Jan 30, 2012

Francis Schaeffer at 100

Today, on his 100th birthday, Francis Schaeffer's influence can be seen in the shape of the landscape of American culture. His affect can be traced in almost every evangelical engagement with art and media and philosophy, science, law, and politics, and in Christian engagements with culture everywhere. It's seen especially in American Christians' need -- their feeling of a pressing, urgent need -- to articulate and demonstrate, defend and perpetuate a coherent and uniquely Christian worldview.

It's in, especially, the evangelical need to have and belief there must be a biblical answer to everything and a Christian version of everything.

The affect of Schaeffer's presence is discernible, 100 years after he was born, though often it's only an unacknowledged specter.

The weight of his influence has a gravitational pull to it. But it's often -- too often -- overlooked. General histories of the 20th century and of conservative Protestants on the contemporary scene tend to note and mark more public (but less consequential) figures, from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell to Tim LaHaye, and to not see Schaeffer's influence at all.

It is there, though.

It's not really possible to understand most of goes on in evangelical culture today without understanding how it's building off of and working out of Schaeffer's basic thesis. His work is key to a turn in the 20th century.

If you want to understand why a Baptist pastor performed a "sexperiment" on the roof of his church with his wife, or why there's a market for Mark Driscoll's latest book and great such interest in a "Christian" view of sex, you have to understand Schaeffer. If you want to understand why some Christians talk about "worldviews," and what they mean when they do, you have to understand Schaeffer. If you want to know why Rick Warren thinks he should be interviewing presidential candidates, you have to know what he means when he says "everyone has a worldview," and if you want to understand that, you have to understand Schaeffer. If you want to understand basically anything about the ideas underpinning the religious right, you have to know your Schaeffer. If you want to know why fundamentalists in the 30s and 40s and 50s didn't write books about dieting or debt, but conservative Christians today do, you have to look to Schaeffer. If you want to understand the premise beneath Christian magazine's movie reviews, and why they have them at all, or the shape of contemporary Christian fiction, or why anyone would want a "Christian" painting, and would think a Christian painting would somehow be different from another kind, you have to know this man who was born 100 years ago today.

Francis Schaeffer.

Not that he'd want to claim all of those things or would have endorsed them. Rather, to explain those things, one would have to go back to him.

As Barry Hankins puts it: "Schaeffer was among the first well-known evangelicals to emphasize Christian thinking about philosophy and art, and he did this largely in an evangelical subculture that gave short shrift to things of the mind."

"Schaeffer's primary significance is not in a lasting critique of western thought, nor in a reasoned apologetic that would necessarily be persuasive today. His arguments have not stood the test of time in terms of their historical veracity or philosophical soundness. He was not the scholar, philosopher, or great theologian that his publishers liked to claim on his book jackets. Rather, Schaeffer is significant primarily because when he came back to the United States in the mid-1960s, most American evangelicals were still in the throes of fundamentalist separatism, in which Christian public identity manifested itself primarily in an attempt to shun the secular world. Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes towards culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement."

There are many who merely profit off the idea of a culture war, exploiting the perceived conflict for their own ends. But there are also those really believe in that clash, that struggle, and think it's the most important issue going on today and that that struggle explains the modern world. And to know why they think so, one has to turn to this man's thinking.

Form a speech he gave the day after his 70th birthday:

His thesis at 70, which is the core of his work and the essence of his legacy, was pretty simply a declension narrative and a binary opposition of worldviews. The simplest expression of it I know is how he put it in that speech for Jerry Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour:
"Christians in the last 80 years or so have seen things in bits and pieces. Instead of seeing the things which are gradually troubling Christians and other people of good will, such as over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown in the family, abortion and the killing of newborn children. They've seen these in bits and pieces, instead of understanding that they're only the natural outcome, the inevitable outcome, of the change from a Christian viewpoint to a humanistic one. That is, instead of the finally reality, the base of all reality, being a personal infinite God, who is the creator of all else. Instead of that, now the dominant worldview is that the final reality is only material energy shaped by pure chance into its present form. This change explains everything that is troubling our culture."

Most of what people attempt to understand when trying to understand late 20th and early 21st century evangelicals starts from here. It's founded in this pair of ideas -- declension and opposition -- and the conception of Christianity as a worldview. Which were Schaeffer's first, at least effectively, and which, following from him, came to shape and influence so much of the shape of things.