ve not read Voeglin myself, but I probably should, because the only thought I can conjure when I read his name is some real jerks online who always used to quote him. No writer deserves that.

  4. Well… [in a quiet voice so his dissertation committee doesn’t hear] I’m not sure you really need to read Voegelin. He has a cult philosophical following, and that’s about it. I’ve been subjected to him for three years in class, and I’m not sure I’m the better for it (though he is useful to name-drop, both on the dissertation and in certain intellectual circles).

  5. Nathan,

    I’ve already passed this along to a few friends. Good stuff. I was going to mention the Lizza piece if Chris hadn’t beat me to the punch. But my alternate recommendation is Barry Hankins’ recent biography of Schaeffer out of Baylor UPress (http://www.amazon.com/Francis-Schaeffer-Evangelical-Religious-Biography/dp/0802863892). There’s some fascinating material on Schaeffer’s relationship with the “new scholars” of evangelicalism, e.g. Marsden and Noll.

  6. Another comment.

    I would suggest that the inevitable dead end of the “culture” that emerged after the European Renaissance was shown in the recent Avatar film, which at a very basic level was about the “culture” of death versus the culture of life.

    Having already “created” a dying planet, just like we have, the techno-barbarian invaders were compelled by the inexorable logic/momentum of their cultural meme to invade virgin territories, just like we always have.

    It was interesting to notice that almost everyone on the right-side of the culture wars divide, including and especially those that presumed to be “religious”,loathed the film.

    These two images summarize up in very stark terms what Western “culture” is really all about. That is, it about the drive to obtain complete power and control over every one and every thing.

    That power and control seeking project has now reached its inevitable deadly conclusion.

    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html

    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel14.html

    These images are featured in the book The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford. Although it is now a bit dated it is still one of the best books re the origins and cultural consequences of our now technological “civilization”.

    A book which describes the origins and various stages of historical development of what Mumford called The Invisible Megamachine, or THE archetypal “myth” that has always patterned Western Civilization. Which became really big time with the emergence of powerful machines and technologies at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

    1. I can see your point about large cultural trends, John. My point is that blaming all of it on Dante seems a bit reductionistic.

      I know I’m going to shoot what little Reformed cred I’ve got with this statement, but I still consider Dante and Milton and Bunyan (just to pick three Christian poets at random) differently biblical rather than more or less biblical than the other two. I realize that such an admission that plurality is possible within the tradition flies in the face of some Protestant intellectual circles, but I’m still inclined to see enough common ground that I call all three simply Christian.

  7. Schaeffer’s film series and book came out during my freshman year in college. These and his other writings had an enormous influence on myself and many others in the “evangelical” subculture of the time. Like many others I uncritically accepted his presentation, particularly that in “How Should We Then Live”, as gospel truth (something I don’t think he ever claimed for them). It wasn’t until decades later that I realize they were neither. Looking back on that time now, I know I would have profited much more if I’d engaged the serious scholarship offered by my professors in college, and maybe grappled with the much more substantial (and challenging) work that the Niebuhr brothers had left behind.

    1. @plembo The Niebuhrs have their baggage as well, but I do find interesting the fact that Schaeffer so often seems to have a story to go along with him.  For you it was freshman year; for me it was the Christian bookstore.  Either way, I have to think there’s a degree of influence there that fascinates me.  (After all, I rarely tell stories of my first encounter with John J. Collins or Lamin Sanneh.)

  8. To the author: Might I recommend you to read and critique Nancy Pearcey’s book “Saving Leonardo,” if you have not already done so. It is similarly outlined as “How Should We Then Live?” However, it explores more of the areas of art and philosophy. I would deeply enjoy to read your thoughts on the book and about how it does or does not fix many of Schaeffer’s generalizations of history. 

    A side note, I read this book in 2011, and it helped me begin to form my thoughts on ideas throughout history. In multiple ways he spoke wisely on the future happenings of the Western world, and I truly appreciate all he contributed to the scholarly pool of his time. 

    Thanks for the analysis on “How Should We Then Live?”

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