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).

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