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.

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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.

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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”