How Should We Then Live? | Francis A. Schaeffer

The cover of Schaeffer's How Should We Then LiveHow Should We Then Live? is one of Francis Schaeffer’s best known works. It was followed by a film series (available here on YouTube), narrated by the author and directed by his son Frank Schaeffer.

Schaeffer’s work is essentially pessimistic. He surveys the cultural landscape from the ancient Romans onward and traces what he sees as a downward trend from a Biblical foundation of absolutes through the damaging effects of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Particularly interesting was his correlations between music, art, and ideology. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century increased in influence, art turned abstract and music turned to increased dissonance (such as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique).

When he considered the future, some of his ideas have proven to be accurate:

The possibility of information storage, beyond what men and governments ever had before, can make available at the touch of a button a man’s total history. … The combined use of the technical capability of listening in on all these forms of communications with the high-speed computer literally leavees no place to hide and little room for any privacy. (244)

Or, consider this comment with respect to the recent economic crisis:

There would be a lowering of prosperity and affluence among those individuals and countries which have come to take an ever-increasing level of prosperity for granted. (248)

The scope of this book is immense, and the connections and projections drawn between apparently discrete cultural phenomena are compelling. Still, I don’t buy the overall package for a couple reasons:

  1. The idea that worldwide culture has only gone in one direction (downhill) in its pursuit of humanism is too simplistic. That meta-narrative plays well in the minds of Christians with an escapism eschatological view, but not for those with a more incarnational bent.
  2. Schaeffer views realism in art as paramount, and views impressionism and abstract work as corruptions which reveal our ideological heart. Where does that leave those of us who see beauty in the abstract and deeper meaning in impressionism than realism?

This landmark book deserves to be read, both as a window into the evangelical psyche in the 1970s and as an interesting survey of cultural history. The arguments he made from this survey, however, need to be read with healthy skepticism.

—Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976).

A People’s History of Christianity | Diana Bulter Bass

The cover of Bass' A People's History of ChristianityHaving just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, I can attest to the frustration Diana Bulter Bass expresses. The history of Christianity can feel like a tale of arguments, violence, crusades, inquisitions, and capitulation to power. It looks diametrically opposed to the actual life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Bulter Bass attempts to tell (as the subtitle suggests), the other side of the story. In her words:

I sidestep issues of orthodoxy and instead focus on the moments when Christian people really acted like Christians, when they took seriously the call of Jesus to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. (15)

The author accomplishes this by surveying (in wildly broad strokes) all eras of church history with special attention to how Christians exercised their devotion to God, their ethics to others.

Sounds good, right?

The truth is, despite the promise of the thesis, this book frustrated me. In the selection and interpretation of the stories, Diana Bulter Bass selectively expounded a version of Christianity that looks like her. Now, this is not a bad picture—I think it’s fair to call her a progressive, inclusive, emergent-minded Christ-follower. That said, mining the history of Christianity for anecdotes and lives that confirm your view, only to call it a “People’s History” implies that those who don’t conform to your image are somehow in a category other than “people”. Ironically, this is precisely what this history attempts to correct.

What the Jesus Seminar did with Jesus, Diana Bulter Bass has done with his followers. The great cloud of witnesses deserves to be taken on their own terms—warts and all.

—Diana Bulter Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Distracted from Distraction | T. S. Eliot

… Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton.” Four Quartets. (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 99-103.

Violence | Slavoj Žižek

The cover of Žižek's ViolenceAs I write this, Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel is returning with air strikes and a ground offensive. As I write this the Ukranian government is trying desperately to reclaim sovereignty over the East which is increasingly controlled by pro-Russian militants. Somehow during this outbreak of violence, a passenger jet was shot down killing 298 passengers and crew. Violence is alive and well in our world.

For Žižek, this explosive “subjective” violence is only the violence we see on the surface. Below the subjective violence is objective violence, the violence inherent in language which influences our thoughts and attitudes. Also below subjective violence is systemic violence—the effect of living in our modern economic and political systems. Any understanding of what’s happening in the world today must take into account all the causes of violence.

Žižek (as you might expect) has many profound things to say about the subject, complete with regular references to Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. He wanders through many diverse cultural and political landscapes. He tackles the problem in the Middle East with an accusing look at the Germans (who, in his mind, offered restitution to the Jews by giving away someone else’s land). He looks at the uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He delves into Alfred Hitchkcock’s films. He even considers the shaming of prisoners in Abu Ghraib This is one of the joys of Žižek—you never know where he’s going next.

My difficulty with this book was that  Žižek almost always takes a contrarian view. After a while it feels like he plays devil’s advocate just for the sake of being different—as if it was a game. He takes a radically counter-intuitive idea then tries to argue for it. His arguments are inventive and brilliant, but they’re far from infallible. Take for example, the prisoner abuse photos that came from Abu Ghraib. For Žižek, this obscene act of shaming was more like an initiation ritual into American culture. It was a hazing.

Žižek’s Violence is an intellectual, political, and cultural look at the violence that permeates our world. You can agree or disagree with him, but you can’t stay neutral.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008).

Paul: A Novel | Walter Wangerin Jr.

The cover of Wangerin's Paul: A NovelWhile setting the category for this book review, I hit an impasse. Do I consider this a work of literature, theology, or spiritual formation?

When I was a young minister I bought Wangerin’s The Book of God. His novelization of the Old Testament made an impact on my study of scripture. He reminded me of the reality of these ancient stories. In Paul, he picks up the story where he left off. Wangerin combines an intimate knowledge of scripture, thoughtful exegesis, and a literary pen to create a work that will help the reader understand Paul more completely than before.

You could consider this a work of literature. The point-of-view shifts between the various characters (framed by the pseudo-musings of Seneca) are a profound way to revisit a well-known story.

Alternatively, it could be considered a work of theology. Many exegetical decisions had to be made about issues such as the purpose of the Gentile offering, the nature of Paul’s “thorn in his flesh,” and the circumstances and letters to the church in Corinth. Wangerin chooses wisely.

For me, this book was primarily a work of spiritual formation. Wangerin has enabled me to imagine what it would be like to live Paul’s life. You can almost feel the sweat and taste the dust of the ancient cities. The conflict between Paul and Jerusalem was profoundly disturbing yet moving. It helps me to place modern church conflict in perspective.

There were times when the action slowed and the detailed description started to feel excessive. As a whole, however, Paul: A Novel, is powerful work of Christian imagination.

—Walter Wangerin Jr., Paul: A Novel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

My Father’s Son | Farley Mowat

The cover of Mowat's My Father's SonWhile reading this book, Farley Mowat died. I felt cheated. This book is Farley’s edited collection of letters back and forth between him and his Father during his time in the Second World War. The letters are a testimony that life continues in the darkest circumstances.

When you read Angus Mowat’s letters to his young son Farley, you can see where he gets his trademark wit, irreverence, and (ironically, given his circumstances) rebellious nature. Angus was a veteran of the First World War, so father and son are able to connect on shared ground.

It was interesting to read Mowat’s Canadian perspective on the war. By all accounts, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (the “Hasty P”) along with the rest of Canada’s contribution were outstanding soldiers. It was infuriating to read how the Canadians were ordered to stand back after heavy fighting to let the Americans be the official people to take back Rome!

Also infuriating were the “zombies”—a special class of Canadians who were able to join the military while refusing overseas service. They wore the uniform without the risk.

This collection of letters is a window back to the dark days of the Second World War, as seen through the jaded eyes of a young man who would become a famous writer. When you consider Mowat’s massive written output, we were blessed to have him with us as long as we did.

—Farley Mowat, My Father’s Son: Memories of War and Peace (Toronto: Key Porter, 1992).