This is the beginning of a series of weekly posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film series called How Should We Then Live? The first regular installment was posted the following Thursday.
By the late 1970s, wearing knickerbockers and turtlenecks, with collar-length hair and a bushy goatee, Francis Schaeffer looked a bit like a shepherd who had come inside for a poetry reading—which I suppose is, metaphorically speaking, precisely what he was. He spoke in a soft, hoarse tenor. His accent had become unplaceably transatlantic without quite losing the sound of working-class Germantown, Philadelphia. In photographs and films, he always looked a bit sad.
And, of course, Francis Schaeffer had made a new life in French-speaking Switzerland. That was a very long way, in more than one sense, from the fundamentalist Presbyterian churches that had provided his early intellectual formation in America’s future rust belt.
Though he struggled with incapacitating depression and an explosive temper, Francis Schaeffer, together with his wife Edith and their children, had opened their home to a little international community, aiming to share the life of the mind. Established in 1955, L’Abri, meaning “The Shelter,” had become a kind of Protestant ashram, combining aspects of a youth hostel, a utopian community, and a religious study group.
There, in chalets in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, the Schaeffers offered hospitality—but also, as they saw it, uncompromising lessons in the truth—to intellectual wanderers. They promised “honest answers to honest questions,” which became a catchphrase. For if “Christianity is truth,” Francis reasoned in 1974, it must have answers about “every aspect of life”—but this required “that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation” in the first place.
By the 1980s, this paradoxical Pennsylvanian in Switzerland—whom his own daughter would jokingly call “a very odd man”—had become one of the most important writers and speakers in America’s evangelical movement. By extension, he exercises a crucial influence on U.S. politics to this day. (L’Abri still exists, too, with satellite study centers as far away as Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea. The name, by the way, is pronouced “lah-BREE.”)
Here’s what interests me for the purposes of this blog: Between 1974 and 1977, Francis Schaeffer, a preacher with no relevant academic training, attempted an ambitious interpretation of European cultural history in the form of a documentary film series and a companion book.
Distributed through churches, and publicized on a speaking tour of North America, How Should We Then Live? made a significant impression on U.S. evangelical Protestants. It did that at a time when the organized evangelical movement—a specific kind of socially aware Protestantism, sharing many concerns with fundamentalism but sometimes adopting different methods—was coming into wider public view and reevaluating its position in party politics.
Today, in an age of advanced globalization and overextended imperial power, when far too many Christian conservatives in the United States have embraced xenophobic extremism, I believe that Francis Schaeffer’s view of European history still shapes the conversations that some Americans are having about the nature and significance of “the west.”
Its argument, however, is not necessarily what one might expect.
True, as one might assume from the blunt subtitle The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Schaeffer’s work does interpret the last two millennia of European history as a story of faith and decadence. The title itself is ominous, too: it alludes to a line in Ezekiel 33, in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God warns his people of coming catastrophe unless they repent.
But as I recall, How Should We Then Live? isn’t a story about Christian greatness in contrast with non-Christian or post-Christian societies. In no way (that I remember) does it champion Fortress Christendom against a larger world. Nor does it spin a yarn of western uniqueness. Nor is it a warning about a looming divine judgment, at least not in the literal sense that fundamentalist self-declared prophets of the 1970s proclaimed.
Instead, it is a story about people who happened to be in Europe or the United States supposedly embracing, distorting, reclaiming, and then ultimately losing a basis for the belief that life has any intelligible meaning. In my recollection, in other words, How Should We Then Live? is essentially a story about modernity, not about the west as such. Many of the supposed touchstones of the history of western civilization don’t figure at all in this account.
Whether that distinction offers any comfort to people who are anxious about Christian nationalism and white supremacy in the United States in 2021, though, is an interesting question. I think it’s very likely that Francis Schaeffer’s interpretation of European history has contributed to far more partisan and militant framings of western identity than Schaeffer anticipated at the time. And it will be interesting to see how well my memory of the series holds up to a fresh viewing.
(From here on, if you don’t mind, I’m going to drop the awkward question mark from the title, for the sake of the flow of my own text.)
This is where I explain that I watched How Should We Then Live several times as a teenager. My family had a full boxed set of the VHS tapes, as well as a first edition of the book.
Years later, mostly by coincidence, I also attended an evangelical church pastored by the late Jeremy C. Jackson, a Penn-trained early modern historian who had collaborated with Schaeffer during the 1970s. Indeed, Jeremy is credited in the book version of How Should We Then Live as its “chief historical researcher.” (Not to put too fine a point on it, when Schaeffer drafted his manuscript, Jeremy supplied the facts.)
So it’s safe to say that Schaeffer’s work has been an important reference point in my life.
But it’s been about two decades since I last watched or read How Should We Then Live. During those decades, many things about my intellectual world have changed. And for the past few years, both as a college teacher and as a U.S. citizen, I have been reflecting often on the troublesome roles that the notion of “western civilization” still plays in contemporary American life.
So this summer, with a certain amount of trepidation, I’m going to revisit Francis Schaeffer’s work. My plan is to write a weekly series here as I make my way through the ten episodes of the film.
What could this possibly accomplish? I’m not sure. But I have inklings.
For conservative evangelical intellectuals and culture warriors, the influence of Francis Schaeffer’s view of western cultural history has been vast.
Consider the future congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who would become perhaps the most important congressional leader of the Tea Party movement in the Republican Party during the 2000s, and who would be one of the most virulently anti-Muslim national officials in the United States before Donald Trump.
As a young evangelical, soon after happily attending Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as a student in 1977, Michele Bachmann watched How Should We Then Live and reportedly experienced a political transformation. Much later, she would recommend the film series to her supporters in Iowa:
That also was another profound influence on [my husband]’s life and my life, because we understood that the God of the Bible isn’t just about Bible stories and about Bible knowledge, or about just church on Sunday. He is the Lord of all of life. Every bit of life, including sociology, theology, biology, politics. You name the area and walk of life. He is the Lord of life. And so, as we went back to our [college] studies, we looked at studying in a completely different light.
Bachmann’s strong response to How Should We Then Live is hardly unique.
Joe Carter, who used to dominate the George-W.-Bush-era Christian blogosphere from a site suggestively called the Evangelical Outpost, has testified that a single page of How Should We Then Live has had an “immeasurable” effect on him since he encountered it as a teenager. The seminary president Albert Mohler, who is currently leading a campaign against the influence of (supposed) critical race theory and intersectionality in Southern Baptist communities, has written that Schaeffer’s work “introduced me to the great collision of worldviews”—that is, a conflict between secular humanism and Christianity—“that became such a central interest and urgency of my life.” Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who certified George W. Bush’s presidential victory in 2000, actually spent time with Schaeffer at L’Abri soon after the film series was made. The journalist Lisa Harris, the author of a memoir about the evangelical homeschooling movement, has described watching How Should We Then Live with her parents in the 1990s as part of a comprehensive training for culture war. (The book is still widely used in private academies, Christian colleges, and seminaries.) And at the turn of the millennium, the former Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, together with Nancy Pearcey, wrote a bestselling book supposedly building on its ideas, and certainly borrowing its title.
On the other hand, for some conservative Christians today, How Should We Then Live apparently has a you-had-to-be-there quality. A lot has changed in American Christianity since Schaeffer died in 1984.
Bradley W. Anderson, an Orthodox convert from Protestantism, recently described going back to the book and film versions of How Should We Then Live after many years and being “surprised to find them to be virtually unreadable and unwatchable—in content, argumentation, quality of writing, datedness, you name it.” He remained grateful for Schaeffer’s work, though:
His books were for a certain place and time in our country’s religious and cultural life, and for a particular setting of intellectual vulnerability from which I might not otherwise have emerged spiritually intact. I wasn’t alone in how I was affected—a whole generation of conservative Protestant Christians was shaped by the same experience.
Through the reactions of viewers like these, How Should We Then Live has influenced contemporary Americans’ understandings of western culture much more extensively than its raw circulation numbers might show.
It did not simply change minds. It changed the minds of people who dedicated their lives to changing other minds—and to changing the basic terms of politics in the United States.
Schaeffer’s son Frank, previously known as Franky (or Francis A. Schaeffer V), developed and produced his father’s film series as a young man. By all accounts, How Should We Then Live would not have come into being without him. For a few years following its release, young Frank advanced a more bombastic version of his father’s perspective, publishing books with titles like Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, and A Time for Anger: The Myth of Neutrality. (He also directed a few regrettable off-Hollywood films.)
Later, however, the son spiraled away from key aspects of the Schaeffer legacy, leaving evangelicalism entirely. A few years ago, he published a book about becoming “an atheist who believes in God.” In the 1990s, more to the point, he satirized his family in a trilogy of short autobiographical novels. (They’re pretty brutal.) And in many different venues, including the bittersweet 2007 memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, Frank Schaeffer has described his father’s intellectual career as having its own spectacular rise and tragic decline.
Frank, who was born in 1952, remembered Francis running a strict and stereotypical fundamentalist household when Frank was little—“you know, no cards, no board games on Sunday; no music except hymns and J.S. Bach; no books except the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress on Sunday.” Theologically, too, Francis had been an ally of inveterate Presbyterian church-splitters like the South Jersey fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who denounced Billy Graham’s moderate evangelical supporters as “cowardly appeasers, liberal teasers and Communist pleasers” and warned the faithful near Philadelphia about “Stalin’s Agents in Camden County.” Nevertheless, Frank was able to see his father come to question many aspects of American fundamentalism.
First came a shift in both theology and tone. Around the beginning of the 1950s, the Schaeffers rejected key aspects of fundamentalist separatism, which they had come to see as lacking in love (and perspective). The founding of L’Abri in 1955 marked a full financial departure from the conservative American churches they had represented as missionaries. Then came something more, as Francis became (in his son’s words) “a very cool guy” by the late 1960s, engaging directly with the ferment of the age: holding appreciative conversations about art with backpacking hippies, or listening enraptured at a Jefferson Airplane concert under a haze of other people’s marijuana. It was this second phase that turned Francis Schaeffer into an international public intellectual and led to How Should We Then Live.
Things escalated quickly in the sixties and early seventies. According to Crazy for God, Jimmy Page told a teenage Frank around 1969 that Eric Clapton had given him a copy of one of Francis Schaeffer’s books, and Joan Baez had a friend staying at L’Abri. Timothy Leary actually visited Francis in Switzerland, while Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards—to general disappointment—promised to come but never did.
Having achieved a remarkable degree of openness to the secular cultural and intellectual world, however, Francis was pulled back into the American culture war by the 1980s.
Within a few years of producing How Should We Then Live, Francis found himself publicly allied not only with people like his longtime friend C. Everett Koop—an elite Philadelphia pediatric surgeon and future U.S. surgeon general, with whom Schaeffer produced a second film series condemning abortion and euthanasia in 1979—but also with populist broadcast personalities like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson—people he privately considered power-hungry “idiots.”
Frank has assigned himself much of the blame for his father’s late turn, claiming that it was his own passion for the pro-life cause (not to mention his interest in filmmaking) that drew Francis down from his Alpine communal experiment and into the toxic identity politics of the Reagan-era Christian right.
In How Should We Then Live, however, we can see both versions of Francis Schaeffer simultaneously. This is history presented by both the fundamentalist culture warrior and the connoisseur of secular culture. (As Sarah Edwards has observed, the book “reads like a crash course in art history superimposed over the Book of Revelation.”) The undeniable tension between these perspectives is precisely what made the series—and Schaeffer’s work in general—electrifying.
In How Should We Then Live, we see an attempt not only to define western civilization and claim it for Christianity, and vice versa, but also an attempt (quite shocking to some religious viewers) to lay claim to the west’s very worldliness for reactionary Protestantism.
This was a totally paradoxical project, doomed to disappoint almost anyone studying history, literature, or art for their own sake; guaranteed to terrify non-evangelicals with its argument for sectarian hegemony; but equally guaranteed to introduce cognitive dissonance into the lives of many believers who paid close attention.
But paradox and cognitive dissonance can be powerful forces in the world.
So this summer, I will be rewatching How Should We Then Live and taking notes. I haven’t yet decided how many episodes to tackle in each post. At one per week, this blog series would last most of the summer, which may not be ideal, so I may need to double up. But I do want to examine each episode carefully.
How sympathetic my criticism will be, I’m honestly not sure.
If you would like to watch along with me this summer, the series is available for free on the YouTube channel of Vision Video. You can watch the series in one go (four and a half hours), or you can watch it one episode at a time. Strangely, however, two episodes are missing from the public playlist, and the episodes are out of order. However, the series is also available on Amazon Prime as well as some smaller streaming services.
Still interested? You can keep reading! The next post in this series covers the first episode: “The Roman Age.”
Images: The photographs in this post, and probably most of the images that will be used throughout this series, are included according to fair use principles in the context of noncommercial education and criticism.