This is the second regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re just starting out, I recommend starting with the project introduction and reading the posts in order. They really will make more sense that way. Today’s episode is “The Middle Ages.”
It occurred to me only after I published last week’s post that it could shed light on a key incident in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
A year ago this week, police officers in Washington, D.C., invaded the grounds of an Episcopal church near the White House and tear-gassed protesters and clergy members who had gathered there. As you’ll recall, the U.S. attorney general ordered the attack just before Donald Trump held an awkward photo-op in front of the church, displaying someone else’s Bible as if he were a child at show-and-tell.
Some evangelical Protestants praised this assault. “Thank you[,] President Trump,” wrote Billy Graham’s son; “God and His Word are the only hope for our nation.” The president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference fawned over Trump for brandishing the Bible on camera “like a boss.” And a minor politician in Florida recalled thinking “Look at my president! He’s establishing the Lord’s kingdom in the world.”
Perhaps, I’m saying, such odd reactions shouldn’t have been surprising, in light of the episode I watched last week. The very first minutes (and the promotional materials) of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live had put fear of urban disorder at the heart of its message to evangelicals. Judging by the stock footage involved, this had included a specific fear of Black protesters.
Of course, a lot has happened in American evangelicalism since 1977. Much more recent developments were more important to what transpired last summer. But I think it would be a mistake to discount the significance of the message Francis Schaeffer delivered in that early transitional moment.
If I’m right, then the second episode of How Should We Then Live, which I watched this week, continues to provide some distant backstory for last summer’s attack. Specifically, it may help explain some of the conditions that led to evangelical leaders in 2020 praising the use of a Bible as a symbol of violent secular political power.
Why a Bible, in particular? It’s an odd thing to see in this context, when you think about it.
Ostensibly, today’s episode, “The Middle Ages,” covers about one thousand years of western European religious history. But what it was really about, I’m going to argue, is the role that the Bible should play in American churches and public life.
In this respect, Episode II of How Should We Then Live speaks both to politics in the 1970s and to a specific theological debate that was then raging inside American evangelicalism.
But first, let me acknowledge what a delicate task this episode must have been for Francis Schaeffer to undertake at the time. This is a respect in which U.S. evangelicalism has changed considerably in the last five decades.
Today, I would say mainstream U.S. evangelicals enjoy a reasonably friendly relationship with Catholics. But this is new. Partly it’s the result of a conscious attempt by political and cultural conservatives in both traditions to create a united front in the late 20th century.
For example, the major 1994 statement “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT), citing Islam and secularism as common threats, admitted that “there are different ways of being Christian” and even discouraged proselytization across denominational lines. ECT urged evangelicals and Catholics to “receive Western culture as our legacy and embrace it as our task.” At least one of Schaeffer’s associates from L’Abri was a signatory.
Such a proposal was still controversial among evangelicals in 1994. But ECT and similar initiatives have dramatically reshaped contemporary religious discourse since then. By the time Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, evangelical leaders in the United States were effusive in their praise for a pope they saw as defending “the historic theological position of the Catholic church,” in the remarkable words of the Baptist theologian Timothy George. Today, the rapprochement has gone so far that the former vice president Mike Pence apparently claims to be both a Catholic and an evangelical Protestant. But this level of comity is still unusual in daily practice, and many evangelicals still doubt that Catholics are actually Christians. As the historian Neil J. Young observes, the religious right of our era has “more closely resembled a loose braid than the indestructible cord,” comprising “separate threads brought together in tension.”
Anyway, when How Should We Then Live was being produced in the 1970s, most American evangelicals, including Francis Schaeffer himself, had been raised to be profoundly suspicious of Rome. Fear of Catholicism ran centuries-deep in American Protestantism, and that fear had persisted with special vigor among fundamentalists. In 1952, when Schaeffer was starting L’Abri in Switzerland, his mentor Carl McIntire had given a speech calling Catholicism “our ancient enemy,” setting it alongside Nazism and communism as a mortal threat to the United States.
So what kind of story would Francis Schaeffer tell about medieval Christianity—essentially, about the Roman Catholic Church—in How Should We Then Live?
The answer, I think, is that Episode II is caught rather poignantly in a tension between Schaeffer’s training to disparage medieval Catholicism as thoroughly benighted and corrupt, and his impulse to defend medieval European Christianity from 20th-century secular humanists. Both of these impulses grew directly from his fundamentalist background.
This episode never overcomes that tension. But the spirit of generosity that characterized Schaeffer’s mid-career attitude toward the fine arts suggested a way that old hostilities might be assuaged: through appreciation of Christian culture as such.
Just as importantly, today’s episode also argues that 1970s Protestants might not be as different from medieval Catholics as they assumed.
Whether he’s right or wrong, here’s the basic story Francis Schaeffer tells about the first millennium of Christianity in the Latin-speaking west.
With the fall of Rome, Europe endured cultural fragmentation and learning loss. This was followed by centuries of rebuilding. “However,” Schaeffer says, Christianity itself was damaged in the process; “the original pristine Christianity of the New Testament gradually became distorted” in Catholic societies.
How so? Well, Schaeffer’s understanding of “original pristine Christianity” comes from his understanding of the first century CE. The very earliest Christians, Schaeffer says, met in small numbers to sing hymns and share the communion meal. (In the film, costumed reenactors illustrate that statement at considerable length while Schaeffer talks.) But above all, Schaeffer says:
The first-century churches centered around, most of all, the preaching of the Bible as the absolute, infallible Word of God. If you read the [New Testament] book of Acts, for example, you find tremendous emphasis on content. It wasn’t ‘religious,’ as twentieth-century man thinks of ‘religious’ …. It had to do with [the knowledge that] Christ rose from the dead in space and time; it had to do with the fact that the Old Testament was the Word of God. What these people really believed was in the truth of this, not the religiousness of it.
Schaeffer’s syntax is a little hard to follow in print, especially if you aren’t already familiar with his work, so let me try to explain. Here in this episode, Schaeffer is arguing that the earliest Christians were making true-or-false claims about the real world, not preaching a spirituality that they believed was “true” in some special religious sense removed from daily life. Either Jesus had risen from the dead or he hadn’t. Either the Bible was divinely inspired or it wasn’t. There was no in-a-certain-spiritual-sense, if-it’s-true-for-you equivocation, as there might be for a modern religious practitioner.
Schaeffer illustrates this claim about the worldview of the early church with examples from early Christian art. Pointing out the naturalism of surviving images made before the medieval age, he says that they depict “real people living in a real world.”
“But gradually,” Schaeffer says, “there was a change from the early Christianity.” Artists of the sixth century (and later) began trying to capture “spiritual values” in exaggerated or allegorical tableaux rather than in scenes from life. Similarly, church music evolved from shared congregational hymns to the “impersonal, mystical, and otherworldly” chants associated with Pope Gregory I. The church was leaving the real world.
In practice this meant, Schaeffer says, that the medieval Catholic church oscillated between two extremes, caught between monastic poverty on one hand and the venality of rich prelates on the other. (At this point in the film, reenactors portray a set of monks and soldiers carrying a sneering silk-clad bishop down a steep hill as peasants look on.)
But Schaeffer’s view of medieval Catholicism is not entirely bleak. For much of this episode, in fact, he seems eager to defend the church of the middle ages. Christianity, in his account, taught the value of honest work, cared for the poor and sick, encouraged art and scholarship, and promoted architectural innovations. We see Schaeffer openly admiring their outlook as he walks through, for example, an active Sienese hospital ward where patients of the 1970s still wait in beds underneath a huge medieval fresco. (How he got permission to film there, I can’t imagine.)
Notwithstanding such admiration, however, Schaeffer thinks that medieval Catholic intellectual life abandoned “the teaching of early Christianity.” Spiritual authority came to rest more and more in the church, not the Bible. This culminated in the work of the great 13th-century Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas. “In his view,” Schaeffer claims, “the human will was fallen or corrupted, but the intellect was not. As a result of this emphasis, gradually philosophy began to act in an increasingly independent, autonomous manner. More and more, the teachings of the Bible and those of the classical non-Christian philosophers were freely mixed.”
(I should note here that other evangelicals have extensively criticized Schaeffer over the years for this claim about Thomas Aquinas’s supposed view of un-sinful human reason. Thomas has avid fans among evangelical apologists, but Schaeffer doesn’t seem to have actually read him much.)
Anyway, Schaeffer is claiming that Catholic theology, in departing from the Bible, became “humanistic,” vesting too much authority in human reason as opposed to the infallible revelation of God. This ultimately called into question for Catholics whether Scripture was necessary at all.
In other words, Schaeffer is claiming that medieval Catholicism, in the form of Thomas Aquinas, prefigured developments he sees in 20th-century western culture, where “philosophy is increasingly made free from anything that God has said” and made subject to human whims.
Having given you that summary, I want to make two observations.
First, I think it’s clear from this episode that Francis Schaeffer genuinely had come to love medieval art and architecture. Despite his own theological leanings, he understood that the culture of medieval Europe could not be lightly dismissed. He saw beauty, humanity, dignity, and rationality in it.
That makes parts of this episode truly enjoyable to watch, especially if you appreciate how much Schaeffer must have been swimming against the current of his own early religious development. It also makes this episode of How Should We Then Live much different from the first episode, which, as I wrote last week, condemned or dismissed almost all aspects of ancient Roman history and culture. Viewers are likely to come away from this episode much more appreciative of the complexity and paradoxes of medieval life.
On the other hand, this episode’s ideological message is still very black-and-white. And I don’t think many historians of medieval Europe, whatever their religious views, are going to find it satisfying.
When Schaeffer talks about the “absolute” authority of the Bible and opposes it to “humanistic” Catholic interpreters, he’s imposing much later fundamentalist anxieties on medieval Christians.
In my understanding of these issues, the crucial medieval concerns were about who had the means to understand the Bible and about what additional means God had used to reveal truth, not about the Bible’s authority over the church. And I feel confident saying that medieval Catholic churchmen had considerably less confidence than Schaeffer in unaided human reason, not more. After all, they didn’t even trust most people to read the Bible without misinterpreting it, whereas Schaeffer thinks practically anybody can (in principle) apprehend Scripture’s truths without the church’s intellectual help. An evangelical view of Scripture is, in this way, a highly humanistic and rationalistic thing in comparison with medieval Catholicism’s understanding of it.
Once again, therefore, I’m afraid How Should We Then Live is reducing a very big story to a simple morality play about the concerns of the 1970s. In this drama, the Catholic church of medieval Europe stands in for anyone with an insufficiently high view of the Bible—including, I suspect, some of Schaeffer’s fellow evangelicals. But let me digress a moment.
At this point, I’d like to raise an empirical question about How Should We Then Live. Exactly what kinds of Christians were listening to this message in 1977?
I think answering this question is important for understanding how American evangelicals were coming to understand their denominational differences—as well as for grasping the shifting relationships among their religious, cultural, and political identities.
To try to answer this question, let’s look at the two-month U.S. tour that Schaeffer embarked upon after finishing the film. I’ve traced this tour as well as I can using newspaper databases, comparing them with the recollections of Edith Schaeffer, Francis’s wife, in her autobiography The Tapestry. Here’s what I’ve found so far.
Partial List of Stops on Schaeffer’s 1977 How Should We Then Live Promotional Tour
(Edith and Frank also appeared at many events)
January 27-29: Bay Area
San Jose Civic Auditorium and Oakland Municipal Arena
January 31: Portland
Portland Civic Auditorium
February 7-9: Chicago
McCormick Place (* details unconfirmed)
February 10-12: Indianapolis
Indiana Convention-Exhibition Center
February 21: Pittsburgh
Syria Mosque (a concert hall)
March 1: Los Angeles
Anaheim Convention Center
March 3-5: Atlanta
Atlanta Civic Center
March 8: Nashville
March 12: San Diego
Town & Country Hotel
March 13: Grand Rapids
(* details unconfirmed)
March 17-19: Fort Worth
Tarrant County Convention Center
March 21: Houston
Houston Music Hall
March 24-26: Dallas
This must have been an exhausting trip for the Schaeffer family. They were showing parts of the film to thousands of people at a time, and they were fielding questions and comments from sympathetic and unsympathetic viewers alike. Each stop involved advance work to sell tickets and books, often through local Christian bookstores as well as churches.
When I add to this picture what I have learned about the independent screenings that hundreds of religious organizations also held in 1977 and 1978, a few things stand out.
From the start, How Should We Then Live had strong cross-denominational appeal. The congregations and colleges that sponsored screenings during the first two years ran the evangelical Protestant gamut. Presbyterians, Lutherans, Assemblies of God, Brethren, Baptists, Methodists, Christian and Missionary Alliance fellowships, and nondenominational churches all took part. There were even a few southern Episcopal parishes involved. And many of their advertisements made clear that they wanted this to be a nondenominational project. They wanted to be allies with each other in the project they believed Schaeffer was leading.
However, here’s the thing: The film appealed, as far as I can tell, only to white evangelicals.
So far, I’ve found no record of involvement by any Catholics, Orthodox, or Black Protestants in 1977 and 1978. This is completely unsurprising—especially considering the argument Schaeffer makes in this episode about Catholicism in medieval Europe—but it’s still worth noting. It helps us understand the overall shape of American evangelical intellectual life during this formative period.
Another thing that stands out about the advertising for How Should We Then Live is geographical: the South and West were overrepresented in the film screenings. The film did get shown by churches in the Midwest, and to a smaller degree in the Northeast, but this presence was far smaller than one might have expected in a previous generation of American fundamentalists—especially considering Schaeffer’s origins in the Delaware Valley.
An evangelical realignment was well underway.
Anyway, to return to my main story, I believe we can see that the crucial thing that allowed these diverse churches to see themselves as allies in a common cause (and to see most other religious traditions as rivals) was their view of the Bible’s rightful role in public life. All sorts of other theological differences—about sacraments, church governance, election, personal sanctification, and other critical theological issues that historically have defined and divided American Protestant denominations—all could be subordinated to that one. The Bible became, for many people, the beginning and the end of evangelical identity.
To explain what I mean, we should join Francis Schaeffer on one more stop in the United States. This was a visit he made before the film was complete. In February 1976, while still filming How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer had delivered a famous speech called “The Watershed of the Evangelical World.”
This was his address to the closing session of a joint meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Religious Broadcasters at the Shoreham Americana Hotel. (If you listen to the recording, you can definitely hear his Philadelphia accent as he talks about “woodersheds”!)
Consider the context: At the same gathering, President Gerald Ford, with his eyes on a looming election, urged attendees to “believe in the faith of our fathers.” So did Congressman John B. Conlan, a fellow Republican, who called on evangelicals to vote in 1976—predicting that with their numbers, they “could turn the tide of this nation.” The former Nixon aide Charles Colson, about a year out of prison for obstruction of justice, attacked the broadcast media (a bit incongruously) for filling American homes with indecent material.
At the same meeting, the NAE rejected a resolution, from a Black pastor in Chicago, that would have affirmed a “right to food.”
Even though this was the election we remember mostly for Jimmy Carter’s evangelicalism, it was already clear that the evangelical movement and its key institutions were actually aligning themselves with the Republican Party.
Anyway, Schaeffer’s speech at this event was less about political and social action than about evangelical theological integrity. Or rather, it insisted these things were inseparable. Schaeffer began:
There are two reasons today for holding a strong, uncompromising view of Scripture. First and foremost—and this would be enough in itself—this is the only way to be faithful to what the Bible teaches about itself, and what Christ teaches about Scripture. … But today there is a second reason why we must keep this steadfastly in mind …. And that is: There are hard days ahead of us, for ourselves, for our spiritual and our physical children.
In the rest of this speech, Schaeffer asserted that the historic freedom of the United States (and other “Reformation countries”) was a product of Protestantism, made possible by a Christian social consensus based on the morals taught in the Bible. But “ever since the late 1930s,” Schaeffer said, the United States no longer had a Christian consensus; “we who are Bible-believing Christians no longer represent the status quo of our society.” This was especially true after the upheavals of the 1960s. Schaeffer predicted that America now faced violence and authoritarianism as a result. Those were the “hard days” American evangelicals were facing.
This, of course, was essentially the claim Schaeffer made in Episode I of How Should We Then Live, as we have seen last week. But in this speech to the NAE and NRB, Schaeffer addressed his fellow evangelicals with a more specific warning. Many American and western evangelicals—including seminaries and other leadership institutions—were currently guilty of “compromise” in their view of the Bible:
The issue is clear. Is the Bible true truth and infallible wherever it speaks, including where it touches history and the cosmos? Or is it only in some sense revelational where it touches religious subjects? That is the issue.
This was the issue that many conservative evangelicals call biblical inerrancy: the doctrine that the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, is not only “infallible”—that it never misleads the reader—in matters of faith or morals, but also free of any kind of errors, including the most trivial kinds of errors, in scientific, historical, and other matters.
Schaeffer insisted that evangelicals must hold the Bible to be entirely inerrant, not merely infallible in a more limited sense, if they were going to stand effectively against the relativism that threatened American society.
The significance of this debate within evangelicalism is a complicated topic of its own, and I won’t attempt to explore it here. Let’s just say that we can see signs of the controversy in many parts of evangelical culture around this time—for example, in an upheaval called “the conservative resurgence” that happened in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in America, between the 1970s and the 1990s. (In this context, “conservative” generally means supportive of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.) Although he was not a Baptist, Schaeffer would contribute directly to that movement in the SBC.
Anyway, to make a long story short: In 1977, when Schaeffer released this episode of How Should We Then Live, accusing the medieval Catholic church of denying biblical authority, it did fit a classic pattern of evangelical anti-Catholicism. But it was really part of his ongoing participation in a debate happening within evangelical Protestantism—a debate about what theology should undergird effective evangelical participation in public life.
This debate would continue after the release of How Should We Then Live.
Indeed, very shortly after introducing How Should We Then Live to American audiences and heading back to Switzerland, Schaeffer would return to the United States yet again to help establish the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.
That organization’s meetings over the next few years would produce documents that serve to this day as conservative evangelicalism’s definitive statements on what it means to interpret and apply the Bible as God’s “inerrant” guide for humanity.
All of this context is much easier for me to grasp today, as I rewatch How Should We Then Live, than it was when I saw the series as a teenager. In my adulthood, with the benefit of undergraduate and graduate study in history, it’s much easier to see not only the point Francis Schaeffer was really making, but also how little—how very little—this point had to do with anything in actual medieval Catholic life.
And it leaves me feeling kind of sad. Sad about what it could have been.
Watching “The Middle Ages” now, I see it as something that came very close to being a generous and open-hearted encounter with another religious tradition from the past (and present). It showed signs that its maker could overcome a deep hatred and suspicion, passed down over centuries, through his appreciation of art, music, and architecture. Indeed, it suggested that its maker was actually identifying with that other religious tradition as he considered the questions his society faced in the 20th century.
But at the same time, as I reflect on How Should We Then Live‘s apparent role in the national evangelical realignment that was taking place in the 1970s, I also face the paradox that it did help overcome, or at least minimize, some major denominational differences across evangelical Protestantism and even—shockingly—between some evangelicals and Catholics.
The culture war has united people at the same time that it has divided them. The evangelical movement that Francis Schaeffer helped shape through his flawed interpretation of Catholic history has been simultaneously one of the more divisive and yet also somehow one of the more ecumenical religious formations in modern western experience. Many evangelicals barely know that denominational distinctions even exist within the movement, or have any grasp of what they’re about; they’re just “Christians.”
In the end, I am left wondering what would have happened if Schaeffer had been able to go further, fully embracing the value and dignity of medieval European life. And I’m left wondering what would have made such an outlook possible for him.
Next week, I’m likely to face similar questions when I take up Episode III, “The Renaissance.”