What Happened When I Taught Historical Thinking at Church

Today, I’ve been invited by Chris Gehrz to contribute a guest post at the Anxious Bench group blog.

In the post, I briefly describe a three-session course I taught last month at an Episcopal church near Philadelphia. Rather than focus on a specific historical topic, this series examined “historical thinking” itself.

As I explain in the post:

At a time when public debates over history are fierce (and often very embarrassing), I’ve come to believe that one of the urgent tasks facing historians is to help our fellow citizens understand what history’s all about in the first place. We need to help people step back and gain some perspective before, or at least while, they charge into partisan debates. …

Can we try a variety of experiments like this? Can we find ways to bring historical investigation into the life of the church as something more than an instrument of adversarial apologetics or politics? Conversely, can our churches be dissemination points for humane historical thinking in our larger communities?

The post briefly summarizes each of the three sessions I put together, and it offers some tentative thoughts on how well the series worked.

How Should We Then and Now: Eps. 7-8 (The Ages of Non-Reason and Fragmentation)

This is the seventh 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, it’s best to start with the project introduction. Today’s episodes are “The Age of Non-Reason” and “The Age of Fragmentation.” (This post was delayed from Saturday.)

So far, the entire How Should We Then Live series has suffered from Francis Schaeffer’s essentially monocausal view of history. Schaeffer has shown consistent interest in only one dimension of human thought. In his telling, the question that explains the behavior of every western society since the time of Christ is how much that community acknowledges the authority of the Bible, as interpreted by fundamentalist Protestants. When Schaeffer can squeeze some aspect of western history into that frame, he does so; when an element of history too obviously doesn’t fit, he usually ignores it.

This intellectual poverty is on display in this week’s episodes, which attempt to explore the mental life of modernity while barely mentioning the external forces that have shaped it. That is, Schaeffer never explains what made existentialism (or its intellectual cousins) attractive to so many different artists and writers across more than a century.

In these episodes, Schaeffer seems to be claiming that in the 20th century, western intellectuals, having tried many different intellectual systems unsuccessfully, simply gave up, as if they were single people tired of a disappointing dating scene.

That might be how philosophy works in the life of an individual, but in the life of a society? I’m skeptical.

On the other hand, several moments in these episodes suggest to me that Schaeffer understood the interior life of late modernity better than he understood the interior life of Roman, medieval, or early modern Europe. Other viewers may get a different impression, of course. But I believe Schaeffer intensely felt some of the key dilemmas of modern thought; they fit his own doubts and his own fear of a meaningless world. And I believe these episodes reflect much more direct and appreciative engagement with modern writing, and especially 20th-century art, than we have seen with the primary sources of earlier periods.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Eps. 7-8 (The Ages of Non-Reason and Fragmentation)”

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 6 (The Scientific Age)

This is the sixth 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, it’s best to start with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Scientific Age.”

In the later parts of this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live, things start to get a little weird.

Francis Schaeffer’s main tasks in “The Scientific Age” seem straightforward if you’re familiar with the work of other evangelical intellectuals. First, Schaeffer seeks to show that Christianity is fully compatible with modern science. (Indeed, he wants to show that Christianity contributed to it.) But he also wants to show that the uncritical embrace of science and technology can erode fundamental human values.

This is not an unusual pair of claims. Philosophers and historians have advanced these claims, or something close to them, for generations. They’re countering a 19th-century notion, the “Conflict Thesis,” which says there is a fundamental opposition between religious and scientific thinking.

The Conflict Thesis is still widely believed in America today, and it has high-profile proponents among science communicators. But most contemporary historians have little patience for it. The Conflict Thesis requires an ahistorical view of both science and religion. To a historian’s eyes, science and religion are complex human activities unfolding in time like everything else humans do.

So this episode presents a great opportunity for Francis Schaeffer to be basically on the same side as historians in a contentious public debate.

But Schaeffer doesn’t stop there. After addressing Christianity’s role in the Scientific Revolution of the early modern age, he moves ahead to the 1970s and beyond, speculating about the future of human reproduction and other questions of bioethics. That’s where things get weird.

In that later part of this episode, I think, we get another strong taste of the cultural anxieties that brought Francis Schaeffer, our rehabilitated 1950s fundamentalist living in Switzerland, back into American political conservative activism. So later in this post, I’m going to dive back into the political context of Schaeffer’s work on this film in the 1970s.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about the time Francis Schaeffer got a late-night White House tour from Gerald Ford—after which he ended up sitting in the Lincoln Bedroom, telling the president’s son and daughter-in-law his plans for filming How Should We Then Live.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 6 (The Scientific Age)”

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 5 (The Revolutionary Age)

This is the fifth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Revolutionary Age.”

I approach this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live with trepidation. Halfway through his sweeping ten-episode story about “the rise and decline of western thought and culture,” Francis Schaeffer has now arrived at historical territory that I can consider really mine: the early United States. That means the temptation to embark on a detailed fact-checking of his work is going to be strong.

And let me tell you, this episode has some major opportunities for fact-checking.

But the larger problems with Schaeffer’s story are already familiar. In “The Revolutionary Age,” Schaeffer continues to compress and stretch time according to the needs of his argument. He crowds complex experiences under simple labels. He passes reductive judgments on entire societies and civilizations. He shows little interest in historical study as such; he embraces it just to the extent that it serves his evangelistic or political purpose. And he seems determined to see the best in the past people he identifies with his own evangelical Protestant faith, and the worst in those he doesn’t.

Unfortunately, while sharing its basic flaws with the previous episodes, “The Revolutionary Age” lacks their crucial redeeming element: It does little to cultivate appreciation for the visual art, music, and other cultural monuments of the societies it discusses. As this series moves into the modern age, I’m worried that Schaeffer is losing interest in ushering his viewers into the bygone social world.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 5 (The Revolutionary Age)”

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)

Following a hiatus for summer travel, this is the fourth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Reformation.”

So far in this series, we’ve seen Francis Schaeffer reduce the experiences of whole civilizations to a set of simple patterns in order to attack their worldviews—presenting them as negative object lessons for 20th-century audiences, especially in the United States. The Roman empire, Schaeffer said, was hideously cruel and ultimately collapsed because it was polytheistic and therefore pluralistic. For the same reason, he said, Rome was unable to tolerate Christianity, its eventual Christianization notwithstanding. Then Medieval Europe, he said, disastrously abandoned the authority of the Christian Bible for “humanistic” reason, despite (or because of) the problematic authority of the Catholic church; the Renaissance continued that process, “opening the door” for 20th-century relativism.

In each case, Schaeffer’s view of his subject has been deliberately negative. In going negative, he sometimes seems to be struggling against his own obvious appreciation for the art, architecture, and other lasting accomplishments of the societies he halfheartedly attacks.

But with this week’s episode, on the Protestant Reformation, Schaeffer suddenly inverts this approach. He is still forcing a lot of varied European history into a predetermined pattern, presenting a complex intellectual and social revolution as a half-hour object lesson for modern audiences. But now he makes European Protestantism play the role of a cultural hero, dismissing its flaws, rather than its virtues, as aberrations.

Perhaps that is part of the reason this episode draws so much from a 1953 movie.

Filmed in West Germany by the Jewish director Irving Pichel (a victim of the Hollywood blacklist), the Oscar-nominated Martin Luther had been commissioned by American Lutherans and written by a team that included the distinguished church historians Theodore G. Tappert and Jaroslav Pelikan. The title role was filled by Niall MacGinnis, an experienced and charismatic Irish-British character actor.

Scenes from this biopic are scattered throughout the fourth episode of How Should We Then Live. (Martin Luther also influenced the episode on the Middle Ages, which includes a dramatic reenactment that clearly plagiarizes a shot in the movie.) I find these excerpts enjoyable, and I think they enhance the episode. In fact, I also rather like the full movie, though most viewers, including critical historians, will find it very dated.

But one reason these scenes are here is that only a hero-worshiping, great-man-centered view of the Reformation can easily sustain the story Schaeffer wants to tell. Apart from Luther’s greatness and (presumably) divine providence, How Should We Then Live just doesn’t seem to have any clear historical sense of where the Reformation came from.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)”