Francis Schaeffer and subaltern counterpublics

I am truly grateful for all the responses my essay in Harper’s is receiving, and I’ve been doing my best to give a fuller account of my thinking when asked to do so … but it’s getting harder! For me, this is an avalanche of inquiry.

First of all, let me encourage you to read this post by my friend Bryan McGraw, which raises some vital issues about our current technological regime and its dramatic alteration of the conditions of being “public.” For one thing, there’s the temptation to think of the public world as something to be manipulated by technique; for another, everything is accessible to everybody else. You may be a Christian tweeting to other Christians, but if a hostile person wants to listen in and then denounce you to the world, that’s always possible.

This gets back to the question I explore in my essay about the rise, starting in the 1940s — maybe the creation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 could be a convenient starting date, though the story belongs to Catholics and mainline Protestants too —, of Christian “subaltern counterpublics.” Such counterpubliics create a double bind for their participants. On the one hand, a certain independence from the strongest currents of public opinion is necessary for Christians to undergo a seriously Christian formation; on the other hand, the longer you stay within that formative counterpublic the more unfamiliar and uncomfortable you become with the language of the larger public world. It appears that when Jesus commanded us to be “in the world but not of it” he was making a demand no less challenging than “Go and sin no more.”

One way I describe this difficulty in my essay is to say that the Christian intellectual wants to be both audible and free. But often we have to choose one or the other. I have retained much of my freedom as a Christian intellectual by working for Christian institutions, and have tried to become more audible by writing for mainstream magazines and book publishers. But it involves constantly sacrificing some good thing in order to get another good thing. I don’t say anything in that Harper’s essay that I don’t believe, but many things I do believe and are immensely relevant to the questions I raise didn’t make their way into the essay, and couldn’t have.

Francis Schaeffer — whom Jake Meador invokes in his response to my essay — chose freedom above audibility. As Jake points out, for a brief time he was also somewhat audible in the culture at large, but that didn’t last. The same forces (primarily the sexual revolution) that changed the direction of Richard John Neuhaus’s career also deprived Schaeffer of his larger audience. But Schaeffer was almost the opposite of the Christian public intellectual I describe: he was more of a Christian private intellectual. He always insisted on occupying his own turf, quite literally: if you wanted to interact with him, generally speaking, you had to come to L’Abri, or hear him lecture. Interacting directly with his peers, or with actual scholars, was not his thing. He wrote books, of course, but always for Christian presses, and most of the people who were most deeply influenced by him met him in person or saw him on video. His appeal to the Sixties counterculture was that of the guru — he was a readily recognizable example of that type — but his influence, like that of most gurus, was dependent on his personal charisma. Billy Zeoli shrewdly saw this and so turned How We Should Then Live? into a film series.

If all this sounds like I don’t have a lot of respect for Schaeffer, that’s because I don’t. His one merit — and it’s a significant merit — lay in convincing conservative Christians to be less afraid of art and ideas. But his actual readings of art and ideas were extremely simplistic and uninformed, and early in my career at Wheaton College I found it difficult to talk with students who had taken up Schaeffer’s line and were reluctant to think thoughts he had not thought before them. But that was long ago, and as far as I can tell Schaeffer’s influence has dwindled to almost nothing.

One more (possibly nitpicky?) thing: Jake speaks of Christian “intellectualism,” and several other people who have responded to me have used the same word, but I don’t use that term and I honestly don’t even know what people mean by it. My essay was about the intellectual, a type of person, a social type (as defined by Karl Mannheim) “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”

Beyond that, Jake gets into questions of the general cultural place of Christianity in America today, all of which are great questions, but far beyond the scope of my essay.

I will try to respond to others who are responding to me — well, except for the people writing to tell me that I’m not a Christian, and that sort of thing — as best I can, but as I have said, it’s getting rather overwhelming. (And I’m staying away from Twitter for now.)