Saturday, August 20, 2016

an Alan Jacobs piece, a Mere Orthodoxy piece on Schaeffer and Christian intellectualism, and some preliminary concerns about Schaeffer as the American evangelical's one-man Frankfurt school

from a recent Alan Jacobs article:
Political liberals who long expected to live in an increasingly liberal world may find themselves disoriented by these manifestations, whose nature they are ill prepared to understand, and they certainly wish such “forces of reaction” would just go away. But these forces will not go away. If we were to wish for something less fantastic than the disappearance of our political opposites, we might think along these lines: It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

The article is a bit on the long side (not Alastair Roberts/Steve Hays long (and Steve's posts have been getting shorter over the last decade)) but still long.  Jacobs' historical sketch is of Christian intellectuals who addressed issues of Western democratic stability in the wake of the Second World War--there were concerns that the West might lose the peace after having formally won the war.  If the peace was governed by pragmatic technocrats rather than principled humanists the fabric of democracy itself might not survive, to keep it perhaps too short and simple for the sorts of readers who haven't already read the Jacobs piece.

The long-form case from Jacobs isn't even all that implicit, the pragmatist technocrats basically won.  There could be a variety of reasons proposed for this--one being that even during the height of the Cold War religion was useful as a bulwark against Communism first and just secondarily as a thing to be considered that could be critical of contemporary trends within democratic societies and market economies.  As Frank Schaeffer would eventually demonstrate before his brand became leveraging a flip, there were Christians in the United States who argued that capitalism was most consistent with the exercise of Christian freedom. 

But now that we're in an era in which new atheism has been a thing it's easy to see how Christian intellectuals may be viewed with skepticism both because (on the one hand) there's been a history of mainline and evangelical commitment to alliances with institutional political power; and (on the other hand) a connected belief that the concerns of religion aren't the concerns of science and reason and can lead people to ask "who'd listen to these Christian intellectuals?"  We have plenty of people who would say that Christians should not even be making art because of a largely tacit assumption about the definition of art; in a comparable way, there are those who would insist that it's not possible to even talk about Christian intellectuals because by some contemporary secularist definitions an oxymoron. 

That by now we don't have to think that long to observe that the Hitchens razor that proposes that claims asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence works fine until the value of individual human lives are considered.  We haven't shaken off a fundamental desire within Western cultures to assert that individual human lives have dignity and value regardless of our inability to formulate a coherent or evidentiary based case for that.  We live in a cultural moment where Ta-nehisi Coates can urge his son to not take seriously any appellation to a divine law on the one hand while arguing for the legitimacy and even necessity of reparations from a state whose foundational narrative can be understood in terms of a pervasive white supremacist animus that held that, by definition, black lives were worth less than white lives--Coates' feeling for the injustice of that is something I can agree with as a Christian but his case for reparations is paradoxically ultimately the kind of case an absolute dreamer would make. 

It's also the kind of case that ironically might have to depend on insisting that human lives have price tags that can be paid for by a federal government, which might have to grant as the foundation for practical application of reparations the very objectionable principle that allowed so many whites to own slaves for so long.  If we don't argue for the value of human dignity, beauty and liberty on the basis of an appeal to something divine then even if we had a scientific case for human dignity the social forces in play that can enforce that seem to be peer pressure and the state.

Religious thinkers might be able to bridge the potentially impassable gap there, and we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. as someone who more or less took the approach Coates won't or can't by dint of different convictions and approaches.  

So, with that rather long preliminary, Jake Meador has a piece up about Francis Schaeffer and Christian public intellectuals.

In an era in which Christopher Hitchens could be regarded as in any sense a public intellectual we might be looking at a generally lowered bar.  Hitchens was a readable journalist with a lively style and memorable opinions, but he vanquished his reputation with the left he used to be connected to by advocating for Gulf War 2 and, as leftists have so succinctly put it, defending empire.  Hitchens' views on social and economic matters will never entirely endear him to the right, let alone a religious right.  The question of whether the left has fully reconciled itself with the necessity of its agendas depending on the stability of American empire is something for another time.  This is all an aside to suggest that to the extent that atheists have been able to treat Hitchens as a kind of public intellectual it may be in part because Christians have paved the way for such a person to be regarded as a public intellectual in the form of evangelical lionization of Francis Schaeffer.

But let's throw Hitchens a bone by way of remembering recent history.  If Hitchens' had a book that sold 300,000 copies did they sell because people bought them?  That seems like a captain obvious observation but it was just a few short years ago that Mark Driscoll was embroiled in a controversy about using Result Source to secure a place for one of his books on the New York Times bestseller list, Real Marriage. Now it's hard to argue anyone will ever consider Mark Driscoll a public intellectual even if anyone ever mistook him for one before his plagiarism controversy, but the point here is that if Meador wants to raise the question of influence by sales numbers, in a post-Mark Driscoll's Result Source scandal north American evangelicalism that's not the kind of appellation I would personally be making!

When Meador writes this:
What we need is a different kind of interpreter, less Reinhold Niebuhr, that establishment figure who lived and taught in New York City, and more Francis Schaeffer, the missionary-in-exile, far removed from the hubs of power and influence and better equipped to speak to them in distinctly Christian ways precisely because of his distance from them.

It just reminds me that in the last fifty years it has obviously been Schaeffer and not Niebuhr whom evangelicals quote more often and more approvingly.  But why Schaeffer?  Schaeffer's criticisms of liberalism in Western theology weren't necessarily more cogent than the criticisms made by Emil Brunner, were they?  I mean, if we're just going to stick to people who can be broadly identified as having a connection to the Reformed tradition Brunner's just one name we can mention. 

Francis Schaeffer may really have been a kind of missionary in exile in some sense during his life but it might be worth asking whether that exile was one he had imposed on him or whether it was a self-selected exile.  And given the extent to which mainstream Christian evangelicals approvingly quote Schaeffer in the last thirty odd years' worth of culture war diatribes it's tough to buy the idea that Schaeffer has remained since his death far from the hubs of power and influence.  If Francis Schaeffer were alive today his environmental views might have him at odds with contemporary evangelicals of the sort who might endorse, we know who.

Think of it this way, Frank Schaeffer couldn't have built a cottage industry out of parasitically repudiating his father's legacy as the only reason anyone would bother to know his name unless Francis Schaeffer himself was not a brand.

We're approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the publication of Francis Schaeffer's trilogy.  The God Who is There, Escape from Reason and He is There and He is Not Silent were hugely formative for me in my teens and early 20s. In the history of evangelical Christian examination of popular culture and scholarly life Francis Schaeffer has been regarded by evangelicals as essentially a one man Frankfurt school for conservative Protestants.  That's not really overstating things too much to go by how American evangelicals invoke Schaeffer's work--you'd almost get the sense that Francis Schaeffer is a conservative Protestant's dream of combining Adorno and Walter Benjamin into one Presbyterian hippie-bearded dude.

I've been blogging this point throughout 2016 but it's impossible for me to shake the sense, revisiting Schaeffer's trilogy, that here in this century with the knowledge we have of the evolution of the Religious Right in the United States, that one of the most salient weaknesses of Schaeffer's trilogy is that even if we grant the post-Christian America narrative at its core his narrative is of fragmentation that is in itself a bit fragmentary.  He tended to work with a pejorative definition of humanism that would seem to preclude the possibility of Christian humanism, for instance.  Christians who endorse Hayek or other seminal influences on semi-libertarian economic theory might have no use for a Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer's influence may be more as someone who gave the Religious Right a guiding narrative than as someone who formulated potential paths to take forward.  As Darryl Hart put it a bit briefly in one of his books, Francis Schaeffer gave evangelicals a useful history, not necessarily a scholarly history, but the kind of history that Leonard B. Meyer mentioned in a postlude in his 1990s reprint of Music, the Arts and Ideas:

Though we have lost faith in a shining future, the past is still available. Not, however, the past resulting from historical research, but a past emanating from ethno-mythic fabrication.

Music, the Arts and Ideas
Leonard B. Meyer
(c) 1967,1994 by The University of Chicago
isbn 0-226-52143-5
page 338

That's a point I've been making this year about Schaeffer, that the sum of his narrative, read in an American context with an eye toward a more truly global conception of Christianity in historical terms (i.e. not just Western Christianity, since the Eastern tradition is massive, and not just American Christianity since a great deal of American Christianity is still indebted to a Western tradition that it may need more interaction with) reads as too American.  To put it still more bluntly, it's hard to shake the impression, even as a moderately conservative Presbyterian sort, that Francis Schaeffer's trilogy reads in 2016 primarily as a legend of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant decline. 

Schaeffer's trilogy presents as a tragedy what can be read as a comedy in a single Whit Stillman film, Metropolitan, with its light and nearly frivolous touch handling an American upper class WASP set that has no idea its day in the sun is already over.  That Francis Schaeffer was able to articulate within the late 1960s to establishment Christian Protestants who might be willing to listen that "our day in the sun has already been over" may still be a valuable thing--the thing is that it seems that white evangelicals took Schaeffer's message to mean that if we lived in a post-Christian America that meant we needed to take America back rather than figure out how to live with the new reality of not being the default civic religion of the American ruling class. 

I don't really contest what Jake Meador says our take-away about Francis Schaeffer's work "should" be because that's kind of what my approach has been over the last twenty years, working slowly toward thinking about what a post-American Christianity may be while evangelicals have wrung their hands about a post-Christian America.  Now that the Cold War is over we should be able to take some time to ask whether evangelicals who hitched their wagons to the star of the United States weren't blinkered by that. 

Yes, compared to Soviet totalitarianism American style democracy seemed like the better alternative.  Yes, the values of personal peace and affluence were ultimately inwardly curved and that became a problem but once anti-totalitarian polemics got brought into the mix wasn't personal peace and the opportunity to strive toward affluence presented as what Western democratic/capitalist society provided the opportunity for that the communist regimes didn't?  If the thing that theoretically Schaeffer argued was a sign of Western failure and decline from an ideological standpoint was functionally the "proof" of the freedom "our" team had that the Soviets didn't then, well, our best sociological/economic evidence for our case was that there was more personal peace and affluence available in Western democratic/capitalist or Western democratic socialist systems than in the Soviet bloc. 

Schaeffer presented a simple, readable account of Western fragmentation but fragmentation and chaos in the West isn't "that" new.  Just speaking in terms of music history we could say the entire world and thousands of years of history are available for us to consider but that this is a variance in degree rather than kind if we have a truly global conception of Christian history.  American evangelicals have been so obsessed with the fragmentation they have not bothered to spend as much time as they could looking at processes of consolidation, certainly not where the arts are concerned. 

I think Meyer's proposal that the nexus of Renaissance optimism with Protestant impulses to self-improvement as the engine of revolutionary exploration makes sense--and that proposal highlights a nother potential problem in Francis Schaeffer's narrative, his polarized account of the Renaissance and the Reformation as somehow different rather than overlapping iterations of a Western drive.  It doesn't take that much reading of authors with a more Eastern Christian stance (hint, Dostoevsky!) to point out that some Christians regarded certain revolutionary issues in Western thought as endemic to even Western Christianity. 

It's possible to appreciate Schaeffer for what he was trying to get at while still highlighting some shortfalls, really significant shortfalls, in his actual writings.  One of them can be a failure to recognize that the trajectory of the West can be read as a natural outgrowth of taking the revolutionary aspects of Protestant reforms seriously (i.e. we can just so that the radical reformation rather than the magisterial reformation ended up defining the West in some ways). 

In a similar way, it's possible to point out, as a Roger Scruton can probably recognize, that if we look at the ideological engines of 19th century Romanticism with the repudiation of aristocratic conventions and norms and the desire to break free of the shackles of stifling rules that this obviously led us to the atonalists--which is to say that there are conservatives who look at the last few centuries and try to repudiate the artistic results of ideological and philosophical trajectories revealed in historical liberalism they would like to have dropped but not at the expense of the animating ideologies and philosophies that so obviously catalyzed the undesirable art to begin with.  I.e. let's dispense with Schoenberg but keep the German idealism that helped pave the way for Schoenberg. 

I think Schaeffer, particularly on the subject of the arts and motivating ideologies, was spectacularly wrong about how the Romantic era ideologies had been abandoned.  No, if anything the avant garde arts and particularly the avant garde music of the last century has arguably demonstrated that the Romantic spirit remained an animating impulse.  But that's something I'm trying to put together some other writing for.

Schaeffer's affection for Baroque music isn't that hard to pick up on for those who are familiar with his work.  But the Baroque era was a chaotic era of fragmentation and nationalism within Europe.  What we tend to think of when we think of the Baroque era is not the early Baroque in which tonal music and functional harmony had not yet normatively emerged; or about the norm in that era of the first and second practices in which people were expected to be musically multilingual, grasping the core ideas of the old Renaissance style with the more modern "Baroque"; we tend to think about the high baroque fusions exemplified by Bach or Handel and when we get that in musical education we don't get the century long process of experimentation and consolidation that someone like Bach exemplifies at a personal and regional level.  Schaeffer's narrative laments a loss of that Baroque art in a way that betrays a lack of understanding of how that art was a long process of fusion. 

We need to keep talking about the influence of Francis Schaeffer on American evangelicalism and I do think that it's fair to say that Francis Schaeffer's being the default one-man Frankfurt school for conservative Protestants in Anglo-American society needs some more scrutiny.  I think we need this because rather than propose Schaeffer as a paradigm to follow I think we may need to regard his narrative of WASP decline as having a use by way of moving past it.  After half a century of his public role in evangelicalism, we might be better off paying tribute to what Francis Schaeffer was attempting to do by shaking ourselves a bit more free of the influence of his cultural narrative.  If we keep paying homage to the legend of WASP decline in his writings we'll fixate on the fragmentation he kept observing rather than working toward a possible Christian synthesis. 


Cal P said...

What I find more interesting is how Schaeffer was one of the many forces who translated neo-neo-Calvinism (the Dutch tradition of Kuyper and Bavinck through Van Till) to the masses of American Evangelicals. Theological Presuppositionalism is intoxicating and it weaponizes everything. We see the spread of "world-viewism" translating from German idealism and anthropological studies into every bizarre nook and cranny of under-educated Evangelical teachers we see commenting on everything (and I mean everything).

In this I'm curious. It's a chicken or the egg question: did Presuppositionalism help dumb down American discourse or did a dumbed down, alienated, discourse eagerly embrace the means to build islands of thought. No longer do we need level-headed discourse, and even-paced analysis, but we can charge head-first into the fray armed with our regulating ideas. Knowing how the engine of the car works does not mean you know everything about cars.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think world-view is a bad category to analyze and theology is still a kind of queen of the sciences (the reigning doctrinaire Nietzschean atheism of the AAR and many religious studies departments is intriguing for this reason). But Schaeffer has created legions of Evangelicals immune to good advice.

In this way, Schaeffer might be an interesting introduction to Western culture, a historical figure in the rise of reformulated American Conservatism and the Moral Majority, or a spur for Christians to think these things through. But he's a plague (or more likely a symptom) of the Church in America's blindness. In many ways, many congregations are just apostates worshiping Death in the shape of a National cult. But that's my personal crusade.

Anyway, I have a tendency to dislike most features of Presbyterianism (even though I worship in a Presbyterian body).


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

you might have seen the post where I compared Schaeffer's critique of John Cage was conceptually, even down to the wording, basically the same as a Marxist/Maoist critique of Cage.

That the Marxist/Maoist and the Christian presuppositionalist condemned the music of John Cage on more or less the same basis (the inability of humans to "live by" the ideas that inspired the music) shows how both approaches, as you put it, end up weaponizing everything. Once "all art is political" all art ends up having to be propaganda.

For me one of the core problems of the Marxist approach and the 19th century era Presbyterian approach is that I reject postmillennialism (utterly) and yet the kind of utopian apocalyptic in which "we" get to usher in the golden age on the basis of correctly applied correct ideas is something I'm not a big fan of. The irony for me is that the neo-neo-Calvinist with any postmillennialist bent doesn't realize he (and it's almost always a "he") that he and the Marxist both have the same postmillennialist impulse. It might be like how progressives with mainline roots can't stand Christian Reconstructionists BECAUSE the CR types may just be using the postmillennialist self-congratulatory optimism for a red state Social Gospel instead of a blue state Social Gospel.