Nearly twenty years ago, I read The God Who is There. Schaeffer wrote this book 50 years ago in 1968 at the height of the Counter Culture Movement. This book greatly influenced my thinking as a young Christian. It furnished me with a vision for proclaiming Christ with cultural sensitivity and relevance.
Specifically, I remember this staircase diagram which describes how people view truth. Schaeffer argued that shifts in the way man views truth starts with the philosophers and slowly trickles down to the artist, the musician, general culture and lastly to the theologian. Schaeffer points out that,
Theology has been last for a long time. It is curious to me, in studying this whole cultural drift, that so many pick up the latest theological fashion and hail it as something new. But in fact, what the new theology is now saying has already been said previously in each of the other disciplines.[i]
This statement still holds true today.
Schaeffer points to the importance of understanding how men view truth. And it’s not academic. He says,
The Christian is to resist the spirit of the world. But…we must understand that the world spirit does not always take the same form. So the Christian must resist the spirit of the world in the form it takes in his own generation. If he does not do this, he is not resisting the spirit of the world at all.
But there’s more at stake than simply resisting strange teaching from carrying us off.
If we fail to understand the way our culture views truth, we risk losing our relevance and become a useless museum piece. Schaeffer concludes,
Those standing in the stream of historic Christianity have been especially slow to understand the relationships between various areas of thought…Do we Christians understand this shift in the contemporary world? If we do not understand it, then we are largely talking to ourselves.[ii]
Modern view of truth
In many ways, Schaeffer’s staircase diagram still holds true today.
Scientism has effectively replaced philosophy. In place of the philosophers, however, we might put scientists turned self-styled philosopher.
In our day, Scientism predominates. Scientists, turned self-styled philosophers, call the tune when it comes to objective truth. People are listening to the biochemist, the neuro-biologist and the astrophysicist in place of the philosopher
At the beginning of Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, he asks a list of questions such as “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? What is the nature of reality?” He concludes,
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.[iii]
And yet, Hawking’s statement strikes me as philosophical statement, not a scientific statement. It’s a metaphysical statement about science.
We exercise certain amount of faith in every area of life, including science. It takes faith to sit in what seems like a perfectly good chair and trust that it is not going to collapse. It takes faith to eat at Taco Bell and trust that you won’t have carry a spare pair of underwear the next day.
But this extends into the territory of scientific endeavor. Take for instance Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation. We use this to predict astronomical events, such as eclipses. But we often fail to see the hidden faith dimension here. We assume that that what happened today will happen again tomorrow
An increasing number of young people either claim to be atheists or agnostic. This fits with the data. According to a recent Pew Research poll, the number of atheists/agnostics has nearly doubled in the last 7 years, from 3% to 7.1%.
Yet, the uncertainty of the world in which they live gives way to a sort of despair and hopelessness. Many of the students I work with watch their parents lose their jobs and their homes during the Great Recession in 2008-2009. They live under the constant threat of mass school shootings and a terrorist attack.
Therefore, they construct their sense of meaning from their collection of experiences. In many ways, the view students seem to hold seems reminiscent of existentialism.
Not too long ago, I was dialoguing with a sharp atheist high school student who attended our high school home church. As we discussed his atheist views, I would press him to see the inconsistency between his worldview and his actions. For example, I asked him, “How can you draw meaning and significance if the supernatural doesn’t exist and you’re merely a bag of biological material?” He responded, “My life doesn’t matter. I guess I just try to make meaning out of the things I do.” I said, “It seems like you hold an existential worldview.” He’d never heard of it. The next week, he showed and said, “I was reading about existentialism and found this guy Jean Paul Sartre.” He said, “I hold the same view as him.”
You can detect this streak of existentialism in contemporary art.
Cai Guo-Qiang: Recently, I stumbled upon the work of Cai Guo-Qiang (sigh gwo-chee-ang). He primarily works with gunpowder. Cai’s work doubles as a performance event, where he ignites gunpowder on canvas to create ephemeral images. As Cai reflects on the history of Chinese people developing gunpowder, he says, “They were actually looking for an elixir to make themselves immortal.”
In a way, this search for immorality was bound up in his two-decade long obsession with his vision to create the Sky Ladder. Sky Ladder is a 1,650-foot-tall ladder, held aloft by a giant balloon and rigged with explosives. As the massive sculpture ignites, it creates a fiery ladder that climbs into the sky.
He tried on several occasions and failed. He finally succeeded in a rural part of China with only a handful of people watching. A video of it leaked months later and it got 30 million view in just two days. The Sky Ladder was a one time, unrepeatable event that only a few people saw.
Cai doesn’t give us a clear artist statement, yet it’s clear his art seeks to take someone common (such as gunpowder) and make it meaningful. It seems to communicate meaning through experience.
Joan Cornellà, the Spanish artist, produces dark-humor comic strips that depict the cynicism of our culture. He states, “Although my sense of humor has always been black and absurd, I think my work reflects the cynicism of real life, not mine.”
Ron Mueck, Mask II, 2002. Expressionless, the oversized sculpture seems suspended between death and sleep. According to Kelly Grovier, “The title appears to comment upon a superficial culture of discarded personas and disposable selves.[iv] It conveys a common view in our culture that you can create your own identity through experiences and through content you curate on your social media account.
Even current music conveys the despair and uncertainty people feel, as they seek to grasp meaning from the mundane. Take for instance, mumble rap.
Martin Cizmar describes mumble rap as, “simplistic, subdued beats, often with snippets of strings and sometimes complemented with emo chords, paired with lyrics that ping-pong between braggadocio and nihilism, with lots of sex and odes to heavy narcotics".
Adam de Paor-Evans in his article, “Mumble Rap: cultural laziness or a true reflection of contemporary times?” states, “Mumble rap is a negotiation that offers relief from the invisible acceleration of life…It is creativity born out of boredom.”
Lil Uzi: I’m competing with time. You’ll never ever beat time. Once you beat time, guess what, you die and time beat you.
Smokepurpp in his song “Till My Fingers Blue” embodies the existential mentality. Life represents a collection of experiences before you die. You take the mundane and extract meaning from it.
4. General Culture
Take for instance the Weeknd. In an article entitled, “Music for the stilted generation: the Weeknd's deconstruction of modern life,” author Simon Reynolds states, “Hedonism, pursued to the hilt, but creased with emptiness, loneliness and weakness: this was the Weeknd’s subject.” In his song False Alarm, the Weeknd describes a woman who lives for soulless materialism and pleasure.
She loves everybody
Can't you tell by the signs?
She loves everybody
She gets off all the time
It's a dark philosophy
And it haunts her constantly
She's a false alarm to me
People no longer see technology as a tool, they view it as an extension of themselves. They seek create meaning from mundane aspects of their life by plastering it on social media. Young people carefully curate content on their social media accounts to create their sense of identity. And yet,
The hollowness of this existential view of the world leaves many feeling the dread of facing a meaningless world, leading many to feel there’s no point in living. According to the CDC, “[Suicide] is the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, surpassed only by accidents.”
Last of all, the church adopts culture. If we’re the last to understand the underlying worldview contained in music, art and culture, we may uncritically gulp down our culture’s values. Or we may become completely irrelevant.
We should seek to dismantle ideologies under which people take shelter. Or as Francis Schaeffer put it, we need to “take off the roof.” He states, “It is unpleasant to be submerged by an avalanche, but we must allow the person to undergo this experience so that he may realize his system has no answer to the crucial questions of life. He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm.”
Yet, we should do this with compassion. Otherwise, we may appear anti-cultural to people. We shouldn’t scoff at our culture, we should weep due to its brokenness. We should exhibit the same compassion Jesus showed for the world as he wept over Jerusalem” because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
[i] Schaeffer, Francis A. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982.
[iii] Lennox, John. God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? (p. 18). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition.”
[iv] Grovier, Kelly. Art Since 1989 (World of Art) (Kindle Locations 682-684). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.