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: 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”