Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Francis Schaeffer and Criticism

I ran across an interesting article on one of my biggest influences, . Schaeffer ranks up there with as one of the great apologists of . He taught that Christianity involved our whole lives, including art and philosophy. A belief that was, and still is, profound and revolutionary. This article was from truthseeker.com. Here is the introduction that you can find on Truth Seeker's home page:

“The Journal of Independent Thought

Devoted to: science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform, progression, free education and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.

Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind mentally or physically.”

They attempt to take Schaeffer to task as an art critic and a shaper of Christian aesthetics. In an article about , Earl Lee (an unlikely name if I've ever heard one) lists one of the “myths” about art: “Christianity is important as a patron of the arts and sciences, and of learning in general. Much of Western is inspired by religious themes. The preservation of Greek civilization was led by monastic orders and helped bring about the Renaissance.”

Lee quickly acknowledges that “clergy and churches were once important sources of income for artists, at least in the Medieval and Renaissance periods,” in other words, it is true that they (almost single handedly) saved all Classical texts from obscurity, thus preserving the foundation from all Western art. After brushing aside this concession, Lee moves to the kill:

“Today, however, most religions are not particularly interested in art, except architecture. One can easily argue that limiting the great artists of the past to religious themes may have done more to hinder the development of artistic ideas than help it.”

On this point, I would have to agree with Lee, . He points to examples from “Christian” music which he says “shamelessly rip[s] off the style and music of mainstream rock musicians”. This shows Lee's flawed understanding of art since he apparently thinks Christians cannot use similar music and style as mainstream musicians. As if Christian musicians had to magically invent their own style totally divorced from the mainstream. While there should be some important differences between the two, there will also be inherent similarities since both believers and nonbelievers alike are subject to the suffering of this world. However, it is true that Christian artists have not been as innovative as thought ought to be.

But this is not what really bothered me about Lee's article. He attacks Christian aesthetics from ignorance and exaggeration:

"Christian aesthetics are equally blighted. Read, for example, Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? or go to see it in the film version. Schaeffer mauls the history of Western art and philosophy, often betraying his own ignorance of the subject about which he claims expertise. Like most ideologues, including the Nazis, Schaeffer is happy only with realism and naturalism in art. He even goes so far as to claim that Michelangelo's statue of David is not "Christian" art, because the historical David was circumcised. Because Michelangelo's "David" is not circumcised and is not therefore a historically accurate representation, he claims that the statue is, in reality, secular humanist art, not Christian.

Since Schaeffer's argument for Christian truth and "realism" can be applied to most of Western art since the Medieval era-realism was not an important artistic movement until the 19th century-we can safely claim that none of the great art of the past is Christian-almost all of Western art is Humanist and therefore an argument for more Humanism."

Schaeffer's “maul[ing]” of the history of Western art in How Should We Then Live? is an attempt to condense thousands of years of art into a short, easily readable book. In doing this he had to make some generalizations, something that is inherent in any critical discussion (and something that Lee doesn't shy away from). But generalizing things for the sake of space is not the same as being “ignorant”. This is not what I wish to really challenge Lee on however.

Note Lee's account of Schaeffer's analysis of “David” in How Should We Then Live? Lee hinges his entire argument around the belief that Schaeffer calls “David” a humanist work because of some foreskin. This is nothing but a pathetic attempt at shocking the reader. Schaeffer actually gives several reasons why the “David” statue is humanistic. Even on a surface level one can look at the statute and see that it glorifies man. As one of Schaeffer's examples goes, the almost absurd size of the work (17 feet tall) suggests that Michelangelo does not intend us to see “David” as the historical, human, David but rather the perfection of man. And this is Schaeffer's point.

Aside from straw-maning Schaeffer, Lee mistakenly identifies Schaeffer's aesthetics from his criticism. Schaeffer's occupation with How Should We Then Live? is not to set out some aesthetic standard for Christian artists, but rather to look at what has happened; here he is descriptive, not prescriptive. he does describe some guidelines for art, but not in this book. In other words, Lee is pulling this argument that “Schaeffer is happy only with realism and naturalism in art” from his own desire to write him off. And the point of all this? Lee wants to say that Christian art has no advantage over secular art. But it . The question really is why haven't Christians produced the art that should naturally arise from the worldview they claim? The answer lies not with poor aesthetics or ignorant philosophers but with apathy, laziness, and sin. Lee is a pragmatist and would have us look at the totality of Christian Art and see its mistakes and its eccentrics and its puritans and its people as proof of a failed and flawed belief system. But Christianity doesn't allow that. Christianity assumes that all people are fallen, all people sin, all will fail; however, this does not mean that greatness, that righteousness, that good-genuinely good-art cannot come from here. It can and should. But often the answer lies outside the realm of complacency, an awkward and horrific place for many believers. Although Lee illogically attacks Schaeffer, we cannot blame anyone but ourselves, because Christianity lacks the complete track record in the arts that it ought to have. So .

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