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 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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Expect Contradictions

Contradictions, however, are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting [historical] evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without cross-currents. … No age is tidy or made of whole cloth.

—Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, xxiii

The Keys of the Educated

A humble mind, eagerness to inquire, a quiet life, silent scrutiny, poverty, a foreign soil. These, for many, unlock the hidden places of learning.

—attr. Bernard of Chartres (11th-12th cen.)

This seems to have been a common saying in twelfth-century French university life. It is quoted in several places, including:

Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 94, cf. 214n61.