August 18, 2016
In his recent essay on Christian intellectualism, Alan Jacobs dates the high point of the public Christian intellectual in America as being in the late 1940s. Citing the influence of thinkers like CS Lewis, WH Auden, and Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacobs argues that the movement began to fade in the 1950s and, by the 1960s, was largely a spent force. By that time Lewis, Auden, and Niebuhr were no longer as relevant in contemporary debates and the next generation had not yet emerged. By the time that generation of leaders did, Jacobs argues, the culture had moved past them and they had become more conversant in the intramural discussions happening in conservative religious circles rather than the broader cultural conversation.
As a general overview of the era, that seems reasonable enough. That said, the conclusions Jacobs comes to seem a bit incomplete. So what follows is not necessarily an attempt to refute what Jacobs is doing in his piece, but is, rather, an attempt to highlight some complicating factors in hopes of getting Jacobs to say a bit more. (Or to perhaps address the question in his forthcoming book which seems to be closely related to the issues he raises in his essay.)
What of Francis Schaeffer?
In dating the decline of the Christian intellectual, Jacobs cites, amongst other things, the evidence offered by major media coverage of prominent public Christians. He notes that both Lewis and Niebuhr made the cover of Time in the late 1940s with Lewis appearing on it in 1947 and Niebuhr doing the same in 1948. What’s funny about this is that Francis Schaeffer, who has been hailed by some as Lewis’s only equal amongst orthodox Christian apologists in the 20th century, also makes a prominent appearance in Time… but in 1960. (NOTE: The first draft of this story said Schaeffer appeared on the cover, but it appears that he was simply the subject of a feature. I apologize for the error.)
Time‘s description of Schaeffer, however, tells us something about how things had changed during the 12 years between Niebuhr’s cover and Schaeffer’s. In 1960, Time presents Schaeffer as a missionary to the intellectuals, which he no doubt was. But this assumes that Christianity needs missionaries to the intellectuals because the intellectuals are no longer Christian. What had been conflict within the intellectual community 13 years before when they reported on CS Lewis has become an attempt to witness to the intellectual community by 1960. This suggests, in one sense, that Jacobs is right—the Christian public intellectual is dead by 1960, which is why Schaeffer was needed.
But it also raises a separate question: If that intellectual is dead, why is Schaeffer being covered by Time in the first place?Further, why does he have well-known figures from the various counter-cultures as well as popular icons of the era beating down his door to study with him at L’Abri? Timothy Leary, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards are just three examples of prominent 1960s figures who read or studied with Schaeffer. There are others.
Schaeffer did not exile himself in an evangelical bubble in the way that a Carl Henry or Harold Ockenga could be accused of doing. He (often regrettably) got sucked into those intra-mural debates when he was back in the States, but from his perch in the Swiss Alps he was one of the few evangelicals watching the films of Bergman and listening to Pink Floyd. Indeed, his appearances at Wheaton in the 1960s in many ways set the stage for what is now a comparative golden age of Christian film and television criticism. At a time when Wheaton students weren’t allowed to attend movies Schaeffer showed up talking not only about film, but about avant garde filmmakers like Bergman and Antonioni. And here’s the thing: The members of the 60s counter-culture noticed. Some even went to L’Abri to meet him.
Mainstream American culture has splintered.
My hunch is that the problem, then, is much broader than just the loss of Christian public intellectuals. The greater problem seems to be the loss of a common culture that allows any kind of universal public intellectual to exist. This would also dramatically complicate the work of interpretation or translation which Jacobs is also concerned with.
Interpreters in the sense Jacobs is describing are leaders who translate the concepts of faith and religiosity into language and ideas more sensible to post-war liberal democrats (in the broad sense of those terms). But by the 1960s we don’t really have a single post-war liberal democratic order to speak to. We are beginning to see the crackup of a single mainstream American culture and the subsequent splintering into various sub-cultures and sub-groups, a movement which has continued apace up to the present.
To illustrate the point we need only consider the various counter-examples a person might offer if they wanted to prove that Christian public intellectuals still exist. Ross Douthat is a good candidate, but the only people who know who he is are readers of the New York Times. (Ditto if you want to mention David Brooks.) That’s an influential group, to be sure, but also a relatively small one.
Other candidates, like RR Reno at First Things, Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale, Charles Taylor of McGill University, or Mark Noll of Notre Dame, all fall prey to similar criticisms: They are prominent, respected intellectuals operating in very small niches. The people who don’t know their names far outnumber those who do. So while there have been very real gains in certain niches, the emergence of Christian study centers is also worth mentioning, those gains haven’t amounted to a broader cultural recovery.
But the key to keep in mind here is that this splintering has affected everyone. Take a figure of the more mainstream media establishment who has some intellectual chops—let’s go with someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is a major media figure, someone who published routinely in the pages of Vanity Fair and The Atlantic and whose work routinely featured on most best-sellers’ lists. He’s the model of a modern public intellectual. What were the total sales of his most successful book?
Well, his best-selling book was god Is Not Great, sold almost 300,000 copies in its first seven weeks after publication. Let’s be generous and assume that Hitchens sold a million copies of the book, a number that is almost certainly massively inflated. Even with such a generous estimate, the population of the United States is north of 300 million. So even if we assume that the book sold one million copies and even if we assume that every person who bought a copy read the book cover-to-cover, that’s still only reaching ~.33% of the US population.
If we expand our definition of public intellectual to include a more intellectual internet journalist, like Ezra Klein, the numbers improve, but not that significantly. According to one site’s estimate, Ezra Klein’s Vox.com reached 15.2 million unique visitors in the USA in the past month. That’s a larger figure, but it is still only 1/20th of the total US population—roughly 5% of all Americans. When you compare these numbers to the sort of reach that prominent figures in the early 60s enjoyed, the gulf is staggering. In 1963, every single one of the top 31 shows on TV reached at least 20% of all Americans. Put another way, the 31st most popular show in the United States in 1963 reached a share of the US population four times larger than the share that an extraordinarily successful site like Vox.com will reach in a typical month.
There is one exception to the splintering.
There is, of course, a group that does enjoy a broader reach among Americans: prosperity preachers and their more secular counterparts, self-help gurus and daytime talk show hosts. Joel Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now, sold four million copies. He has gone on to write a number of other best sellers as well and his weekly TV broadcast has reached over 100 million households.
Oprah Winfrey, the secular version of Osteen and someone who has hosted Osteen on her own programs, has a media empire of her own. At her TV show’s high point in the early 90s, she reached 13 million Americans every day, roughly 5% of the population. Put another way, Oprah’s daily audience at her peak was the same size proportionally as Vox.com’s monthly audience. These days she relies on her own TV network, magazine, website, and radio broadcasts to reach her audience. It’s difficult to calculate how many people she reaches these days, but the number is likely on par with Osteen’s.
What’s more, the trend doesn’t end with Oprah or Osteen. Let’s return to our friend Christopher Hitchens. His best-selling book was ranked #79 on the USA Today‘s best-seller list for 2007. The number two book that year was Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book that Oprah helped to promote. Number 3? Eat, Pray, Love. Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You came in at number 20.
This, then, is perhaps one of the more intriguing criticisms we might make of Jacobs’ argument: If we assume that Oprahism is the closest thing we have today to a civil religion in America, then we actually do have someone attempting to translate Christianity into terms more accessible and palatable to the adherents of that religion: His name is Joel Osteen.
And we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that this is a problem limited to prosperity preachers. I will only note in passing that it is worth mentioning here the alliance that has emerged between culture warriors in the Southern Baptist Convention and heretical prosperity preachers in support of the candidacy of Donald Trump, a man who might reasonably be described as Oprahism’s id. Donald Miller deserves a mention here as well. Self-help and expressive individualism are the modern civil religion of America and there are plenty of people trying to translate Christianity into terms more compatible with such a creed.
How then shall we evangelize a fractured society?
Of course, it’s not all so bleak as that. If we wish to go in the direction Jacobs is outlining and try to identify publicly recognized Christians translating the faith into terms the public square can understand while remaining orthodox, there are some examples.
You could easily argue that both Tim Keller and Russell Moore are doing that well in their own ways. Keller’s Reason for God was a best-seller and he lives in and pastors a church in Manhattan. Moore, meanwhile, has been in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post and is deeply engaged in many of the pressing social questions of the day, particularly on issues of racism and sexuality.
That said, I am not convinced that even Keller and Moore, as remarkably talented and helpful as both men are, can fulfill the role Jacobs seems to be describing. In a nation of splinted sub-cultures unified by nothing save a belief in market-backed, government-subsidized expressive individualism, I’m not sure that the problem can be adequately addressed by someone as close to the establishment as Keller and Moore are.
Valuable as their work is (and I have enormous respect and gratitude for both men!), the best either can hope to achieve on a cultural level is helping to move us away from apocalypse and toward cultural dhimmitude. That isn’t meant as a criticism of either man, to be clear, nor is it to underscore the work they are doing. There are many people who have met Jesus thanks to the ministry of Keller and we should never forget how significant that is.
Likewise, Moore has been instrumental in making the public case for religious liberty protections and was instrumental in defeating the recent California bill that would have made life much harder on schools like Biola.
Even so, the range of things one can accomplish if one starts from “pastor in Manhattan” or “think tank director concerned with public policy” is very, very limited. The context they work in is simply so far gone that the cultural impact they can make in their respective places is limited.
The more fundamental critique, which must be made intellectually but only after it has been established through the building of alternative communities, will need to be made by people a bit more outside the mainstream, I think. It needs to come from the sort of people with the ability to create new communities and institutions rather than the sort of people working within the various splintered institutions we have today.
The answer to this problem brings us back to Schaeffer. Schaeffer recognized long before the rest of evangelicalism that the defining values of post-Christian America would be thoroughly materialistic and center around personal peace and affluence. His and Edith’s ministry at L’Abri recognized this splintering and refuted it, not by explaining Christianity to a social order that can be reconciled with the faith if we finesse it enough, but by modeling a radically different way of life to a society at odds with the faith on the most fundamental, basic levels. The hospitality of L’Abri, Francis’s way of talking about Christianity as comprehensive “True Truth,” the hidden art embodied by Edith’s tireless work… all these things contributed to making L’Abri a shelter of coherence in a fractured and declining world.
Jacobs is right, then, in saying that we desperately need Christian interpreters to help those outside the faith understand it. But it seems that Jacobs sees the post-war social order as being basically salvageable, provided we have the right Christian leaders speaking to it and that we address certain specific neuroses that can be treated separate from the broader liberal democratic order.
In this telling, the post-Christian America that emerged in the 1960s is something that might have been avoided with better management of institutions and more careful interaction with the public square on the part of orthodox believers. This seems naive to me given the way new technologies changed the media landscape in the US and the fact that the post-war economy, which was always hostile to the traditional family, was already being established in the late 40s and early 50s.
What we need is a different kind of interpreter, less Reinhold Niebuhr, that establishment figure who lived and taught in New York City, and more Francis Schaeffer, the missionary-in-exile, far removed from the hubs of power and influence and better equipped to speak to them in distinctly Christian ways precisely because of his distance from them. We need to recognize that the modern western social project (if it even rises to the level of “social project,”) is not something which can be reconciled with the faith by simply making some basic alterations to the machine. Market-backed, government-subsidized expressive individualism is the founding principle of today’s western world. And there can be no salvaging such a project.
It is, rather, something which must be critiqued far more radically and much more in keeping with the critique made by Schaeffer. Our model, if Schaeffer was right, ought to be Jeremiah, the weeping prophet who announced that there was death in the city.