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.


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