How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 1 (The Roman Age)

This is the first regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film series called How Should We Then Live? If you haven’t already seen it, I strongly recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Roman Age.” (Because I’m still introducing key aspects of the overall series, today’s post is significantly longer than most will be. I hope you’ll bear with me.)

Last week, we talked about why Francis Schaeffer’s 1977 film series How Should We Then Live is important. Now let’s settle in to watch the first episode.

From the moment I began rewatching How Should We Then Live for this blog series, three things stood out.

First: It’s very seventies.

The DVDs are better than the YouTube version, but either way, the film is grainy, with washed-out color. We should remember that it was made before documentarians could produce high-definition movies on a low budget. I don’t hold that against it. As the 1970s publicity materials often stressed, How Should We Then Live was filmed on location in a dozen countries over the course of two years, and as I recall, the budget exceeded a million dollars, which was then an eye-watering sum for an evangelical ministry. I think the investment paid off. But if you’re approaching How Should We Then Live for the first time, you should temper your expectations about its production values.

Second, there’s something odd about the way it’s structured.

Francis Schaeffer’s film and book are billed as a story about “the rise and decline of western culture.” Several people connected with evangelical Christian communities have told me about using the book in courses about western civilization or world history.

But most textbooks on the history of so-called western civilization, for better or worse, begin in the ancient near east, particularly Mesopotamia and Egypt about five millennia ago. There, in the “fertile crescent,” humans in agricultural communities built some of their earliest cities and states and left some of their earliest writing. This is also basically where the Hebrew Bible places humanity’s origins. For these and other reasons, the ancient near east has been the usual starting point for courses on “western civilization” since the format was developed at Columbia University one hundred years ago.

But that’s not where Francis Schaeffer starts his story. Instead, he skips ahead 3,000 years, and he heads northwest about 2,000 miles. This first episode of How Should We Then Live centers on imperial Rome.

To be fair, that’s also where Kenneth Clark started his then-influential 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View, although Clark had focused on the end of the Roman empire. Schaeffer understood How Should We Then Live as an evangelical rebuttal to Clark’s work. So from a filmmaking perspective, it probably made sense to follow Clark’s lead in organizing topics.

But if you’re relying on How Should We Then Live today to teach the history of western culture, as some evangelical educators still do, you’re missing crucial parts of the traditional story. In fact, you’re skipping roughly the first third of a typical college textbook for Western Civ I. That’s worth keeping in mind.

Anyway, this starting point means that Schaeffer’s history of “the west” begins and ends with Christianity. It has little to say about what any society was like before the Christian era—even in Judea or, with brief exceptions, in the city of Rome. As a history teacher, I have serious concerns about that.

There’s one more thing I noticed right away about this first episode: It begins in the 1970s, and its view of the 1970s is bleak.

It begins with gunshots, sirens, and footage of burning buildings. It shows people apparently facing off against the police in U.S. cities. It shows soldiers firing artillery, probably in southeast Asia, and it depicts what I assume is violence in Northern Ireland.

Then Schaeffer starts speaking. When he appears on camera, he’s strolling through some sort of nighttime urban street scene. He says:

There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted in what people think. And what they think will determine how they act.

There is violence and a breakdown in society up to the point in which it’s unsafe to walk through the streets in many of the cities of the world. On the other hand, there is a danger of an increasing authoritarianism to meet the threat of chaos, in our own countries and internationally.

Should we despair and give in? If not, how should we then live?

So this series about the history of western culture opens with a stark choice for modern societies. We can have social chaos, or we can have authoritarianism—unless we spring for a third option. As you probably can guess, that alternative, providing a way to preserve both order and freedom, is going to be Christianity.

Let’s pause here, only two minutes into the film, to think about the context.

The film version of How Should We Then Live arrived in the United States at the beginning of 1977, when Francis Schaeffer himself took it on tour in several major cities, and when churches across the country arranged screenings and discussions. Before that, I believe, it was in development and production for two years. What else was happening during that time that would have shaped its message or the way people received it?

In 1974, the year the work on the film started, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. By this time, if you lived in the United States, you were also more than twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than you had been a decade earlier; public support for the death penalty had jumped 17 percentage points in five years. Moviegoers heard the antiheroic main characters in Oscar-nominated films talk about waiting for “a real rain” to “wash all this scum off the streets” of New York—referring to Black people and homosexuals, among other targets—and about being “mad as hell” and “not going to take this anymore.” By the time How Should We Then Live was released, your money was worth just two-thirds of what it had been worth at the beginning of the decade; Vietnamese communist forces had captured Saigon; terrorists somewhere in the world were hijacking or bombing an airplane per month; and about 50 bombings a year were taking place inside the United States.

On the other hand, in November 1976, as Gospel Films was preparing to release How Should We Then Live, Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian, was elected as president of the United States, promising a national renewal. He took office in January, while Schaeffer worked on his North American tour to promote the film. This context, too, is important for understanding Schaeffer’s message.

Jimmy Carter’s faith was hardly unusual for a man from Georgia. It wasn’t all that different from his opponent Gerald Ford’s faith, either. And believe it or not, President Ford’s personal spiritual adviser Billy Zeoli was the executive producer for How Should We Then Live. But it was Carter’s evangelicalism, not Ford’s, that became a focal point for a media conversation about “born-again” Christianity in the public square.

In 1976, during the presidential campaign, a story on the front page of the New York Times wondered “whether a deeply committed evangelical Christian can appeal to an overtly more secular culture with his frank admission of conservative Protestant piety.” (The answer seemed to be yes.) Later that year, Newsweek and Time both published cover stories on what Newsweek called “the year of the evangelical.” A Gallup poll that year found that fully 35% of Americans called themselves born-again Christians. The Catholic journalist Garry Wills declared evangelicalism “the major religious force in America, both in numbers and impact.”

When Jimmy Carter took office in January 1977, he based his inaugural address on a Bible verse, discussing America’s “faith,” “spirituality,” and “moral duties.”

Something made the evangelical movement of this generation seem different from what evangelical Protestant Christianity had meant in U.S. public life before. Whatever it was, it was getting attention from outsiders.

But what was the evangelical movement’s political power going to look like in practice?

To be sure, white evangelical Protestants had been involved with conservative politics much longer than we sometimes imagine. Even before the Second World War, ministers had mobilized against the New Deal, and evangelical colleges had helped promote the ideology of free enterprise. Even such a unifying figure as Billy Graham was a passionate anti-leftist. He had described the Garden of Eden as a place with “no union dues, no labor leaders,” and urged Richard Nixon to consider bombing dikes to “destroy the economy” (not to mention many of the civilians) of North Vietnam.

But that didn’t mean white evangelicals consistently supported the Republican Party. And some evangelical groups were developing a tradition of antiwar activism, anticapitalism, and environmentalism—which Francis Schaeffer dabbled in himself. Most importantly, the witness of Black evangelical Christians dramatically complicates the picture of “evangelical” politics across the 20th century. In any event, Democrats would be about as likely as Republicans to call themselves “born-again” or “evangelical” until the middle of the 1980s.

But when it arrived in the United States, Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live was one of many things that helped shape up the evangelical camp for its more partisan future. In this first episode, we can already see some indication why.

Schaeffer tells us that we—yes, we personally—are locked in a struggle that has defined western culture for 2,000 years. It is a struggle to determine whether we will live in a rational and free society, or in violence, despair, and slavery.

The fate of the United States hangs in the balance.

We can already see the struggle, Schaeffer says, in the lives of the earliest Christians, ruled by Rome.

So let’s get back to the episode itself. We jump from the 1970s to the ancient Roman empire—what Schaeffer calls “the time of the Romans”—because, Schaeffer tells us, “the Roman civilization is the direct ancestor of the modern European world,” including European laws and political systems.

Now, let me register an objection here. “The time of the Romans” is a very imprecise phrase, considering that it could easily refer to a thousand or more years of history.

According to legend, Rome was founded as a city is 753 BCE. In any case, the city itself was already ancient by the time of Christ. Rome’s power in Italy and the Mediterranean was built over a long period, too; the empire had a recognizable shape at least a century before the first “emperors” ruled it. After that, the western half of the empire lasted in some form for least four or five centuries after the time of Christ, and in its eastern provinces, arguably, the empire lasted still yet another thousand years.

And speaking of the eastern empire, Rome’s power ranged far beyond Europe. To be fair, Schaeffer does point that out, in a scene I find oddly charming, holding an umbrella and tracing the empire around a rain-soaked map.

For a while, the richest parts of the empire, and in some ways the most intellectually influential parts, were in North Africa. The city depended on enormous shipments of African grain, and the theology of western Christianity to this day is grounded in the work of the empire’s African churches.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Augustine of Hippo, the early church father who would become so important to the founders of Protestantism? He was born in Algeria and educated in Tunisia. Tertullian, who first used the Latin term trinitas to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? He was a fellow Berber, born in Tunisia. Anthony the Great, a.k.a. Anthony of Egypt, who invented the Christian monastery? He was born in a village near the Nile.

In terms of population, meanwhile, Christianity’s center of gravity was probably in Syria or Turkey. Greek and Aramaic, not Latin, were the church’s most important languages for centuries.

So the story of Rome is very, very big, and it’s not a primarily European story. But Schaeffer is interested only in European history, and he seems to think of “the time of the Romans” mostly as the first, second, and third centuries CE; he’s really only interested in the period when Christianity was gaining a foothold.

Am I quibbling? I don’t think so. We have to understand the vastness of Rome’s history if we want to understand it as anything more than a way to grind our own axes.

To put it bluntly, I think a young evangelical watching How Should We Then Live is going to get an inaccurate picture of what “the time of the Romans” looked like.

Schaeffer’s Rome is shaped wrong.

Unfortunately, we’re now only three minutes into the episode, and I’ve already written 2,000 words. I still haven’t even explained the episode’s argument! So in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, let me sum up.

Here’s the story Francis Schaeffer tells about what happened in Rome and its territories. (If you’re skeptical of my rushed description, you can consult the outline in the study guide.)

Prior to the arrival of Christianity, Schaeffer tells us, Romans had a fundamentally unstable society because their gods weren’t “big” enough. Greco-Roman deities were basically just more powerful humans, possessing typically human foibles and rivalries. They could be petty, venal, arbitrary, and cruel. This meant they provided no one spiritual standard for Roman values. And that meant there was no real basis for Roman government except the privileges of wealth and power.

“In many ways,” Schaeffer says, “Rome was great. But it had no real answers to the basic problems that all humanity faces. When a culture tries to build only on its military strength, very, very soon, this will prove not to be sufficient.”

A silver denarius of the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), with an inscription calling him the “son of the divine Augustus.” Art Institute of Chicago (public domain)

The eventual result of Rome’s polytheism: mob rule and civil war. Then came the rise of dictators offering to keep order. These dictators, i.e., Rome’s emperors, began to claim divine status themselves to shore up their power. This was the situation when Jesus showed up. He lived during the reign of Augustus and his stepson Tiberius.

Early followers of Jesus, Schaeffer says, presented the empire with a problem. Contrary to what many Christians today imagine, the problem was not simply that they worshiped Jesus. Rome was a pluralistic society happy to accommodate all sorts of gods. “Nobody cared who worshiped whom,” he says, “as long as the unity of the state was maintained.” No, the problem was that Christians objected to worshiping the state or the emperor.

On second thought, it was a bit more than that: Christians threatened their society’s whole worldview. “In the Roman era,” Schaeffer says, “we must understand that when one became a Christian, it meant that he stood not only opposed to the surrounding religions, but the entire culture built on those religions.” He adds, “It was a very short step, at times, from the open profession of faith to the martyr’s death.”

A bit later, this thought is illustrated with a L’Abri student’s performance as a Roman soldier stabbing a Christian mother (played by Frank Schaeffer’s wife Genie) and beating her young child to death.

On the other hand, Schaeffer says, Christians “were not caught in the flux of the relativistic Roman world—because it really was relativistic, much like our own day.” Christians worshiped a single infinite God who had revealed the singular truth to humans. Thus, they had a strong foundation for living together. And because they believed humans were made in the image of that God, they had a basis for believing in individual dignity. They could withstand the factors that led to Rome’s decline. (And perhaps they could resist America’s decline, too, or so the attentive viewer infers.)

Unfortunately, as the centuries passed, and even as the empire officially embraced Christianity, most people continued to live as Romans had lived before. They indulged in expensive hedonism and, increasingly, apathy. The empire became decadent, with a spendthrift government and an economy dragged down by high inflation. (Once again, the American viewer of the 1970s is paying close attention.)

“And as less people were inclined to work,” Schaeffer adds, “the state took over more and more. And more freedoms were lost.”

Not exactly subtle, is it?

It’s one thing for me to contextualize the episode or summarize it. It’s another for me to show what it actually meant for American audiences in 1977. How did they actually receive the film and its message?

To try to understand those viewers, I’ve spent a lot of time this week digging through digitized newspapers. That’s the final thing I want to talk about in this week’s post.

Advertisement in the Dallas Morning News (March 12, 1977)—note the inflation of “Dr.” Schaeffer’s credentials, which was ubiquitous in the advertising for his work (he had been awarded honorary doctorates), and the promise of discounted admission for wives bringing their husbands

Here’s one thing I’ve found. When the film debuted in 1977, newspaper coverage and advertisements were surprisingly explicit about the dilemma Schaeffer described in this episode. Often, in fact, before potential viewers in the United States ever saw How Should We Then Live, they already had been presented with Schaeffer’s stark choice between Christianity and political ruin.

Advertisements placed by many churches, for example, promised that Schaeffer’s film would answer contemporary questions that included “Why isn’t it safe to walk the streets at night?” That question appeared verbatim in newspaper notices for screenings across the continent, from Berkeley to West Hartford and from Mobile to Rapid City. Advertisers said the film would address other problems of current events, too. Notices for Schaeffer’s March appearances in North Texas, for example, implied How Should We Then Live would explain the current “energy shortages,” or at least explain what they meant. In 1979, a church in Omaha would even promise that Schaeffer’s film showed “the real, behind-the-scenes causes of the recession.” It seems safe to assume that many viewers attending these screenings were coming precisely because they already sensed that America was in crisis.

Sometimes newspapers gave away Schaeffer’s argument in amazing detail, too. In Dallas, for example, a journalist covering an earlier personal appearance in July 1976 tried to explain exactly why Schaeffer “has concluded that a regeneration of Christianity is the only means of saving our civilization.” Most of the newspaper coverage like this, by the way, was either neutral or sympathetic in tone.

Most remarkably, in Fort Worth, a few weeks before a scheduled visit on Schaeffer’s movie tour, the opinion editor of the Star-Telegram laid out and actually endorsed the book’s claims in a lead Saturday editorial.

Meanwhile, in Portland, another of the stops on Schaeffer’s publicity trip, an article appeared in the Oregonian under the headline “‘Christian values gone’: Fellowship’s founder fears chaos.” The reporter explored Schaeffer’s prediction that, in America’s current moral vacuum, “some sort of authoritarian elite” would eventually step in to provide order through psychological manipulation and eugenics unless a “Christian consensus” were restored.

This article was placed next to a news story about a local homicide.

I want to talk about that juxtaposition for a moment.

Articles in the Oregonian (Portland, Feb. 2, 1977)

An Oregonian reader who looked to the left of Francis Schaeffer’s photograph would learn that a Portland man had just been sentenced to prison after beating and drowning a three-year-old orphan who was in his care. The killer, described by the puzzled judge as a “model citizen”—and churchgoer—had self-righteously explained to the police that “a child has to learn discipline somewhere,” adding, “They certainly don’t teach it in school.” He had attacked the three-year-old and beaten him for more than two hours for counting birds in their yard incorrectly.

One is tempted to wonder what Schaeffer would have made of that story’s appearance alongside his argument. Would he consider it an example of people losing control as America’s faith in transcendent moral standards declined? Would he, perhaps, take it as a small-scale example of authoritarianism stepping in to control chaos?

For my part, I’m tempted to suggest, based on what little I know about the killer, that this story actually showed it was unwise to trust religious absolutes to stand in the way of authoritarianism. As a shocked reader demanded in a letter to the editor a few days later: “And where is his church’s position in this sickening scene?” The too-obvious answer is that his church was part of the problem, encouraging this law-abiding Christian man to be brutal in the name of “discipline.”

But almost all I’ve been able to learn independently about the 31-year-old killer is that he had been an honor roll student in a California high school, and then he had participated in the Vietnam War as a noncommissioned officer.

In the end, I don’t really know why that child died, and I’m uncomfortable with obvious answers. Or at least, I’m uncomfortable choosing among the likely answers.

And that is my problem with the first episode of How Should We Then Live, as I try to collect my thoughts after watching it.

Here’s what I think. “The Roman Age” presents us with historically flavored answers about why violence and oppression happen. These answers are elegant in their simplicity. But they’re still simplistic.

For one thing, this episode squashes 1,000 or more years of Mediterranean history into a morality tale about just one aspect of Christian history. Granted, any story told in half an hour would have to compress the Roman experience and leave countless topics unexplored. But How Should We Then Live goes further. It actually dismisses the value of Roman history that doesn’t fit the single simple narrative. Every time this episode acknowledges something interesting about Roman life beyond the empire’s conflict with the early church, it adds a “but.” That’s very bad for any sense of historical understanding.

Second, although I’m not a specialist in the subject, and I’m not going to attempt to provide a long list of corrections, there are key aspects of the story that I think are just wrong.

For example, if you know anything about Roman political history, you know about Rome’s commitment to the rule of law and to various forms of tradition. The strength of this commitment is evident, for example, in the way Romans steadfastly refused to acknowledge their rulers as “kings.” For centuries after the republic ended, even dictators dared not claim that forbidden title, nor attempt to abolish the Roman senate, however much they might weaken it.

And the influence of Rome’s commitment to traditions and institutions lasted in places around the Mediterranean world long after the last Roman legions left an area. Rome didn’t have only military might or, as Schaeffer likes pointing out, physical infrastructure like bridges. It also had principles, and they had remarkable staying power. Any story of Rome’s political and social chaos—which was often real enough—must also account for the extraordinary stability and reach of the city’s traditions and laws.

How Should We Then Live does not attempt to account for such things. Instead, it makes claims about Roman relativism that seem to contradict what readers of Roman history know. After all, we’re talking about a state that existed in a recognizable form for several times as long as the United States has existed in any form. Few modern observers would deny its horrific flaws, but Schaeffer’s description of Rome as lacking a “strong foundation” doesn’t hold up well.

For that matter, I found Schaeffer’s description of Christianity’s place in Roman history pretty misleading. Viewers of this film are likely to conclude that Christianity, having been universally persecuted, somehow became the official religion of the state without making much impression at all on Roman society and politics, and because of that lack of an impression, Rome (the city, the empire, and the civilization) gradually collapsed within a few centuries because nobody cared about it anymore.

That’s not what happened. People who know the Roman empire mostly from Francis Schaeffer’s account are likely to be astonished by what they find in fuller histories of the same topics.

To illustrate why this matters, let me ask you what would happen if somebody attempted to describe the history of the United States in just half an hour, focusing on things that discredit its dominant philosophy of life.

Over the course of a few minutes, such a documentary might jump, let’s say, from Native American dispossession and the Atlantic slave trade to the Civil War, anarchist bombings, lynchings, Caribbean colonialism, and the looming threat of nuclear and climatological annihilation. Now imagine that the presenter of this half-hour documentary explained that this story shows how the United States—because it was a largely Christian society and thus had absolutist beliefs about an angry God, which made its people behave aggressively—lacked the self-discipline of Buddhism, which in the long run is the only stable basis for an equitable and peaceful state. That’s why you can’t walk the streets safely at night: because modern people have neglected the Buddhist way of enlightenment.

Whatever you think of its philosophical aims, would you have concerns about that film’s appropriation of U.S. history?

That’s what it’s like for someone to make a history as polemical as “The Roman Age,” with no real concern for trivial details like events, contexts, timescales, or specific relationships of cause and effect.

But you know what’s funny? For all that, I enjoyed watching this episode.

For an explanation why I enjoyed it, I guess you’ll just have to keep reading this series. I expect to have another installment next week, when I’ll examine the second episode in How Should We Then Live: “The Middle Ages.”

4 thoughts on “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 1 (The Roman Age)”

  1. The opening to this episode was very jarring, in a way that at first I thought was amateurish but then realized might actually be very savvy. It seems to hit the right balance of simplicity in its narrative/appeal and just enough intellectual base to give his narrative the appearance of complexity. Of course, by “right balance” I mean that it’s effective, not accurate.


  2. I agree! And at this point, especially, the simplicity of it probably helps keep it from seeming even more dated.


  3. To your point about Schaeffer’s influence being felt today (in 1st series post): I’m struck by your description of the film’s violent, crime-filled opening, and parallels to Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address. Of course crime and chaos are a somewhat common framing of “the problem”, but the question for the audience is framed the same way for Schaeffer and for large swathes of the American right. Even both of their answers–an ostensible “return” to a more muscular and commanding Christianity (even if Schaeffer implied a quieter more reflective version)–is similar. Maybe Schaeffer would’ve been put off by Trump’s approach (or maybe not…) but I think his movement recognized the conversation-shaping power of that framing.

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