How Should We Then Live? - A Reaction to the Schaeffer Films

[I think this might have been the first serious bioethical piece I wrote - way back in 1979]

Last November [1978] a group of evangelicals representing several churches and the Christian Unions of the schools and colleges in the Aberystwyth area met to discuss the Francis Schaeffer films entitled ‘How Should We Then Live?’  We had first seen the series reviewed in the September issue of ‘Evangelical Times’.

We hired a preview of one of the episodes from the distributors, so we had some idea of what to expect from the series.  We were fairly impressed by this film and were unanimous that we should sponsor the project in Aberystwyth.

At that meeting we made several decisions.  We decided to have two films on each of five consecutive Fridays, and to use the largest lecture theatre on the University campus.  Much discussion centred on our aims and how any discussion following the screening should be handled.  We concluded that the series was mainly for Christians, but that unbelievers would be encouraged to attend by personal invitation and widespread advertising.  The latter was mainly through the use of the colourful, arresting posters (obtained from the distributors) and through the papers of the town and colleges.

The question of a discussion was difficult and all types were considered; we decided to try the informal/discussion leader approach.  The method of introducing the films was also debated and one person was allocated this task for all showings, for both simplicity and continuity.

The cost of the project was estimated to be about £200 (including film hire, advertising and projectionist’s fee).  We would look to the generosity of those interested in the series to meet this cost, though a local church offered to underwrite all expenses; happily this offer was not required.  A small steering committee was selected and that was that.

The film series was booked for February and March, posters were ordered and interest and prayer encouraged.  In the meantime, rumours abounded – for example, that the films were for intellectuals only and that the first two episodes were poor in quality and content.  Eventually the first two episodes arrived; no preview was possible, but a careful reading of the series’ accompanying book allowed, at least for these early episodes, a good insight into the visual presentation.

For the first night almost 100 people turned up and the lecture theatre was just about full.  A general introduction to Schaeffer, the project and the identification of the sponsors as evangelical Christian was given.  Each episode was preceded by a ten-minute introduction, a précis of the film explaining some Schaefferite terminology.  To some, these introductions were superfluous, but to many they formed a base for what was to come and the subsequent reinforcement by the film resulted in greater comprehension.  They also helped to localise the project and were able to link the individual films to the whole.

A bookstall with titles relevant to the series was a useful additional facility.  An informal discussion followed the final film that first evening.  About a third of the audience stayed for what evolved into a rather languid to-ing and fro-ing.  This aspect was abandoned on future evenings, when it was found that several smaller groups spontaneously started up discussions.  Less people attended subsequent showings, though about 2% of the town and gown population of Aberystwyth did attend regularly.

Other aids
The How Should We Then Live? project has other aids to understanding Schaeffer’s thesis.  There is a book of the same title, with illustrations, a useful chronology and a satisfying large index and bibliography.  For those who intend taking the project seriously the book is highly recommended, both as simultaneous reading and as a future reference book.  For those less ambitious, the Study Aid at £1 a copy is excellent.  It contains the sort of notes one might take (if one were a first class student!) on seeing the films.  These notes are very concise, but the value of reading and thinking about them before and after attending the films would be immense.  We could have sold about 100 of these but could not get hold of sufficient copies.

In addition a Study Guide and a six-pack of cassettes is sent with each order of the series.  The Guide was of mixed value, and the cassettes were disappointing – though this writer found them engaging enough to listen to on a long car journey.

But without any of these aids, the films themselves still have great value.  Where else can you so pleasurably cover 20 centuries of history in 5 hours?  And their purely educational value is not to be underestimated.  We all have gaping holes in our schooling and this series plugs several of these.  But more than that, it is a Christian survey of the development of 20th century thinking and culture and therefore unique in that respect.  Not a few students found it a most encouraging antidote to much of the diatribe of their college courses.  By and large, the people who came to see them found them educational, stimulating and at times provocative.

Good provocation
Of course, the series can be criticised.  There were sometimes nagging questions concerning some of the assumptions and conclusions Schaeffer makes and draws.  It therefore at times became frustrating that some arguments are not fully justified.  But such provocation is not a bad thing for many of us.  Technically, there are some annoying trailing microphone cables and mediocre execution of the intended visual impact of some scenes.  One or two scenes will send sniggers through the audience.  Some, such as a the appellation of the British Rail passenger steamer as a ‘relic of the Industrial Revolution’ can be quelled in the introduction.  All of the criticisms argue for the use of first-class projection/speaker equipment, otherwise what is seen may at times distract from what is to be heard.

In some areas we feel we did not employ the project to its fullest.  The lack of Study Aids hindered this.  We should have given more thought to the discussion of the films, particularly as the ‘plot’ began to become clearer as the series progressed.  We were slow to invite unbelievers; several who came to the last episodes were captivated and wished they had come to them all.  It can certainly be used as a grand conversation started with your friends, workmates and neighbours.

The series warrants a wide audience and it should undoubtedly be screened in every University town and many others too; it is not just for college students, but for ‘students’ of all ages who wish to understand how we should then live in our age.

(By the way, the fine theme music is the ‘Christmas Concerto' by Corelli).