How Can We Then Live?

It was a question Francis Schaeffer asked in 1977 in a 10-video series of that name, and after 40+ years those videos are still relevant to a new generation—but the reaction is completely different today, even though it is just as positive.

Schaeffer was a big splash, a Christian rock star, and these videos triggered a reaction in American churches that spanned decades. Schaeffer redefined American Christianity. Those were the heady days for Evangelicals when they formed the Moral Majority, America First, Right to Life, and Focus on the Family. They revitalized the Republican Party and gave Reagan two terms as President. Leading the charge was Schaeffer’s book and videos on “How Should We Then Live?” Subtitled, “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture”, it chronicles the false ideologies that have ruled Western civilization and demonstrates the superior worldview found in the Bible. Without a personal, infinite God at the center of the universe, every culture degenerates into chaos. Schaeffer talks about the importance of a Christian consensus in society, which triggered the political movements to “reclaim America” for Christ.” Like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, Schaeffer was a Reformed Theologian who taught the church should take over the government and establish a “Christian Society”. Today only vestiges of that movement remain.

In ‘78 I attended a mega-conference featuring Schaeffer’s videos and Francis Schaeffer at the Indianapolis convention center, along with about 5 thousand others. He sat cross-legged in his Swiss nickers on the edge of a table, smoking a pipe (you could smoke indoors back then), and fielded questions from an excited audience. Christians usually frown on smokers, so I wondered if someone would rebuke Dr. Schaeffer, but nobody did. (Soon after I switched from cigarettes to a pipe, so now when legalists give me crap about it I simply cite Francis as my mentor, which short-circuits the critics–smoke pours out their ears!)

Even more amazing, his videos showed orgies, phalluses, and other cultural dirt atypical at Christian conferences.  Then he said every Christian should see “Clockwork Orange”, and still nobody at the audience microphones rebuked him, despite the movie’s graphic nudity and rape scene. (I already saw Clockwork Orange, so I could breath easily again!)

Schaeffer tried to shock tribal Christians out of their isolation boxes (called “sanctuaries”) and stir a counter-cultural revolution with these videos, and he succeeded—until anti-Christian sentiment organized a response. Schaeffer failed in the long run, because today we live in a Post-Christian world hostile to Christianity, while political activism among Evangelicals is winding down.It turns out the opposition far outnumbers and out-spends Evangelicals, and our political activism stirs the opposition to action, mostly.

The Initial Response

With all this negative history behind Schaeffer’s “Evangelical Revolution”, why then would I sponsor a college retreat using his videos? Even more interesting, why did young, Millennial-generation Christians respond so favorably?’

There was a negative reaction, at first. A number of student leaders approached me complaining the videos were “nothing more than some old man in nickers droning on and on about old, outdated things.” (Keep in mind these are college students, not Junior High!) “Outdated things” meant “history”, of course, which “is boring,” they said. My own son and niece—both read Schaeffer’s book and enjoyed it—suggested we choose a different retreat topic, which mystified me. I could only assume they were facing a backlash that overrode their own sensibilities. I wrote previously about the “Google Effect” and what sociologists are calling “Humanity II”, where the ability to think deeply and critically has declined measurably, so it seems Christian leaders have a fight against the tide to get people to think biblically and with “sound judgment”, as God’s Word says.

In a classic Keith-tirade, I called an emergency meeting of all our student leaders the night before our retreat and unleashed a flurry of convictions. It turned out to be a useless effort—by this time they were already convinced. Since study groups were assigned to lead a discussion after each video, they were watching the videos and already experiencing some fascinating dialogs. Brain neurons were shifting from World of Warcraft to critical, biblical thinking. They were amazed to find themselves comparing Jean-Jacques Reaussea’s “Nobel Savage” against Hegelian “Phenomonology of Spirit” and other critiques of humanist dogma. Although stunned and amazed, I still launched into my well-thought out tirade, just in case they were “blown’ smoke” up my you-know-what.

The God of History

History is the primary evidence for the Gospel, I said, when combined with critical, logical reasoning. We can’t prove the claims of Jesus in a test tube, but we can do it with a scientific evaluation of the Bible, historical records, and archeology. God says the same: Nobody can explain the course of history in detail except God, of course. As the ultimate historian, God ties history together with the future, and tells us the flow of human history. God’s Word challenges anyone else to do the same: “Let them try to tell us what happened long ago so we may consider the evidence. Or let them tell us what the future holds, so we can know what’s going to happen.” (Isaiah 40:)

Is it any surprise, then, to see a massive effort underway to distort and undermine the historical record? The “god of this world” cringes when the dismal record of his World System goes on parade, which Schaeffer does so eloquently in “How Should We Then Live?”

The core dogma of Postmodernism presumes we cannot truly understand other cultures, and especially history. So many language and cultural barriers make it impossible to understand any reality beyond the here-and-now, or even beyond our own, personal worlds, they say. Everyone seems to gobble up this goop. Yet when dealing with the real Global Village world we live in, everyone discards Postmodern dogma without noticing the inconsistency. At a practical level all cultures are too intertwined and interdependent to ignore, and the same dependencies exist with history: We are the product of history. It does require some effort to understand the world beyond personal experience, but it is far from impossible, as Postmodernists believe. The hyper-isolationism of Postmodernism is mostly useless and impractical, but it grows truly hideous when it undermines our knowledge of history.

Even more significant, history proves the Jesus worldview works—in fact, only His worldview can be sustained, which Schaeffer clearly proves in his video series. It should be titled, “How Can We Then Live?” not “How Should We…?” Only one worldview is sustainable, given enough time. One worldview comes from the personal, infinite Creator, so it creates and sustains life, while all the others perpetrate death and dying. Guess where the countervailing views originate? This is the clear evidence of history, such as the French Revolution with its atheist-individualism, so beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Dick Dawkins. Yet the internal chaos erupting from such hyper-individualism triggered 40,000 or more beheadings and paved the way for a dictator like Napoleon to step in.

Millennials Get It

Unlike the Christians in ‘78, the Millennials watching the same videos drew much more biblical and realistic conclusions. For all the hoopla about brain dead Millennials, they seem wiser than Baby Boomer Christians. Perhaps they enjoy the benefit of an historical perspective, and can see the failure of Reformed Theology, but whatever the reason, these students pronounced some fantastic convictions as the retreat ended. I want to share them here:

  1. The Gospel must be proclaimed! Our Creator provided us with a practical worldview that works, and the historical record to prove it. Armed with the Bible and a little education, any Christian can speak authoritatively to a culture drowning in confusion and despair. The aimless “Occupy Wall Street” protests proclaim the widespread need for solutions with real substance. Leaving behind political reform, the Christian faith is attractive and contagious. Personal reform goes much deeper than congressional decrees.
  2. Christians need to start acting like Christians and end the confusion! It means knowing what we believe, and why. It means living like spiritual sons of God. When Christians melt into the secular culture like nobodies, they accede to a spirit of cowardice and defeatism. The “Church-Hopper” movement and “Shopping Mall” Christianity need to die a rapid, final death. Rather than building institutions, Christians need to build disciples who know the Word of God.
  3. Prayer is badly needed! “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Timothy 2:8). Spiritual activism is far more powerful than political activism, and Paul, at the end of his life, seeing the Apostolic Age draw to a close, said prayer was the need of the hour. Unfortunately, political activism was the great pursuit of succeeding generations, and the results were grotesque perversions of power.
  4. Social Mercy, not “Social Justice”, should pour out of compassionate Christian hearts. This is the clear command of scripture, like Galatians 6:10 – “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” The misguided pursuit of “Social Justice” advocated by Emergent Village merely puts Christians back in the hands of political overlords, with pathetic results. Both Republicans and Democrats claim the Christian agenda, yet both are owned by the World System.
  5. Frivolous Christianity must be renounced and avoided like the poison it is. This especially includes the Singing Worship Service, which is the most pathetic and expensive activity underway in most Christian communities. It devours precious resources and detracts substantially from the proclamation of God’s Word, which is the real need for today. I can think of nothing more frivolous, except perhaps “liturgical dancing” or “prayer labyrinths”.  It was interesting to discover from Schaeffer’s videos that Ambrose, the “bishop of Milan”, was the first to write and compile a collection of “hymns” in the fourth century – before Ambrose, singing was a casual affair, at best, and certainly not as important as the Word. Mormons, JWs, unbelieving liberals and Christian Scientists all sing hymns, and often the same songs, so the hymn-singing church falls in with great company.

Fortunately, Schaeffer kept talking about a “Christian consensus” in culture, which is not the same as Christian politics, even though it was interpreted that way. Schaeffer died shortly after producing these videos, and I like to think he would have redirected Evangelical attention back to evangelism for building that consensus.

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