Friday, October 2, 2009

Frank Schaeffer and the Humanities Question

I would like to thank James Pate for recommending Frank Schaeffer’s memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Frank Schaeffer is the son of the late Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer. Frank grew up in the shadow of his parents in a villa called L’Abri in Switzerland. One of the major themes of the book is the struggle between his parent’s deeply held evangelical beliefs and their love of art and literature. While Frank Schaeffer grew up in a very strict home, without movies, television and other “corruptions” of modern life, he was raised to love classical literature, music and art. Francis Schaeffer did not approve of rock music until the 1960s but he played classical music in his room every waking hour. The highlight of the year was vacationing in Italy where Frank was tutored in painting by a gay artist. On the one hand Francis was far more sheltered than his Evangelical peers in America yet he was also far worldlier. Frank explains the dilemma as follows:

We wanted nothing so much as the respect of the people who found our ideas backward and foolish. In a fantasy world of perfect outcomes, you would write a “Christian book” but have the New York Times declare it great literature, so great that the reviewer would say he was converting. And in the Style section, they would say that Edith Schaeffer [Frank’s mother] was the best-dressed woman in the world, so well dressed that this proved that no all fundamentalists were dowdy and that “we have all been wrong about you Christians.” And if those reporters visited L’Abri, they would say they had never been served so lovely a high tea, and that they had never heard such clever answers to their questions, and that because of the sandwiches, the real silver teaspoons, the beautifully cut skirt and jacket Mom was wearing, the kindness of the Schaeffer children, the fact Dad knew who Jackson Pollock was, meant that the Very Wealthy and Very Important people all over the world would not only come to Christ, but would, at last, admit that at least some real Christians (in other words, us) were even smarter and better-dressed than worldly people, and that you can believe Jesus rose from the dead, not drink or smoke or dance, and yet be even happier, even more cultured, better in every way!
What I never heard Mom or Dad explain was that if the world was so bad and lost, why did they spend so much time trying to imitate it and impress the lost? (pg. 52-53)

Frank Schaeffer has hit on one of the main challenges facing anyone attempting to build a religious movement that can stand its ground intellectually against the best of secular modernity. It is all too easy to make the pretense of being modern as a cover thus making the entire enterprise a scam. It is very easy to say the line that your religion works well with modernity. This goes for both the humanities and the sciences. Even Haredim have for decades now been in on the act, espousing what, in theory, is supposed to be Modern Orthodox rhetoric. Ask a Haredi person about the relationship between science and religion and they will be quick to give you the thirty second talking point about how science does not contradict religion and in fact supports it. It is only when you start to dig in that you will find that the person does not believe in evolution. The science they are talking about is creationism, likely even young earth creationism. It is this sort of thinking that allows a group like Chabad, which engages in soft-core denial of heliocentrism to publish its own “science” journal, B’or Ha’Torah, and claim that they support science. Following the same logic, fundamentalist Christians can create institutions like the Creation Museum in Kentucky to give a scientific veneer to their Christian missionizing. Haredim and fundamentalist Christians are similarly able to create their own micro artistic cultures, with books, music and movies. These are ultimately pale imitations of the secular culture and thus fail in their stated purpose to offer a counter to secular culture.

If you are only engaging in the sciences and the humanities as an act, without believing in what lies behind them, the act is going to wear thin very quickly. I would see this as the cause of the failure to building a serious religious intellectual culture beyond eccentric individuals. By all counts Frank Schaeffer’s parents were true believers in their humanities based Christianity. Yet they failed to bring that humanities element to the wider evangelical culture, which simply wished to use them as intellectual cover. This is best captured in the book when the Schaeffers are told by a Christian film producer that they needed to cut out a shot of Michelangelo’s David from a documentary about western art because it was male nudity.

This is a challenge that I face in my life. If I were debating me, the issue that I would go after is that I may be a smart religious guy, who values science and the humanities, but that I am just an individual who does not represent anyone. All I am doing is providing cover for those who do not really believe in science and the humanities and are just making the pretense of supporting these things to better advance their cause. The fact that I am a true believer in the sciences and the humanities makes the damage to these things all the greater. I would not be nearly as effective if I were simply pulling off an act like everyone else. I have a lot of sympathy for the Schaeffers. Like them I see my religious beliefs as a necessary underpinning for science and for the humanities, where I actually work. My faith serves as a tool which I use to interact with the culture around me, helping me to further the cause of what is best in that culture. I matured into this belief through the influence and example of people like Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Dr. Alan Brill and Dr. Louis Feldman during my years at Yeshiva University. In order to continue to operate within Orthodox Judaism I need to believe that such people are more than just eccentrics off to the side, but the elite representatives of a wider movement, a movement in which I am but a lowly foot soldier. I also need to believe that this movement has the potential to dominate Orthodox Judaism as a whole. As of now I do not believe that we even control Modern Orthodox Judaism let alone the Haredi world.


James Pate said...

Hi Izgad. One book I got by Frank Schaeffer is Addicted to Mediocrity, which he wrote in the 1980's, when he was still an evangelical. It's sort of a Christian perspective on art, yet one which values art for its own sake, rather than art that HAS to serve a religious purpose. Your post reminded me of that.

Anonymous said...

interesting. the idea of becoming a top example of secular culture reminded me of this:

Anonymous said...

I would not be nearly as affective


Izgad said...

Thank you for the correction and the article. Once again Rabbi Adlerstein is in the front lines in defense of civilization. If I were asked to defend the concept of refinement I might have been tempted to turn to Moses Mendelssohn and his essay on “What is Enlightenment?” I doubt, though, that it would go over well in certain circles.