This is the third regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Renaissance.”
This week’s episode of How Should We Then Live is even more ambivalent about its subject than the episode on medieval Europe was.
It’s also, I would say, less focused on history as such. That is, today’s episode is more an interpretation of art history, which is its own academic discipline. But Francis Schaeffer is still making claims about Europe’s intellectual and cultural evolution. He is using the art of the Renaissance to support his overall argument that we must base our social life on a foundation of Protestant Christian values if we want to preserve both order and freedom.
I would say this episode seriously taxes Schaeffer’s approach. For him, the Renaissance, like the medieval period, is just too likable to work well for his argument. Intellectually, he needs the Renaissance to show signs of decay, or at least the causes of decay—signs that Europe was slipping toward the despair that he associates with post-Christian modernity. His argument needs the Christian humanism of the Renaissance to prefigure the secular humanism that Schaeffer finds so threatening in the 20th century.
Yet in this episode, we see Schaeffer, a sort of evangelical dissident from mid-20th-century fundamentalism, absolutely revel in Renaissance culture. His enthusiasm, however much it may be mixed with skepticism, is infectious.
The other thing today’s viewers will find extraordinary about this episode is the absurd level of access Schaeffer’s crew had to some of the masterworks of European art.
In his opening monologue, Schaeffer expresses unambiguous admiration and excitement:
Now we come to the Renaissance. It’s one of the great periods of the history of man. And as far as its artworks are concerned, it’s one of mankind’s glories. Anyone who could walk through the museums and not be overwhelmed with the beauty of the work of its art in many, many different mediums, really is a very poor man indeed.
And yet ….
And yet, at the same time, we have to keep in mind that, in the flow of the thought of man, [the Renaissance] opens the door for humanist man in a new way, and carries this further, and throws the doors wide open for all those problems that bring us right up into the period of modern man.
In other words, Renaissance art was great, but Renaissance thought was problematic (as a liberal today might say). This combination of ideas is not inherently contradictory. But as an argument, will we find it persuasive?
Here is Francis Schaeffer’s basic narrative of the Renaissance. It’s a story about humans declaring partial independence from God.
In the first place, Schaeffer—here seen strolling through grand edifices and museum collections in Rome, Florence, and Ghent—identifies the Renaissance with realism in art and literature. In fact, this is almost his whole account of what the Renaissance was.
To a point, Schaeffer views this artistic realism as a very good thing.
The painters of 14th-century Italy, he says, adopted methods—notably, linear perspective—that allowed them to portray real human scenes in realistic physical spaces. Writers like Dante Alighieri and architects following in the path of Filippo Brunelleschi did much the same. But the creators of the Renaissance struggled to reconcile the “particular” and the ideal—the natural world and its ultimate meaning.
So “at the beginning of the Renaissance,” Schaeffer says,
… it could have gone either way. Nature could have had its proper place, man could have been in his proper place, and it would have been absolutely beautiful. But at a certain point along in the Renaissance, the scales tipped, and man put himself at the center absolutely, and this opened the door completely to the whole destructive force of humanism that followed, down through the Enlightenment and into our own day.
“Opened the door” is an interesting image. Schaeffer is trying to identify the Renaissance with later things that are definitely not the Renaissance. As a historian, I have mixed feelings about that. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with talking about the relationship between something in the past and later things; it’s what we have to do, in fact. But just as in the previous two episodes, Schaeffer is giving me the sense that he’s not really talking about the thought of the period at all. Instead, he’s reading his own 20th-century preoccupations into the affairs of people who lived some 600 years earlier. He’s looking for signs of modern relativism.
Unsurprisingly, Schaeffer alludes in this narrative to the statement attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, and often ascribed to the thinkers of the Renaissance, that “man is the measure of all things.” From Schaeffer’s standpoint, this is a disastrous idea. Unlike divine revelation, humanistic truth is inherently relative; it can be based only on such mutable standards as “statistical averages” across human societies. Meaning in general is placed at risk.
This claim stands out to me because statistical averages across populations are definitely not the way Renaissance thinkers understood humanistic ideals. I understand why Schaeffer thinks this is where Renaissance ideas were ultimately headed, but he’s skipping about half a millennium of other intellectual developments that were necessary to get there. European thought could have gone in entirely different directions during those centuries.
Anyway. Above all, the tragedy of the Renaissance, according to Schaeffer, is that the intellectuals of a Christian society turned consciously back to pre-Christian pagan antiquity—not only as a source of knowledge, but as the basis for human-centered learning. As in the previous episode, Schaeffer blames this shift on Thomas Aquinas and his rehabilitation of Aristotle’s philosophy, which he says made the human intellect autonomous from God.
(As I noted last time, evangelical and other scholars have vehemently challenged Schaeffer’s understanding of Thomas Aquinas.)
The high point of Schaeffer’s narrative is Michelangelo’s 1504 sculpture David, depicting—as the film underscores with foreboding music and dramatically lit stock footage—a superhuman ideal of human capacity. The film shows Schaeffer himself standing next to the stone warrior—not only to show its literal size, I think, but also to illustrate his point about the Renaissance artists’ outsized ambition for the power and beauty of their species. Michelangelo’s David, Schaeffer explains, is not the stone-slinging shepherd boy of the Bible, but an idealized personification of mankind itself.
What’s the upshot of this story? It’s actually a bit difficult to say.
As I noted at the beginning, Schaeffer’s admiration for Renaissance art is obvious. The viewer suspects that there was more than a strictly pedagogical purpose to the stunning selfies Schaeffer managed to take in front of the masterpieces of the age. The way the camera glides over the rippling muscles of the nude David, or the bare breast of Jean Fouquet’s Red Virgin, is unmistakably appreciative, however much the disapproving narration may accuse these works of conveying toxic moral relativism.
There is aesthetic enjoyment here that goes beyond the text—and which probably made many evangelical viewers in 1977 uncomfortable. But in that discomfort lay some of the film’s power to stir imaginations.
Of all the episodes in How Should We Then Live, this one probably best encapsulates its appeal and significance because it suggests that conservative evangelicals can still appreciate the cultural productions and bask in the learning of a society they find intellectually threatening.
This episode is a license to enjoy learning.
But how did this episode, with its incredible footage of Francis Schaeffer standing next to masterpieces of European art, come into existence?
According to Edith Schaeffer’s 1981 memoir The Tapestry—which is more reliable on dates than her son Frank’s much later memoir—the concept for the How Should We Then Live series came from a conversation Frank had with the Gospel Films president, Billy Zeoli, in late July 1974.
For the next few months, and especially in February and March of the next year, Francis worked on a rough manuscript and circulated it to his several “researchers” in copies with extra-wide margins for their comments. (In effect, the researchers were probably writing much of the book for him.) Meanwhile, the film project, with Frank as its producer, came together quickly. Frank got much of the funding from Richard DeVos Sr., the Amway cofounder and Republican political donor who now served as the chairman of Gospel Films. The shooting script came from the director Frank hired, a former L’Abri student named John Gonser.
The filming itself began in August 1975 and took about six months.
Edith and Frank would later indicate it was punishing work, emotionally as well as physically. Most of the participants had never made a movie before. Francis was injured more than once. At some point, the inexperienced and difficult director was fired; Frank, with no qualifications at all, took over. Some accounts indicate that the series was supposed to comprise thirteen films but only ten could be cut together.
Frank would remember it as if through a haze, with the Renaissance episode at the heart of the overall experience:
There were memorable moments during the production …. Dad standing on a scaffolding, next to the shoulder of Michelangelo’s David while dusting the statue’s head for the close-up . . . Dad and me alone in the Sistine Chapel at night, waiting for the crew . . . eating a tray of delicious lasagna at midnight in the Uffizi, with the run of the whole place . . . realizing that the lights were too close to Van Eyck’s Marriage Supper of the Lamb in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, and that we were about to strip the paint . . . wondering again and again how so much art in Italy, Belgium, and other European countries had survived for so long, given the complete indifference of so many museum guards and curators, who literally turned over some of the world’s greatest treasures to my crew, then disappeared for a coffee.—Crazy for God, p. 269
By the time the film series was done, Frank was still only 24 years old. There was apparently general agreement that the finished product had to be a miracle.
Then they took it on a three-month tour in the United States. And all the evidence I’ve found indicates that the audiences loved it.
In the end—and this is not an original observation on my part—the problem at the heart of this episode is that Francis Schaeffer wasn’t much of a scholar, and this probably limited his value as a promoter of learning for its own sake. He was always a missionary first and last. For him, human learning was something to be used to make a point about divine revelation, not something valuable in itself.
This probably was not appreciated by most audiences in 1977, and perhaps it isn’t today, either. After all, the publicity around the film always referred to him as “Dr. Francis Schaeffer” on the strength of two honorary doctorates he’d been awarded, and it also often called him a philosopher or theologian.
But all the evidence shows that Schaeffer’s actual reading was spotty and shallow, in comparison with the sweeping nature of his claims about western history and philosophy. This is clear if you read the evidence assembled by his biographer, the Baylor University historian Barry Hankins.
When Schaeffer visited Calvin College, an evangelical school in Grand Rapids, in 1968, a then-young history professor named George Marsden—who had been to L’Abri—covered his visit for an underground newspaper. Marsden admired the ambition of Schaeffer’s lecture, but also noted that “intellectual modesty is not Schaeffer’s long suit,” adding, “One might sympathize if in the audience another scholar who had spent most of his adult life trying to understand, for instance, Kierkegaard, was appalled.”
Marsden, on his way to a distinguished career as an academic historian, later became one of several evangelical scholars who semi-publicly challenged Schaeffer’s intellectual practices. At Wheaton College in 1982, Prof. Arthur Holmes would be quoted saying that “many of our students arrive here with some exposure to Schaeffer. We then use Schaeffer as an example how not to do philosophy.” At the same school, the historian Mark Noll would say that “the danger is that people will take [Schaeffer] for a scholar, which he is not.” Noll would add that Schaeffer taught a “simplified myth” of U.S. history.
In fact, Schaeffer’s own InterVarsity Press editor, James Sire, who had a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, disagreed with his view of the Renaissance.
For many examples of such discussions, presented by a sympathetic critic, you should read Hankins’s 2008 biography Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. Hankins sums up the problem, especially with respect to Schaeffer’s treatment of the Renaissance, this way:
Schaeffer’s idiosyncratic interpretations were the result of his isolation from Christian scholars, his tendency to place history on the procrustean bed of American fundamentalism, and his propensity to view history in terms of decline and fall. … As a fundamentalist, Schaeffer knew that the modern view of individual autonomy stood in antithesis to the Christian notion that human beings exist in absolute dependence on a holy God. Lost in this sort of analysis was the sense that history is neither a story of pure antithesis nor a story of steady decline. Parts of the Renaissance, for example, helped Reformation figures such as Luther and Calvin break with tradition and return to the authority of the ancient text of scripture, while there were other parts of the Renaissance and Reformation that opened the way for individual autonomy. Schaeffer, schooled as he was in fundamentalist habits of the mind, needed to pit the entire Renaissance over against the whole Reformation and yield not an inch to the former.—Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, pp. 101-102
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’ll save the Reformation for the next post.
Due to summer travel and other plans, this series is likely to be disrupted for the next couple of weeks. But stay tuned for an eventual post on the fourth episode, covering the Reformation.