I am delighted to be able to publish this guest feature from Dr. William Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Edgar is the author of Francis Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality published by Crossway.

He is an easy target. Known for his shoot-from-the-hip generalizations, his rapid surveys of long periods of history, and his occasional mistakes, Francis Schaeffer has been subjected to all kinds of scrutiny, friendly and otherwise, from amateurs and professionals alike. The fact that so much attention has been devoted to this seemingly obscure figure who spent much of his time in a small Swiss mountain village talking with individuals makes the attention he garnered all the more remarkable. Or does it? Counter-intuitively, Francis Schaeffer turns out to have been one of the most significant evangelical Christians in the mid-twentieth century. His ideas are still buzzing around in all kinds of places.

Two equal and opposite errors have often been made about the legacy of Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984). The first is to praise him uncritically, and defend most or all of what he said as beyond improvement, whether in his scholarship or his informal discussions. He has been called a “genius who cares for ideas.” A major book compares him to C. S. Lewis, calling them the two most influential apologists of our time (IVP, 1998). Most of us would agree that the word “genius” should be used sparingly, if at all. Schaeffer was brilliant, but a genius? And a fair comparison with C. S. Lewis is bound to show up so many differences as perhaps to make such an accolade simply unhelpful.

The opposite error, though, is to demean his work as being substandard, replete with errors, and generally shoddy. Serious criticism was lodged at many of his views by Reformed apologist Greg Bahnsen. He sharply disagreed with Schaeffer’s view of antithesis, his view on reason and faith, his interpretation of Hegel, and several other basic tenets of his position. One review of The God Who Is There, states, “We use Francis Schaeffer as an example of how not to do philosophy.”

The purpose of this brief article is to try to forge a third way. No one, even Francis Schaeffer, who ventures into the world of ideas and is bold enough to publish, should be exempt from thoughtful scrutiny. In my profession we call it peer review. At the same time, they should be given a fair hearing. In Schaeffer’s case that is challenging, since he so often ventured outside the box, both in form and in content. Thus, to evaluate his work fairly requires a degree of generosity, though not excuses. Schaeffer was a pastor and an evangelist. There was a delightful informality to the way he treated major thinkers and trends. If he had occupied an academic chair in a major research university he most likely would not have been well-received. But he did not. He was a popularizer in the best sense. As an academic myself, I spend a good deal of my time with footnotes, carefully crafting my writing in order to conform to the highest standards of our science. And I am unashamed to do so. But I do sometime rather envy those who are free from such a model. Not because they are welcome to make mistakes; of course not. But because their style allows more contact with a whole range of people, including academics, but also including laypeople, young and old, working class and upper crust alike. Schaeffer was able to do that, and thus to have the influence that he did.

My test case is very limited, in one sense, but I hope it is interesting: I want to see if some of Schaeffer’s judgments about the arts stand up to scutiny. I have chosen this particular realm because it is one Schaeffer himself particularly loved. His son, Frank, movingly recounts how his Dad took him around to visit museums and was privileged on that occasion to see a different Francis Schaeffer. “I never saw Dad so happy than when he was looking at and discussing art. His face literally changed. He looked younger.”

For convenience, let me list a series of propositions made by Francis Schaeffer on the arts, and then examine each one of them. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it is representative. All the items are taken mainly from two sources, Art & the Bible (1973) and How Should We Then Live? (1976). And I will limit myself chiefly to the visual arts though much could be said for Schaeffer’s views on music, literature and film. These move, unevenly, from the more axiological to the more historiographical.

  1. The arts should not hold a peripheral place in the Christian life. While our souls are saved, so too are our minds and bodies. The arts have value in themselves, and not just as a vehicle for evangelism. Indeed, as Swiss artist Paul Robert has illustrated, the arts will make their entry into heaven.  (AB, 9-10, 29-31, 34)
  1. The arts reflect the worldview of the artist. They express the “mannishness” of man. They even add strength to that worldview. But the artistry is in continuity with normal syntax and propositions. (AB, 34ff., 38-41.)
  1. Since making art is a command stemming fro the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26ff, religious subjects are not exclusively required. (AB pp. 19ff.) Following from this, there is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style. (AB, 51ff., 59ff.)
  1. Western culture is almost monolithic. Beginning with philosophy, then the arts, general culture and finally theology, the West brokers a dichotomy: reason leading to pessimism, and optimism is reserved for “non-reason.” (HSWTL, 182 ff.)
  1. This state of affairs represents a breakdown, which occurred in the arts with the French Impressionists (Monet and Renoir), followed by the post-Impressionists, then Picasso, and on to Jackson Pollock. (HSWTL, 183-190)
  1. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) “brought together the fragmentation of Cézanne along with Gauguin’s concept of the noble savage, and added the form of the African masks which had just become popular in Paris.” His Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906-1907) marked the birth of “modern art.” (HSWTL, 184ff., AB, 47-48) It’s all about the fragmentation of modern man.
  1. A part of this breakdown is that modern artists have undervalued art as art and used it for intellectual purposes only; as is the case of Jasper Johns. (AB, 36).

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Here are some brief comments on each of these.

  1. The arts should not hold a peripheral place in the Christian life. While our souls are saved, so too are our minds and bodies. The arts have value in themselves, and not just as a vehicle for evangelism. Indeed, as Swiss artist Paul Robert has illustrated, the arts will make their entry into heaven.  (AB, 9-10, 29-31, 34)

This is almost a truism, though not for all Christians. Throughout his work Schaeffer attacked Platonism and its tendency to spiritualize life, without recognizing the Lordship of Christ in every domain. He connected art-making not to the fall, but to the creation, stressing that the original purposes declared by God to mankind are still valid today. I believe he is exactly right. While it has become fashionable in some circles to belittle the cultural mandate, or even suggest it has been replaced by the great commission, a more faithful biblical vision is to recognize the progressive, chronological iterations of the original calling culminating in the great commission, which is the ultimate form of the cultural mandate. To be sure the great commission considers the fall into sin, and offers the grace of the gospel but the reception of the gospel is through faith-based discipleship, which includes the place of the arts and every other legitimate human vocation. A more subtle form of Platonism is often set forth with appeals to the “spirituality of the church,” and proclaim a relatively secondary place for culture. Evangelism is crucially important, but it should never pit itself against culture-making. L’Abri not only talked the talk of art-making, but walked the walk. The chalets were handsomely decorated and everything from meals to furniture to clothing reflected a concern for beauty. The place held arts festivals and encouraged young artists in their craft.

  1. The arts reflect the worldview of the artist. They express the “mannishness” of man. They even add strength to that worldview. But the artistry is in continuity with normal syntax and propositions. (AB, 34ff., 38-41)

The movement in the 19th century known as l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake came about in part as a reaction against an art that was overly driven by program. At its most extreme it saw art as virtually independent of the artist’s intentions. Sometimes called autotelic, it was meant to be devoid of moral or didactic purposes. As in any such movement, art for art’s sake contained a half truth. There is indeed art that is too driven by content, often becoming propaganda. The actual craft is thinned-out so that the message is loud and clear, in your face. But here, Schaeffer is siding with the critics of art for art’s sake, who rightly aver that such pure art is impossible. Philosophers such as Nietzsche reacted against this theory by reminding us of the many roles art plays in human existence, from praising to honoring to validating various virtues.

The authors of Négritude, such as Leopold Senghor, added that art for art’s sake is Western and oppressive. Schaeffer’s views stem from his biblical convictions that God’s image-bearers cannot but articulate their worldviews, albeit in various different forms. A legitimate concern might be expresses that he read too much philosophy into each painting, without pausing enough to contemplate the skill and craft involved. But anyone who took field trips to museums with him, or with his friend and mentor Hans Rookmaaker, will have a different impression: how they loved to comment just on the draftsmanship, the volume, the choice of colors, etc., before looking for a worldview.

  1. Since making art is a command stemming from the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26ff, religious subjects are not exclusively required. (AB pp. 19ff.) Following from this, there is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style. (AB, 51ff., 59ff.)

This is a most important point. As Pierre Courthial, Dean of the Seminary in Aix-en-Provence used to say, “there is no sacred-secular dichotomy, because everything is sacred.” There can be “religious” subjects, such as the crucifixion, done blasphemously, as in Salvador Dali’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” (1951), just as there can be biblically-based interpretations of ordinary objects, such as Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox” (1655). Mind you, there is nothing wrong with depicting such subjects as biblical heroes, the crucifixion, miracle scenes, receiving the ten commandments, etc. Most challenging of all, perhaps, is to portray Jesus, since he was God in the flesh.

As Hans Rookmaaker used to point-out the better an artist understood the incarnation, the less he relied on “clues” such as halos or symbolic colors. Instead, Christ’s significance can be highlighted through artistic means such as rhythm, placement, and psychological interplay. Equally important is Schaeffer’s emphasis on style. There is no holy or baptized style. Modern art uses much more abstraction than does traditional art, although that is relative, not absolute. And, to be sure, certain styles were developed as appropriate vehicles for certain worldviews, and thus may be more difficult to redeem for godly purposes. Wassily Kandinsky is considered the first purely abstract painter (with a series begun in 1910, mostly “improvisations” based on musical analogies). Kandinsky’s non-objective figures are sensuously appealing, but they are his way of moving into what he called the “spiritual” in art, a departure from the rational realm. Can Christians paint non-objectively. Yes they can, as is exhibited by such artists as Makoto Fujimura and Kim En Joong. But good abstract art is difficult to achieve.

  1. Western culture is almost monolithic. Beginning with philosophy, then the arts, general culture and finally theology, the West brokers a dichotomy: reason leading to pessimism, and optimism is reserved for “non-reason.” (HSWTL, 182 ff.)

When we move from the axiological to the historiographical we begin to encounter more opportunities to interact appreciatively, but critically, with the material. The statement that Western culture is “almost monolithic” requires some clarification. Schaeffer often used the illustration of the “line of despair” to depict the shift, in each of the disciplines (successively from philosophy to art to general culture to theology) from trusting in reason and absolutes to accepting the irrational. Everything seemed to move in the same direction. Academics like me tend to want to recognize the complexity, even the messiness of the West. It would be surprising if people from such different places as North America, Western Europe, Australia, Central Europe thought alike. Urban-dwellers will not have the same worldview as farmers, neither will the rich as the poor. Space forbids a full response to the thesis that the West is nearly monolithic.

But a few remarks can be made. A) Schaeffer himself recognized the complexity of trends, though he did not always emphasize it when he could have, especially to anticipate objections that he forced everything into the same (downward) trend. I do struggle with the impression of a nearly uniform decline. It may be that his premillennial eschatology is connected with the view that things will go from worse to worse. Is common grace missing? Schaeffer certainly believed in common grace, but does it have a functional effect? B) As Jacques Ellul warned, journalists and historians often miss the forest for the trees. That is, they note surface trends and issues, but ignore the deeper themes that animate Western culture. C) The chronological ordering of philosophy, art, general culture and theology does carry problems with it. A careful synchronous study of people and events during modernity will show that there is much overlap, and that cause-and-effect are nearly impossible to measure accurately. Was theology always a tag-along? Did not great romantic artists precede some of the philosophers? D) Lastly, in my judgment, Schaeffer, while rightly lamenting the demise of reason, neglected the equal but opposite problem, rationalism. He was aware of it, of course, but it occupied a much smaller place than the irrational. That, incidentally, is perhaps why he had philosophy lead. He always stressed “ideas have consequences,” but rarely the other way around.

  1. This state of affairs represents a breakdown, which occurred in the arts with the French Impressionists (Monet and Renoir), followed by the post-Impressionists, then Picasso, and on to Jackson Pollock. (HSWTL, 183-190)

This almost monolithic decline is reflected in the arts, and characterizes some (though hardly all) of what Schaeffer had to say about painting. If there were two features identifiable in modern Western art for Schaeffer, two components of the “breakdown,” they would be (1) the frustrated quest for universals and (2) fragmentation. In his chapter in the critical book, Reflections on Francis A. Schaeffer, Harold Best faults him for equating the search for universals with despair. Universalizing, Best argues, is a virtue, not a vice. He further faults Schaeffer for not recognizing the great diversity of ways painting can articulate. Certainly, if all that is ever said of a trend in modern art is the failed quest for universals, there is a void. But I have spent a good part of my life studying modern Western art, and, along with many art historians, I have come to the view that beginning in the 19th century many painters were indeed wrestling with universals. I have spent more time on Paul Cézanne than anyone else.

To be sure, what Schaeffer sees as fragmentation or brokenness was for Cézanne a kind of classicism, a way to be faithful to the actual archeology of a scene while at the same time rendering a work of art on the canvas. But yet there is for Cézanne, as there was for Claude Monet, a kind of re-enchantment of a world which had lost its conventional moorings. And what Schaeffer saw as the “fragmented reality” of Cèzanne’s “Bathers” is what Denis Coutagne calls an idol which is homely, at least compared to the women of Poussin and Lorrain. But that is because Cézanne’s bathers are not simply enjoying the lake front, but “thus translate human destiny.” Yet it’s a destiny Cézanne never quite found. Just a month before his death, he asked whether he could ever reproduce the magnificence of nature, but the answer was negative. The march toward abstraction is perhaps not quite the “brokenness” Schaeffer proclaimed, but it nevertheless meant an attempt at rendering ultimate reality, a failed attempt at that.

  1. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) “brought together the fragmentation of Cézanne along with Gauguin’s concept of the noble savage, and added the form of the African masks which had just become popular in Paris.” His Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906-1907) marked the birth of “modern art.” (HSWTL, 184ff., AB, 47-48) It’s all about the fragmentation of modern man.

Picasso could never abandon the world of sunshine, the Catalonian earth and sky, the women, the bulls and toreadors of his youth. His inexhaustible creative energy translated not a Christian universe, but a pagan sense of the sacred. He was an obsessive. His “Crucifixion” (1930) is not so much a theological meditation on the atonement as a mythic scene of blood, violence and regeneration. Picasso is both the successor to and the rupture with Cézanne. Both are buried at different places at the base of the Sainte Victoire, the impossible ascent toward the heavens. Picasso was drafting his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” when Cézanne was on his deathbed. There is no mythology in it. It is the end of the Renaissance tradition.

As Rookmaaker would put it, the painting is the ultimate “death of Venus”. It is aggressive, it places African masks over any vestige of human faces, and articulates the very opposite of the seduction of prostitutes. Like a Woody Allen movie this painting exposes our frailty and our dark secrets. Robert Hughes says the real subject of the painting is sexual anxiety. It could be a cautionary tale warning against venereal disease. The women are more like judges than houris. It’s a shame Schaeffer doesn’t say more about this painting. In The God Who Is There he does add that in the women on the left there is a vestige of recognizable form, using an exaggerated version of Cézanne’s cubism, whereas the women on the right have become “demonic beings,” and have lost their humanity. And he adds that Picasso was seeking for a universal, such that a woman becomes “all women.” He also makes the fascinating point that Picasso could not live consistently with this sort of fragmentation. When he fell in love with Olga, and then Jacqueline, he returned to more human forms.

  1. A part of this breakdown is that modern artists have undervalued art as art and used it for intellectual purposes only; as is the case of Jasper Johns. (AB, 36).

Jasper Johns is an American artist who powerfully put into question the prevailing currents of expressionism and stylized work, advancing in their place the concrete and simple depictions of ordinary objects. He is well-known for his “Map,” which shows the United States as a series of brilliant colors and abstract flags. He valued the process of making art as much as the result. He collaborated with Samuel Beckett in his illustrations of Fizzles or Foirades. Schaeffer’s handling of Johns is characteristically, even frustratingly brief. Thus, he misses, or at least never underscores, the wonderful creativity of Johns, the delights of pop, of minimalism and of ready-mades. Still, is not Schaeffer right to worry about art that is so busy making statements that it ceases to function as art? His brief mention of Johns comes within a larger treatment of the integrity of the art object, as opposed to reducing art to an intellectual statement, along the lines of his second point, above. Quite simply, it seems Schaeffer is right, both in his judgment of Johns, admittedly partial, and in the larger point about viewing art as a tract, a mistake often made by evangelicals. Calvin Seerveld, the thoughtful philosopher of aesthetics, makes the point that Platonism tends to evacuate the significance of the object, the use of clay or metal, the concrete stuff of God’s good earth.

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Surely Francis Schaeffer was a lone voice, advocating for interacting with the arts in the mid-twentieth century among Christians and non-Christians alike. Few, if any, evangelicals were doing this in the mid-twentieth century. I do not come from a typical American fundamentalist background. So I never experienced the screaming poverty of that world, often legalistic and judgmental. Schaeffer represented a liberating expression for such believers, many of whom simply had no idea what great art was, let alone find it supportive of biblical views. But I do come from a rather liberal background, where the arts were fully recognized, but so was the fashionable indulgence of the 1960s, from which Francis Schaeffer n a sense rescued me. He did this because he has a balanced and attractive understanding of the arts. There were rules, but there was extraordinary freedom as well.

He got some of the details wrong. He was an over-the-top generalist. The film series and book, How Should We Then Live? have a certain Cold War feeling that has now been succeeded by newer concerns, such as globalization and Islamicist terrorism. But he was fresh, and insightful, and had a “nose’ for trends and people. We can do a great deal with his heritage, whether in general areas or in the arts in particular. So many of his insights were right, though partial. May we be his worthy children as we build on his legacy and add to his insights!

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