Sham Pearls for Real Swine
by Franky Schaeffer
Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 290 pages, $14.95
In 1948, a young American minister from the conservative Bible Presbyterian Church moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, to serve as a missionary to Europe. Intending lo work primarily as an evangelist, this earnest pastor was relatively sequestered from the contentious and obscurantist tendencies of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. This physical and cultural distance from a spiritual community that had become crabbed and reactionary allowed Francis Schaeffer to re-examine the roots of his beliefs. A few years later, after moving with his wife Edith and his three daughters to a chalet in a mountain village, a time of spiritual crisis for Schaeffer led to an awakened faith and a new sense of vocation.
In the mid-1960s, when American society and culture were coming to a boiling point, Francis Schaeffer gave a series of lectures at Wheaton College in Illinois, the most prominent of the evangelical colleges at the time. Schaeffer's lectures (published in 1968 as The God Who Is There) went far beyond the sorts of issues that one might expect in such a setting. Henry Miller, the Beatles, Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, logical positivism, musique concrete: all were discussed with the intermediate goal of better understanding the consciousness of modern culture. But Schaeffer's ultimate purpose was not to rethink theology in light of modernity, hut to re-challenge modern men and women with historic Christian orthodoxy. Schaeffer tried to understand everything from Michelangelo Antonioni to Frank Zappa in order to become more adept in the winning of souls and in the cure of them.
Thousands of evangelicals in the baby-boom generation were influenced by Schaeffer, either directly or indirectly. Much of the more engaged attitude toward contemporary cultural issues evident among evangelicals can be traced to his concerns. In his later years (he died of cancer in 1984) Francis Schaeffer became publicly identified with prolife causes, inspiring such figures as former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, Operation Rescue's Randall Terry, and John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute.
Francis Schaeffer's prolife activism also launched the public career of his only son, named after his father, but soon re-christened Franky. From his childhood, the younger Schaeffer showed interest in the arts, and his parents encouraged him. In 1981, Franky Schaeffer published his first book. Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, an angry tract that echoed many of his father's themes about spirituality and culture and a few of his father's rhetorical flourishes. But there was a profound difference. Whereas Francis Schaeffer had labored for years to articulate an evangelical understanding of secular, alienated modern man (a labor that often resulted in tears reminiscent of Jesus' weeping over Jerusalem), Franky Schaeffer's first book set the tone for a decade of angry diatribes against fellow evangelicals.
For a while in the 1980s, Franky Schaeffer focused his attacks on various New Class evangelicals who were in his opinion too soft on abortion or too chummy with various leftish ideologies. But, aspiring painter and struggling filmmaker that he is, Schaeffer has been more persistently concerned with the sheer tackiness and Babbittry of evangelical culture, a spirit made flesh in such kitschy phenomena as “Smile, God Loves You” buttons, Christian theme parks, and Kneeling Santa Dolls.
Franky Schaeffer's latest book. Sham Pearls for Real Swine, continues the theme of his early work. The book's title (lifted from Churchill, one of Schaeffer's heroes) summarizes the author's impression of “a great deal of teaching in the Christian church concerning the arts, media, and our culture in general.” Schaeffer directs his barbs at the evangelical-fundamentalist community in particular (and by explicit extension the cognate communities within American Catholicism), among whom thinking about culture is deficient, not to say Philistine. As did his father, he condemns Christians for a false sense of spirituality that leads them to ignore the arts. He castigates evangelicals for holding to “current middle-American, post-Victorian ideas of propriety.” He is furious that the Christian crusade to restore “traditional values” results in “middle-class pablum that will offend no one, cause no one to think, mean nothing, and leave its audience as comfortable and mindless as before they were fleetingly entertained by it. In other words, the “traditional values' turn out to be the values of the 1950s middle America, not the far more robust traditions of Western culture.”
Schaeffer wants his fellow believers to face up to the fact that reality is messy, and that truthful art (truth was a major theme in his father's work) requires faithful representation of that messiness. He offers “as an example of a movie telling the truth . . . about sin and depravity” the film Sid and Nancy, a biographical film about the lives of punk rocker Sid Vicious (of the Sex Pistols) and his girlfriend Nancy.
In the movie, the sorrow and decadence of Sid and Nancy's lives were not glamorized. The truth was told. The ugliness of the debased, anti-Christian philosophy they lived by was portrayed as producing ugly results, as death-causing, tragic. To make a truthful movie like Sid and Nancy that is consistent with reality is ideally the goal for the Christian and non-Christian filmmaker alike.
Of all the films in all the world, Sid and Nancy is surely a poor choice as an ideal goal for anything or anyone. Such well-intended hyperbole is an example, too common in Schaeffer's writings, of a lack of nuance and balanced judgment. In this, one detects more than a bit of his father, whose sweeping statements about the history of Western thought or about particular thinkers often obscured important details in the interest of diagrammatic simplicity. One might also see an ironic kinship with the very “middle-American” sensibilities he is castigating. After all, one of the reasons people prefer Die Hard to Jean de Florette has something to do with the absence of a taste for subtlety. After a few pages of Sham Pearls, one may be sympathetic to the canon the author wishes to revere, but frustrated by the brusqueness of his reverence.
Schaeffer is at his most convincing when he lightens up and lets his love of film show through, especially as he chides Christians who take movies too seriously. Movies are, after all, fun, and fun is an important part of life for Christians as for everyone. Schaeffer seems to recognize this, and perhaps if his father had been an engineer or an insurance salesman instead of an intense expatriate Alpine prophet, he would find it easier to express it.
The attitudes and artifacts Franky Schaeffer criticizes may in some circles be sacred cows, but they are also sitting ducks. There is no question that evangelical tastes are low-to-middle brow at best, that great art and literature and music leave most evangelicals unmoved. It is also true that this is a situation which has some explanation in theology and which is in many ways unfortunate. But it is not the sort of thing, one would think, about which it is necessary to be too “prophetic.”
Sham Pearls for Real Swine is largely a book about rejection: generally about conservative Christians rejecting or ignoring the arts from a lack of understanding; but more specifically (sometimes embarrassingly so) the rejection of struggling artist Franky Schaeffer by the community that should be grateful for his efforts.
There are too few people in the church who comprehend the artistic struggle and encourage Christians to succeed in the arts. There are, however, many Christian guilt-mongers who place burdens on others that they themselves do not bear; their attitude is embodied in the what's-Christian-about-that? school of art critics, who do not understand the arts or the daily reality of the artist's struggle.
“As a Christian working in the arts,” Schaeffer laments on the first page, “I have naturally looked to the church for encouragement.” While one understands the frustration this might cause, one would think that years of lectures by his father about the deficiencies of the American church would have persuaded him that this was in fact a very unnatural thing to do.
“The dedicated Christian pursuing a career in the arts or media,” Schaeffer complains, “is caught between a hammer and an anvil— the hammer of closed-minded secularism and the anvil of closed-minded fundamentalist Christianity.” Well, yes. The message here and in much of the book is generally sound. But there is something disturbing about the presence, the self-consciousness, the voice of the messenger, something unseemly and finally unconvincing about his repetitive insistence that “I am an artist.” Rejection, after all, is not in itself proof of one's standing either as prophet or artist. There might in both cases be other reasons why one is despised or rejected.
If Schaeffer had left himself out of this book, he might have made a more useful (if much shorter) contribution to an understanding of Christianity and culture. As it stands, Sham Pearls for Real Swine has too few real pearls, and is unlikely to convert the “swine” into lovers of the finer and more permanent things.
Kenneth A. Myers is the author of God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture.