Purpose of Text and Intended Audience Essay

Purpose of Text and Intended Audience

Written for a Christian audience ill at ease in the dominant culture, Francis Schaeffer traces European or “Western” civilization through a Biblical lens. The purpose of the text is twofold. One of the main functions of the text is to provide an alternative view of history and of Western civilization. While European history can never avoid direct discussions of the role religion has played in matters of identity construction and state-building enterprises, Schaeffer takes the discussion to a whole new level. For Schaeffer, Western history and culture has evolved either towards a Biblical worldview or antithetical to that worldview. A second major purpose of Schaeffer’s text is to offer readers solace, encouraging them to deepen their faith and forge ties with the Christian community that is likewise at odds with the modern world. Intended audiences are squarely Christian, specifically leaning evangelical, and socially conservative. Schaeffer assumes the readership to be sympathetic with the author’s core assumptions and beliefs.

Thesis and Bias

Schaeffer is uncomfortable with modernity in general, and outright averse to postmodernism. The thesis of the book is that Christianity offers redemptive power to transform humanity, whereas secular humanism has led to moral and aesthetic decay. Schaeffer dismantles the common belief that humanism, the Enlightenment, empiricism, and rational inquiry represent the progress of civilization. In fact, Schaeffer turns the pro-humanistic bias inherent in Western society on its head, reversing the narrative entirely. The title, “How Should We Then Live?” refers to the collective Christian community that struggles to find psychological, social, and spiritual footing in a progressive secular world.

Biases abound in Schaeffer’s text, which is unabashedly critical of humanism. Schaeffer lives in a world of moral absolutes, and decries the trends toward relativism and individualism, taking a decidedly pessimistic view of human progress too. The author is also narrow-minded in his approach to history, still believing that Europe and the Western world are the center of the universe and patently ignoring the remainder of the planet. Schaeffer is especially uncomfortable with human sexuality; the author even blushes when he thinks about the phallus cult at Pompeii: referring to its “exaggerated sexuality” and “unabashedly blatant” imagery (Kindle Edition). No historian can deny the decadence of ancient Rome, to be sure, but Schaeffer is uniquely critical of the Roman aesthetic.

Theoretical Assumptions/Issues

The central premise of the book is that humanism leads to moral decrepitude because a human-centric world cannot be a Christ-centric world. Well within the confines of evangelical logic, it is difficult to argue with an author whose theoretical assumptions rest firmly on a foundation of Biblical truth. If the Bible is the absolute truth, and if faith in Christ is the only means to achieve salvation, then of course, any non-Christian worldview is wrong. Schaeffer devotes a large portion of the book to analyzing European art and architecture, which the author correctly believes is a manifestation or reflection of the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms. The theory is that the fusion of church and state, which persisted throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, led to an ideal social order in which absolute moral truths reinforced Christian values and norms while sanctioning opposing views. However, the Renaissance also signalled the first split in the Christian consciousness: the split between faith in Jesus and the theocratic model of governance on the one hand, and secular humanism on the other. The tensions brewing in the Renaissance led to the Reformation, and in turn towards the Enlightenment, and European society went downhill from there. As an evangelical Protestant, though, Schaeffer celebrates the Reformation because of its exposure of Church corruption of both power and theology. Reformation theology shifted the focus back to faith in Christ and away from faith in the institution of the Church—essentially a repository of human, not divine, authority.

Historical and Current Issues/Implications

Schaeffer’s goal in writing How Should We Then Live is to apply the past to present concerns, using history to encourage a new world order. Therefore, the implications of Schaeffer’s text are to reinforce the split between fundamentalist religion and secularism. Schaeffer uses a chronological approach to history to trace the evolution of church-sponsored art and architecture, showing how the dismantling of church power during the Reformation gave rise to more capitalist-driven artistic pursuits. With the Enlightenment came the rise of individualism, the celebration of individual rights and freedoms. Utilitarianism and other libertarian ethical frameworks started to infuse government, politics, and social life, edging out Christianity. The celebration of the individual has led to selfishness and alienation. Marx and Durkheim were insightful in their recognition of the problem of human alienation but their secular vision precluded a return to Christian faith-based values. Other historical problems include the rise of what Schaeffer calls the “new elite,” a cadre of secular, capitalist intellectuals controlling the most important socio-economic and political institutions. The media, academia, and the government have succumbed to secular elitism, with utilitarianism instead of Christian virtues guiding public policy.

Contributions to Law and Ethics

Schaeffer’s writing clearly addresses Christian ethics. The author is gravely concerned with stock issues like abortion and human sexuality, suggesting that postmodern ethics are both overly permissive and directionless. Focusing on abortion shows how Protestant evangelism has created tensions within the pro-life community, as Schaeffer and his cohorts shifted the discourse on abortion to socially conservative, right wing discourse in stark opposition to the Catholic pro-life movement (Williams, 2015). Favoring relativism over absolutism means that ethical decisions and legal proceedings lack proper guidance, which is why the society has become fragmented and increasingly violent. With established grounds for moral discourse, the law fails to fulfill its primary goal, which is to reinforce ethical norms. The author seeks a new ethical framework that permeates the law, which would “fundamentally alter the shape of American society, culture, politics, and economics,” (McVicar, 2015, p. 4).

Regarding education, the author believes that especially since the modern era and the industrial revolution, the secular humanist elite has controlled education. Education currently promotes individualism, which is why many students find no meaning or value in school. The author advocates a return to an education system that stresses moral character development, stating that doing so would help cultivate children who are less prone to violence and less alienated from their communities.

Personal Critique

Schaeffer’s book is ambitious in scope. Addressing philosophy, art, architecture, history, and politics in one book is no easy task. Some of the author’s points are salient, particularly in his astute analysis of art and architecture, and his ability to reveal the interconnectedness of multiple dimensions of human society. Schaeffer is also understandably pessimistic about human nature and human society, although an optimistic reader can easily spin the historical narrative in the other direction to show how humanism and postmodernism have raised human potential. Unfortunately, the book is not well-documented or researched well. Schaeffer uses primary sources to analyze art and architecture from a formal perspective, but just makes his own claims about history and philosophy rather than providing evidence for his conclusions.

One main main weakness of Schaeffer’s text is that to burn the bridge between the sacred and the secular is a dangerous act. Building bridges encourages harmony and collaboration in an interconnected, diverse, global society. Religious fundamentalism is a serious problem that needs to be addressed frankly, and this book foments anger and self-righteousness. Schaeffer also seems to contradict himself by claiming that only a return to Christian values can reverse some of the negative trends in society, given that doing so would entail further schisms.





McVicar, M.J. (2015). Christian Reconstruction. UNC Press.

Schaeffer, F.A. (2005). How Should We Then Live? L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition. Crossway.

Williams, D.K. (2015). The partisan trajectory of the American pro-life movement. Religions 6(2): 451-475.


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