How Should We Then and Now: Eps. 9-10 (The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence, and Final Choices)

This is the long-delayed final installment of a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you are new to the series, it’s best to read the posts in order, starting with the introduction, which explains its significance and provides crucial historical context. Today’s episodes are Episodes IX and X, “The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence” and “Final Choices.”


Francis Schaeffer filming on location, in an undated photograph by M. Arshad, printed in an advance brochure from Gospel Films. Box 41, folder “Notes—Betty Ford’s (2),” Betty Ford White House Papers, 1973-1977, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

After spending this summer on Francis Schaeffer’s film series How Should We Then Live, I ran out of time to write the final post before my autumn semester started. But there’s another reason I am concluding this rewatch series only now, after a hiatus of almost four months: I have been reluctant to face these last two episodes.

A prospectus for the final episodes of the series, from a brochure in Box 41, folder “Notes—Betty Ford’s (2),” Betty Ford White House Papers, 1973-1977, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

“The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence” and “Final Choices” are not historical discussions. They are responses to twenty years of current events, beginning with the failed Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising of 1956, which had made a deep impression on Francis Schaeffer when it happened. Much of the run time of these episodes, indeed, is dedicated to speculating about the future.

When Schaeffer mapped out these final episodes before production began, he designed them as a trilogy that would describe how drug use, affluence, and apathy had created a crisis: “Just as in ancient Rome,” western people in 1977 faced an imminent wave of authoritarianism without the spiritual tools to defeat it.

I’ve been reluctant to review these episodes, or even rewatch them, because I haven’t been sure I could do it without simply writing about contemporary evangelical politics in the United States.

Throughout this series, I have tried to keep my focus on Schaeffer’s historical claims about western civilization, or else on historical context that would be useful for understanding where those claims came from. These final episodes were sure to strain that commitment.

Moreover, all the fundamental elements of the argument presented in these episodes, as far as I could tell in advance, were already included in previous installments of How Should We Then Live. After all, I have been describing Schaeffer’s argument about a choice between “biblical” Christianity and political destruction since I wrote about the first episode. What more could I say about it now?

Concluding this series today, my solution to that problem is to turn How Should We Then Live inside-out. I plan to ask how its account of western society in the 1970s might shape views of that era today, now that we can treat the 1970s as a moment in history.

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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)”

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 3 (The Renaissance)

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.



Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 3 (The Renaissance)”

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 2 (The Middle Ages)

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 [update: or re-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.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 2 (The Middle Ages)”

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.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 1 (The Roman Age)”

How Should We Then and Now: Introduction

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.


In the years after Time Magazine profiled him as a missionary to the “painters, writers, actors, singers, dancers and beatniks” of Europe in the 1960s, Francis A. Schaeffer IV cut a striking figure.

Francis Schaeffer as he appears in a composite image on a recent cover for the film series

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.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Introduction”