Saturday, February 17, 2018

a brief thought on a failure of Francis Schaeffer in The God Who is There and the rest of his trilogy

As I get older I can't help thinking that Schaeffer did ... okay in the visual art/plastic art overview but that he was going to be okay on that front by way of Rookmaaker.  His take on philosophy seems ... slapdash.  It strikes me that he was going for the big name highbrow philosophers as a pastor without having the acumen to tackle them.  That fellow Christians consider Schaeffer to have butchered Kierkegaard and others is not something I want to exactly tackle in a short post.

No, I think Schaeffer missed the boat by failing to adequately address highbrow culture in the 1960s when he could have more gainfully engaged what was going on at a more middlebrow and even lowbrow level.

Let's play a game where we imagine if Francis Schaeffer chose to publicly tackle Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces rather than get sloppy attempting to thumbnail sketch Heidegger.  What if Schaeffer had spelled out a case to Christians that Campbell's monomyth was a bad joke as comparative anthropology that was a distillation of American narcissism that, if suffused throughout popular culture, could lead to a cultural monomyth in which everything is about "me", the hero? 

Now, obviously, Schaeffer didn't do that.  But besides not addressing Campbell's monomyth there was the cosmogonic cycle and that ... well ... even a conservative like Roger Scruton could say in The Ring of Truth that what Wagner did was tell the story about our stories.  The idea of an art work about our works of art; a myth about our myths, that was something Scruton says Richard Wagner was attempting to do in the Ring cycle.  Scruton thinks Wagner succeeded at conveying ther sacred in the absence of the reality of gods. 

I think Schaeffer made a giant mistake in arts history by ignoring Wagner altogether.  The Romantic era didn't die, it hasn't died.  We're still living with the total work of art as a utopian vision of a better society and humanity that doubles up as a critique of contemporary society.  We can see it most clearly not in the highbrow circles where in a post World War II world it's shameful to have such a work as an objectively observable work--no, for the highbrow the total work of art has been transubstantiated into an ideology like post-Marxist thought or neoliberalism.  The cults of art in the lowbrow are where Wagner's ideal of the total work of art reflecting the Folk thrives. 

Any competent pastor could inveigh against the cult of the Superbowl as an alternative Sunday gathering of course. 

But Schaeffer could have addressed a mixture of Wagner's legacy and Campbell's legacy and probably have done more good than coming across to highbrow scholars as if he were nothing more than a reactionary fundamentalist pedant. 

Of course ... that wasn't he Francis Schaeffer we had in the legacy of Anglo-American Christian thought.  Schaeffer had some ideas that, were they taken as a starting point, could have been fun and exciting as a catalyst for explorations in the arts and literary scholarship.  But, alas, Schaeffer's worldviewism tends to be taken as a conversation stopper by people who will invoke worldview talk to say this or that artist doesn't have a Christian worldview or just has a "postmodern worldview" and that's the end.  No need to even get into how or why such a set of ideas (which are themselves not even always explained) are manifest in the art work potentially under discussion.  Nope, just say X created Y which is a reflection of the Z worldview that X has that in general terms is implicitly or explicitly not Christian and the Christian school report is done!

But the most striking reason I've come to believe that Schaeffer's approach of assessing everything in light of a Christian worldview is not "just" because it tends to not define what a real Christian worldview is, often tacitly in terms of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant default mode that favors Americanist cultural ideals that no Christian needs to feel hugely obligated to, it's also because, as I've demonstrated elsewhere at this blog, a Francis Schaeffer condemnation of a John Cage can read pretty much the same as a condemnation of John Cage and his music leveled by a Maoist Marxist like John Tilbury or Cornelius Cardew.  With the end of the Cold War it's possible, and I suggest also necessary, to regard one of the shortcomings in Schaeffer's whole approach as being so busy fretting about America being a post-Christian nation (as if Christendom and its salvage were the only path forward for Christians) that he could not imagine a form of Christianity that is not wielded toward the end of American revivalist ideals.

A postmillennialist theonomist and a Marxist do not seem different to me in terms of their overall teleological conception of history.  Since the Presbyterian wings of American Christian thought still have some folks committed to some variant of this stuff it's a reason I've considered writing a few things to demonstrate that with the passing of the Cold War you can turn to a Schaeffer or a Cardew and find that they can both blast Cage for the same reason despite seeming to formally be on opposing sides within the context of the Cold War. 

Meanwhile, Wagner's legacy lives on so vibrantly within Hollywood that I can see a trailer for Infinity War and where the 19th century had Wagner's Wotan wielding the Ring of the Nibelung to govern the world that eventually falls due to the curse of Alberich upon the Ring; whereas Frodo and Sam take the One Ring to destroy it to save the world; now in our century we've got Thanos seeking the completion of the Infinity Gauntlet so he can remake the cosmos according to his own whims. 

At no point did Schaeffer, in his various writings, tackle what would turn out in the last forty years to have been the most potent and pervasive art religions.

Nor does it seem he anticipated that these art religions would become so numerous that evangelistic efforts could transform or translate popular cultural tropes and brands as if they were in some sense dim pointers in the mode of the altar to the unknown god in Athens described in Acts. 

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