Half a century ago Francis Schaeffer published the first of a trilogy of books that came to be influential in American evangelical circles. I read them in my teens and was impressed with them. Here in middle age I am ... less positively impressed by them. I can admire the curiosity Schaeffer displayed in the sheer variety of what art, music, film, literature and philosophy he was willing to interact with while finding his master narrative of a Western world gone wrong since the rejection of a generally implicitly low church Protestant Christian "worldview" took place as he understood it to be ... doubtful.
More particularly, Schaeffer's description of new forms of "total art" suggests that he was not as conversant with the idea of the total work of art. In Schaeffer's day there was little, if anything, by way of English language scholarship on the total work of art, so what Schaeffer wrote is understandable within the context of his time.
The God Who Is There
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)
Escape from Reason
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)
THE GOD WHO IS THERE
The 1960s was the time of many powerful philosophic films. The posters advertising Antonioni's Blow-Up in the London Underground were inescapable as they told the message of that film: "Murder without guilt; love without meaning." The mas of people may not enter an art museum, may never read a serious book. If you were to explain the drift of modern thought to them, they might not be able to understand it; but this does not mean that they are not influenced by the things they see and hear--including the cinema and what is considered "good," nonescapist television.
No greater illustration could be found of the way these concepts were carried to the masses than "pop" music and especially the work of the Beatles. The Beatles moved through several stages, including the concept of the drug and psychedelic approach. The psychedelic began with their records Revolver, Strawberry Fields Forever, and Penny Lane. This was developed with great expertness in their record Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in which psychedelic music, with open statements concerning drug-taking, was knowingly presented as a religious answer. The religious form was the same vague pantheism which predominates much of the new mystical thought today. one indeed does not have to understand in a clear way the modern monolithic thought in order to be infiltrated by it. Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was an ideal example of the manipulating power of the new forms of "total art" This concept of total art increases the infiltrating power of the message by carefully conforming the technical form used to the message involved. [emphasis added] This is used in the Theatre of the Absurd, the Marshall McLuhan type of television program, the new cinema and the new dance with someone like Merce Cunningham. The Beatles used this in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by making the whole record one unit so the whole is to be listened to as a unit and makes one thrust, rather than songs being only something individually. In this record the words, the syntax, the music, and the unity of the way individual songs were arranged form a unity of infiltration.
That art was proposed as something that could be above what Francis Schaeffer called "the line of despair"; providing a transcendental experience in lieu of deeper metaphysical meaning, is clear enough in Schaeffer's overview of Western history. He fumbled the period in which the total work of art began to be theorized and produced but he got the key idea that there were movements within modernism that sought to explicitly propose that art could be the new religion.
Theorizing about the total work of art in revolutionary and religious terms goes as far back as the writing of Richard Wagner. The quest to recover a Hellenistic conception of civic religion fused with art was a popular theme in European thought. We could roughly sketch out that there were revolutionary and reactionary forms of such an impulse. It wasn't until the concept of the total work of art migrated into the United States in a postwar context that the total work of art as a civic religious cultic experience affirming a contemporary status quo may have emerged but that's a deliberately provocative suggestion that, were any academics ever to have a reason to read this blog they could chime in but this is just some person writing a blog post on a weekend.
Now Francis Schaeffer understood humanism to be the philosophical premise that man is the measure of all things. Advocacy for such a view and advocacy for art to do for religion what religion could no longer do found one of its most vocal exponents in Richard Wagner, who was prolific enough a writer to be able to speak for himself (via translation, of course):
RELIGION AND ART
Prose Works, Volume 6
translated by William Ashton Ellis
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything" on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely True in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief. Feeling this, she has always sought the aid of Art ; who on her side has remained incapable of higher evolution so long as she must present that alleged reality of the symbol to the senses of the worshipper in form of fetishes and idols,— whereas she could only, fulfill her true vocation when, by an ideal presentment of the allegoric figure, she led to apprehension of its inner kernel, the truth ineffably divine. To see our way clear in this, we should have most carefully to test the origin of religions. These we must certainly deem the more divine, the simpler proves to be their inmost kernel. ...
Art and Revoluion
Prose Works, Volume 1
translated by William Ashton Ellis
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
Let US glance, then, for a moment at this future state of Man, when he shall have freed himself from his last heresy, the denial of Nature,—that heresy which has taught him hitherto to look upon himself as a mere instrument to an end which lay outside himself. When Mankind knows, at last, that itself is the one and only object of its existence, and that only in the community of all men can this purpose be fulfilled: then will its mutual creed be couched in an actual fulfillment of Christ's injunction, " Take no care (or your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on, for your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things." This Heavenly Father will then be no other than the social wisdom of mankind taking Nature and her fullness for the common weal of all. The crime and the curse of our social intercourse have lain in this : that the mere physical maintenance of life has been till now the one object of our care,—a real care that has devoured our souls and bodies and well nigh lamed each spiritual impulse. This Care has made man weak and slavish, dull and wretched; a creature that can neither love nor hate; a thrall of commerce, ever ready to give up the last vestige of the freedom of his Will, so only that this Care might be a little lightened.
When the Brotherhood of Man has cast this care for ever from it, and, as the Greeks upon their slaves, has lain it on machines,—the artificial slaves of free creative man, whom he has served till now as the Fetish-votary serves the idol his own hands have made,—then will man's whole enfranchised energy proclaim itself as naught but pure artistic impulse.
At this point it should suffice to observe that Schaeffer overlooked the influence of Wagner in his trio of books. That is hardly difficult to establish. What Schaeffer also overlooked, that we can observe better in our era, is that Joseph Campbell came to have a significant influence in American popular culture. If Theodore Adorno was the German philosopher and cultural critic who began to observe there was a "culture industry" that was willing to sell an illusion of freedom in the form of vicarious life distilled into popular culture, Francis Schaeffer began to articulate what he saw in the total work of art as an experience that could stand in for more traditional religious experience. I suggest that Adorno so "what" the culture industry was and how it worked while Schaeffer was more attuned to what it was selling. Adorno may have seen clearly that what he called the culture industry was selling mass and popular culture with emotional content on the cheap and that all this kitsch was to numb people to their own unfreedom. Schaeffer, arguably, saw that too but saw it in terms of a more traditional conservative Protestant assessment, that this culture industry was an idol factory.
Adorno may have observed what the culture industry was selling as he understood it but the formula had not yet been refined in his era. The process of refining what the culture industry would sell required a thinker who was capable of surveying all religious and mythic tropes available and summarize them in the form of a schematic that could plausibly claim universality. Americans may very well know who that person was, Joseph Campbell.
Schaeffer doesn't demonstrate any awareness of Campbell's work or ideas but here in the twenty-first century we cannot escape the influence of Campbell's work just by way of Star Wars, never mind all the other forms of popular culture informed by his work.
NEW WORLD LIBRARY
original edition copyright (c) 1949 by Bollingen Foundation and published by Pantheon Books
Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eye witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mysterious Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizzare Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting, yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.
pages 1-2... For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.
The cosmogonic cycle is presented with astonishing consistency in the sacred writings of all the continents, and it gives the adventure of the hero a new and interesting turn; for now it appears that the perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery, but rediscovery. The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is "the king's son" who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power--"God's son," who has learned to know how much that title means. From this point of view the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.
The good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, is that God is love, that He can be, and is to be, loved, and that all without exception are his children. Such comparatively trivial matters as the remaining details of the credo, the techniques of worship, and devices of episcopal organization (which have so absorbed the interest of Occidental theologians that they are today seriously discussed as the principle questions of religion), are merely pedantic snares, unless kept ancillary to the major teaching.
Not everyone has a destiny; only the hero who has plunged to touch it, and has come up again--with a ring.
... it appears that through the wonder tales--which pretend to describe the lives of the legendary heroes, the powers of the divinities of nature, the spirits of the dead, and the totem ancestors of the group--symbolic expression is given to the unconscious desires, fears, and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behavior. Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.
Mythology is defeated when the mind rests solemnly with its favorite or traditional images, defending them as though they themselves were the message that they communicate. These images are to be regarded as no more than shadows from the unfathomable reach beyond, where the eye goeth not, speech goeth not, nor the mind, nor even piety. Like the trivialities of dream, those of myth are big with meaning.
The enduring substratum of the individual and of the progenitor of the universe are one and the same, according to these mythologies; that is why the demiurge in this myth is called the Self.
Jesus, for example can be regarded as a man who by dint of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a god descended and took upon himself the enactment of a human career. The first view would lead one to imitate the master literally, in order to break through, in the same way as he, to the transcendent, redemptive experience. But the second states that the hero is rather a symbol to be contemplated than an example to be literally followed. The divine being is a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all. The contemplation of the life thus should be undertaken as a meditation on one's own immanent divinity, not as a prelude to a precise imitation, the lesson being, not "Do thus and be good," but "Know this and be God."
... Not the animal world, not the plant world not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as "I" but as "Thou": for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race , continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. "Live," Nietzsche says, "as though the day were here." It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal--carries the cross of the redeemer--not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.
Joseph Campbell's influence on American popular culture is by now probably incontestable and yet Schaeffer, due to an accident of his time and place, never significantly addressed Campbell's work. And why should he have? After all, the rise of Campbellian influence wouldn't begin to happen until Star Wars came along. In failing to address the ideas of Richard Wagner it's arguable that Francis Schaeffer botched his efforts to engage with European modern philosophy in a way that has largely rendered his attempts to engage with the intellectual currents of his time mostly irrelevant and even, at times, wildly wrong.
It may be useful to add a caveat to all of these observations and suggestions, Schaeffer published the first book of his trilogy in 1968. That meant that the 1967 controversy surrounding the discovery that the CIA had been backing arts and intellectual movements would have been too new for him to meaningfully address if he knew of it. For some monographs on the CIA's involvement in bankrolling American and European avant garde art and intellectual activity two readable books are Frances Stonor Saunders' The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters and
Hugh WIlfords The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. To try to sum up things in lay terms, Schaeffer may have seen a lot of modernist art as ugly and therefore a reflection of the loss of the Christian worldview as he saw it, but what was really going on in geopolitical terms was the United States was secretly funding the kind of art that was designed to aggravate the Soviet bloc and do so in a way that was presented in Cold War propaganda terms as proof that the West celebrated freedom in general and freedom for artists and intellectuals in particular. So even if we grant that Schaeffer's ideas can make more sense within his Cold War context there's room to criticize his work even within that context--he was so set on seeing modernist art of the European variety as a sign of the decline of the West he didn't seem to have stopped to ask whether that decline was a reflection of autonomous currents within European traditions or whether it might also have emerged with help from American influences.
Perhaps Schaeffer's work was more compelling within the context of the Cold War but after the Cold War ended a good deal of his narrative about the demise of the Christian West as he understood it can unravel. The roots of Christendom in a basically Catholic cultural legacy are not that hard to keep in mind, even among regions that embraced the Protestant movements, yet Schaeffer needed that Protestant moment to salvage the West from being entirely the result of a Catholicism that, as a Protestant minister, he could not entirely regard in positive terms.
Take Jake Meador's comments about Schaeffer from a while back.
Schaeffer did not exile himself in an evangelical bubble in the way that a Carl Henry or Harold Ockenga could be accused of doing. He (often regrettably) got sucked into those intra-mural debates when he was back in the States, but from his perch in the Swiss Alps he was one of the few evangelicals watching the films of Bergman and listening to Pink Floyd. Indeed, his appearances at Wheaton in the 1960s in many ways set the stage for what is now a comparative golden age of Christian film and television criticism. At a time when Wheaton students weren’t allowed to attend movies Schaeffer showed up talking not only about film, but about avant garde filmmakes like Bergman and Antonioni. And here’s the thing: The members of the 60s counter-culture noticed. Some even went to L’Abri to meet him.
The first thing that comes to mind is Francis Schaeffer was just described as interacting with pop culture. Pinkfloyd may be thought of as art rock but Dark Side of the Moon still sold a lot of copies and has been one of my favorite rock albums. If there are cases to be made to reject pop culture then cases to reject pop culture might need to include a statement as to why Francis Schaeffer had to have wasted his time and thought engaging with popular culture in his apologetics writings. Maybe he really did just waste time and, if so, what's the case to be made that Francis Schaeffer could be considered intellectual if he was a clergyman who read some highbrow stuff while managing to also participate in the popular culture of his day?
The second thing that comes to mind is what D. G. Hart wrote in response to Meador's post.
I wasn’t reading Time in 1960 but fifteen years later I was reading Schaeffer and the better description of the apologist is not as missionary to intellectuals but missionary to would-be intellectuals. That is, Schaeffer was great for kids who had lost their faith and wanted to talk about the films of Bergman or the novels of Camus. Schaeffer was even more effective for young believers like me for taking the lid off subjects not so much forbidden as ignored. All of a sudden, Schaeffer seemed to make it possible for evangelicals who were so culturally marginal never to have heard of C.S. Lewis to entertain ideas about the arts and sciences, movies and trees, and even politics (DOH! That’s where it all breaks down). In other words, Schaeffer inspired as neo-Calvinists so often do. But when it came to the contents of his arguments, chances are that intellectuals weren’t impressed because Christian professors (who might qualify as intellectuals), the ones who grew up inspired by Schaeffer (like mmmeeeEEEE) weren’t so impressed with the scholarship that underwrote Schaeffer’s arguments.
Once again we're back to Francis Schaeffer being the clergyman who did not ignore the popular culture of his day or regard it as something that might not say something about the metaphysical views on offer in "the marketplace of ideas". Schaeffer was, to tie his apologetics back to his ideological and religious opposite numbers in the Frankfurt School, aware that there was a culture industry and observant enough to recognize that what was for sale by that industry was alternately an illusory notion of freedom (above the line of despair) or an ugly resignation to the idea that we are mere beasts (below the line of despair).
If Hart was right to say that Francis Schaeffer was the patron saint of would-be intellectuals the emphasis is, perhaps, on the will rather than the ability. But in my experience observing how the work of Francis Schaeffer's work has been invoked by conservative Christian authors his work is not unlike what Theodore Adorno said about popular music and its consumers (which I've discussed elsewhere)--just as popular music feels for the listener, Francis Schaeffer's work thinks for the Christian would-be intellectual. He read Kant so you don't have to is how people who tend to name-drop Schaeffer so often seem to use his work.
That's not to say there's no potential benefit in reading the books of Francis Schaeffer here in 2019, it's saying that Schaeffer got enough important things wrong that he is a role model in relationship to culture more by the example of his wide-ranging and omnivorous cultural curiosity than he is an example in the carefulness or accuracy of his thought. He was a clergyman rather than an intellectual. If Christians were to shake free of pop culture that, in Adorno's scathing critique, was manufactured to feel for the consumer, they will also need to shake free of what in intellectual terms would be a pop culture equivalent, which would be reading the work of Francis Schaeffer, which in so many ways aimed to think about intellectual and cultural trends for those low church Protestants who themselves had not bothered to keep track of what was going on in the mid-twentieth century. Schaeffer could have even said "amen" to Adorno's harsh assessment of the impasse that art faced in the twentieth century.
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. ...
Schaeffer could agree with this assessment by way of saying that whatever the divine voice was that a John Cage invoked, that divine voice was impersonal and had nothing to say. But evangelicals, by and large, don't know who Adorno is and haven't engaged with any of his ideas in most respects.
And yet, there was a Christian write who made a point of discussing Adorno's writing on the arts back in the early 1980s.
THE EMPIRE OF NON-SENSE: ART IN THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
... Adorno has summed up the situation especially well in his Aesthetisch Theorie by showing that modern art is placed between two contradictory orientations without being able to choose either one. Every work that seeks to change is revolutionary, but it is, as such, immediately vitiated. If one protests complicity one is reduced to silence, which is another form of complicity.
Ellul would go on to say that what Adorno anticipated was that popular art would devolve into more or less explicit propaganda, while the highbrow would evolve into an esoteric formalism that would be impossible to understand without participation in the art community and academic/critical establishment. The options were lowbrow agitprop or art so highbrow as to be opaque to the masses. In such a context as this Francis Schaeffer may have read the big philosophical books but never attained the level of interacting with the big ideas in those books at the level at which they were thought. He could place writers above or below the line of despair for the sake of his larger narrative of Western culture, but that doesn't necessarily mean he really understood what John Cage was trying to say. Schaeffer might have had a more helpful legacy interacting with the arts if instead of attempting to grapple with Hegel or Kierkegaard he had stayed more at the level of engaging the ideas presented by Richard Wagner, maybe Jung, and Joseph Campbell.
It's one thing to take after Francis Schaeffer's example and attempt to engage with currents of thought and art as a Christian. It's another thing altogether if Christians take Schaeffer's master narrative of the decline of Western Christendom defined in peculiarly Protestant terms within an emphatically Cold War context as if it were relevant to us now. Schaeffer's activism could be seen as a misread response to his observation that the West had become a post-Christian society. Schaeffer did not live to see the end of the Cold War and his admirers within Western Christendom seem to have said little by way of reassessing the relevance of Schaeffer's overall understanding of arts in the West in light of that geopolitical change. A good deal of the American culture wars surrounding the arts can be understood in terms of the conflict that erupted when American national arts policy, defined almost entirely in terms of a Cold War era ideological conflict with the Soviet Union, faced a crisis of purpose with the fall of the Soviet Union. American art policy had been so defined in terms of an Atlanticist anti-Soviet policy that when the Soviet Union collapsed the question as to what American arts policy entailed became a hot button issue, thus the battles over the NEA and what it funded.
Even if Schaeffer got his history right we have not lived in a Cold War era for a couple of generations. If he got his history wrong then attempting to understand contemporary art, whether high or low, in light of the categories he provided might be a waste of time by itself. On the other hand, if we set the work of Schaeffer alongside the work of Adorno and compare how these two ideologues dealt with art and the philosophy of art within the context of the Cold War their respective criticisms of what Adorno called the culture industry might actually give us some useful things to think about despite the Cold War having been over for decades.