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History and mere stories

Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

In one of my special hymns for God's children of any age we sing that

"This little light of mine,

I'm going to let it shine.

You in your small corner,

And I in mine."

Have you ever noticed that in a curious reversal of emphasis a modern person of any faith, gender or political persuasion would now also urge you to do that? The only difference is that you are to stay in that small corner and keep the light to yourself.

The ‘small' corner of the hymn refers to our size and limited ability, while the corner we are now sent to is more like the ‘out' chair in the corner of the world at large. We are to confine our light to that.

Many among us may see this as an antichristian bias, a repression of our view and a rejection of the truth. All other views are admitted, but not the Bible. A quasi-new form of anti-Semitism includes Christians among those who should no longer participate in the public debate, since they claim to speak about what is true objectively and to hold a universal truth across continents and oceans, gender and even time lines.

The newly assigned corners are not within a common space at all. They are little worlds by themselves. In post-modern thought, in multi-culturalism and in religious pluralism the common dimensions of our world, such as reason, facts and mankind are given up as mere Western constructs, which inhibit the affirmation of individual truths, personal views and real diversity. Consequently the Bible is also assumed to permit only stories of personal interest outside of the criteria of truth, reason and the real world.

This means that any possibility of a common reality is denied. Truth can never be written with a capital ‘T' again. Facts are reduced to visions one may have and hopes projected outward. You see something your way, and I will see it my way. We each have not only our own definition, but there is nothing out there for sure to define anything in the first place.

For long now I have been very uncomfortable with Christians using the term ‘story' for both the Bible and their personal experiences as Christians. That term bows to the accusation that there is really no actual event in the public space of creation. The only things happening take place in a person's field of vision, sensation or interpretation. The objective is abandoned; the subjective is all that remains. Use of ‘story' makes the Bible and historic events similar, if not equal to fairy tales: "yours in your small corner, and mine in….my head"

And that is totally contrary to what makes Christianity different from religions: the relation to facts of creation and redemption, of birth, death and the resurrection, of wind battering the boat, before Jesus stills it in the storm; of 5000 stomachs filled, of doubting Thomas being satisfied with the evidence he demanded.

By contrast, Buddhism happens in your meditating head; Islam knows no distinct acts of God and no creation outside of God, since everything is from and in God; African tribal religions know no history: everything is a repetition from the past. Only the Bible speaks of real events, open to believers and unbelievers. This is no story, but history. We do not have a narrative in our corner, but a creator and a creation that none escapes. There is an account of what is evidently real, not merely a narrative that recounts what I happen to see in my corner with my blurred vision.

I don't for the life of me know why Christians have so often adopted the loaded language of relativism, denial and finally indifference. Stories are cute and touching, while history is sharp, heavy and consequential. Stories can be closed and forgotten, history continues even when I sleep. A narrative is imposed, history reveals. A story can be embellished, is perhaps allegorical and may teach the moral of kissing the ugly frog anyway. But the Bible treats real people in real history. Francis Schaeffer always urged people to consider that the only reason to become a Christian is that it is true to the real world.

Any embellishment is in the area of language, not in content. Poetry in the Bible has meaning, because it refers to what is found in prose, in the material world of cause and effect, of words and meaning. What could possibly be an embellishment when the prophets denounce Israel's sins? Did they have a pleasant time in Babylonian captivity? What is so lovely about Jesus lamenting the disciples' "oh, so little faith"? In what way could Jesus' tears and anger at the tomb of Lazarus be an embellishment? The Pharisees did not think so, for they sought how they might kill him again.

The beauty of the Bible is found in its accuracy to reason, facts and mankind in the flow of real history. It is a beauty far greater and totally different in kind than any dream, wishful thinking or search for meaning through foreign travel, drug trips, fame and success, or esoteric religion.

The resurrection was no metaphor for optimism, but a conquest of sin and death that includes a real lunch with disciples and lengthy explanations in Emmaus before ascending to heaven where he was then seen standing (Acts 7). The whole emphasis of the Bible is not to be a collection of stories or the narrative of a people in search of an identity.

If it is not history, against all the historical evidence unearthed through years of scholarship, the ‘little light' will go out and you will stand in your corner looking rather foolish while holding on to your story.

But that is exactly what modern man wants you to believe and experience. For then you will never come out of the corner, make no annoying claims about truth and rattle no one's preference for repeating their personal story.

Neither Christians nor believing Jews ever lay down on the couch to tell their story. They worked in the midst of people to declare the truth of God and creation, of life and love, of work and hope in word and acts. "They turned to the living and true God from idols, waiting for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." That's history and not a story.

Academic Voyeurism

While the sociologist peeks through the keyhole into people's lives to establish patterns and statistics, reality shows throw open the door to let you enter freely, exposing you to other people's lives, problems and battles. There is something almost pornographic about it, even when, under that cover, lives of ‘folk like us' are choreographed much like wrestling matches on TV. It is a strangely entertaining access to the sadness, pain and perversion of what such people do with their lives.

Sitting in a chair to observe what goes on behind doors, now thrown open, is part of the academic calling. We study, observe, measure and evaluate. That is very helpful to shed light on the real world, but should not remain a clinical analysis of facts and events. After describing reality we also, by virtue of being one tragic and confused human race, compassionately prescribe remedies. We seek real solutions for problems. Moral discernment and effective remedies go further that an academic interest in facts. They originate in the wider horizon of God's word and work. We note what is and are told what ought to be.

The comments of a polite anthropology professor in Iowa exhibited what amounts to an academic voyeurism. He said there is no culture that represents Islam, but only various manners in which people apply their own views of Islam to their lives. Through the centuries and across vast stretches of land Muslims have lived differently. It is therefore inappropriate and inaccurate to speak critically about Islam, its views and claims and culture.

Part of that is true. We do interpret before we arrive at understanding (though that is not even permitted in Islam). People prioritize according to their views, experiences, local possibilities and inherited religious customs. But that does not mean that one cannot critically speak of Islam, Christianity or Communism. We start with the text rather than peek into people's lives. The worldview expressed therein, the mandates given there will find divers expressions with a pretty common core in matters of God and man, life and death, authority and truth. With the help of the text we then notice the root of hope and despair, life and neglect, fatalism and accountability, and how Man should relate to reality.

For that academic, study may yield a story of events: So many births, so many deaths, such a variety of behaviors. But it takes a particularly callous person to be as impersonal as a camera, merely observing what comes to pass without ever thinking about what ought to be done. Where is the soul that feels, laughs and weeps and then acts in the midst of the human condition? It has died in the embrace of neutrality

There are no mere facts. All events are created or prevented, lives are changed and wrong is defined and then opposed by a person, for both moral reasons and for the sake of the human being. The moral/cultural realm is a matter of personal stories, but they are always exposed to, encouraged, corrected or critiqued by chosen worldviews. Nothing happens of itself.

The human being is exposed to real history, with people full of laughter and in tears who require admiration and critique, comfort and confrontation, and require the sound of a clearer bell than the drumbeat of repetition, resignation or death. Even the academic, voyeur though he may seek to be, will have his reactions when someone else refrains from helpful action at the time of his own needs. We just don't manage to live without complaining, when, in true humanity, we object to Islam or any other view being critiqued as a worldview that does not sufficiently fit reality in its central assertions about life in the real world.

No Little People

A collection of 18 sermons by Francis A. Schaeffer bears the title of a central Biblical theme that has encouraged people in every generation around the world. In God's view Man is distinguished from all things and animals around him as the coronation of creation. He is made a little lower than the angels. He has been given a mandate to subdue the earth, to household it, to have dominion and to create. There are no little people in the perspective of the Bible.

All religions of the world, outside of the Old and New Testament, have as a final purpose for human life a peaceful surrender to the status quo of a normal life. The faithful learns to submit and to accept, to abandon his personality and mind to become united with others in a fellowship of the humble and the dying. Acceptance of history, the will of God, of nature or the wisdom of the ancient is part of the way to become detached from the moral challenges of each day.

Only the Jew and the Christian knows of a calling from God to be human, to create, to make individual choices and to seek justice in a world in which two central realities are affirmed: The human being is made essentially different from all else, and God is not identified or satisfied with the now really fallen, damaged, broken world of nature and of Man.

Man, male and female, is a person. Man thinks, feels and acts and speaks, has emotions and is able to love. No other part of creation shares these distinctives. Man is in the image of God. He was not brought forth from nature, the stars or any form of mere energy or matter. There is more than ‘life' here, for there is speech, reflection, transcendence and self-awareness. But there are no little people.

There are also lies, ideology, deception and make-belief, which only persons can advance. These are the roots of the problem of a world out of joint, fallen and full of problems such as hate, envy, anguish, selfishness and death. It is no longer the world God had made ‘in the beginning'. Adam rejoiced over Eve, but now Cain kills his brother Abel. God distinguishes among people between good and evil, not between great and small, recognized or overlooked, struggling or accomplished, strong or fragile like a flower stuck into an old garden wall and blown roughly by the wind.

When all religious and secular standards judge a person by his or her accomplishments towards the end of life, the God of the Bible gives value to the person from the beginning. Man has not, only ‘perhaps' even, become someone but is a person from conception on forever. It matters who you are, not what you have produced, earned or been noticed for.

Francis Schaeffer sees in the Bible the description of real life, of ‘true truth'. It is a series of letters from the creator to the creature, when other forms of knowing God had become flawed in consequence to the rebellious fall of Adam and Eve in real history. They were evicted from the presence of God in Eden. But the word of God carries the information needed to understand what is different about our being, our life and our calling.

On this basis Schaeffer deeply admired human accomplishment in the arts and in life, among craftsmen and inventors, poets and musicians as well as in intimate human relationships. His affirmation of human beings was not concerned so much about humanity as an abstract, but was expressed to any of the many thousands of individuals who came to talk, listen and argue with him through the years. They found a person who honored them even when they disagreed with his ideas and told him so. The human being was to Schaeffer both glorious as the crown of God's creation and flawed by foolish, evil and sinful choices. Observing him or her in the street, in museums and in science gave Schaeffer a taste of the life of Man in history. All conversations, whether over tea in his chalet, in the elevator in some Italian hotel or on the occasion of a Washington dinner brought to life the Biblical picture of people.

Schaeffer would marvel at the movement of a farmer loading hay with a pitchfork on his wagon, or the owner of a vineyard binding up the vines. He watched with fascination a small child struggling for control over a crayon to finish a drawing. He admired Clara Haskill's hands on the piano and the Renaissance frescoes on the wall above the sick in a Sienna hospital. But he also did not ignore the cruelty in personal choices, individual acts and wicked ideas in the inhuman 20th century, in which he was born and lived on both sides of the Atlantic.

Schaeffer saw people in their valuable humanity that is so much the center of Biblical teaching. The word of God, the promise of salvation by Christ's finished work on the cross, the prophetic words calling us to repentance all focus on the central affirmation of God's real existence as an infinite-personal God. By that he understood that while we have a material body not totally unlike other things and beings in nature, we are not neighbors to the tree or ox. We are people. Man and woman were made to complement each other. And both were made by a loving personal God to live as persons in the image of God.

There are ‘No Little People', for this Biblical perspective confirms real life, where we are all choice makers, creators for better or for worse. "Little" people see themselves as insignificant, close to the earth, easily forgotten and replaceable by someone else. For Schaeffer, as for all Christians, each person is unique by virtue of his unique personality. Each individual has a name and a face and through his life adds to the shape and flow of history.

Schaeffer arrives at this view not through singling out great models for life, he does not encourage someone's vanity or false self image. He does not speak to favor or even mark out celebrities. He did not believe that anyone needed that in order to know how to live as a human being. He saw no reason for the more recent fads that suggest a girl can discover her own potential only from a successful woman rather than a person; or that celebrities deserve attention, when all they are known for is ‘being known by a multitude of people' (from Latin celebritas for ‘multitude', ‘fame' and celeber meaning ‘frequented', ‘populous') until they are replaced by more recent stars.

There are no little people in the Bible. Beyond all statistics of chemical elements in our body, all skill in our physical abilities and all refined social interaction lies the affirmation that human beings are different. We alone are persons, actors and creators through the choices in our lives. Human beings have been made in the image of the eternal person of God. Here and in the all the rest of what the Bible teaches about God and Man in history Schaeffer found the only possible intellectually and practically satisfying explanation for human uniqueness.

Francis Schaeffer preached his sermons first of all to himself. 18 of them are published in this volume. Schaeffer had become a Christian when he read through the Bible at the end of High School and discovered in it the coherent and reasonable answers to the basic questions raised by human beings anywhere. They are the questions about life and death, about reality and imagination, about good and evil, about fate and freedom, and the individual and the group. They are raised by anyone in all kinds of settings. At the time he had studied Greek philosophers (a subject then being taught in public schools of working class Germantown, Pa.). Later, after college and seminary, he would prepare men going off to World War II and ship builders to work well and to live rightly. University students were encouraged to conquer existentialist doubt as well as the fascination with the ideologies on the right and attractions of the left, which strongly influenced the thought forms of a new generation. He addressed the moral and military questions of Vietnam, but also the consumer culture of materialism of the West and the search for exotic religious experiences of the East.

In Europe he preached in the International Presbyterian Church, which he started when people became believers through his work and others joined. Schaeffer was very much a church person, and though he became perhaps better known through his work with students and his writing he understood the church with a membership of the wise and ignorant, the young and old, the lonely and whole families to be a part of the bride of Christ around the world. He did not merely have chapel services. There was, until his death, a community of believers with baptisms, weddings and funerals. They all came to listen, to learn and to live. They often discussed over dinner Schaeffer's emphasis in the sermon on the true truth of God's word, the historic death and resurrection of Christ and a life in the power of God's Spirit.

Some of them knew first-hand the trips on psychedelic drugs. All had experienced relativistic morality and ‘done their own thing' in search of their personal alternative, ‘god' or otherwise. They discovered what it was like to be constantly afloat and without satisfactory answers to the most important question about the Whence? What? Wither? of man's existence. After more than three generations of being exposed to Nietzsche, Darwin and irrational religions, in which the human being is always crushed to near nothingness, the clarity of the intellectually honest and mortally coherent appeal of Biblical Christianity is surprising and an enormous present.

Schaeffer had been pastor in two churches in Pennsylvania and one in Missouri. When he moved to work in Europe after World War II people from all kinds of backgrounds and many nationalities heard these sermons. Most carried the scars from real battles and now reached for the solid anchor Schaeffer had himself previously discovered in historic Christianity. The God of the Bible and the Son of God in history are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the sole starting point and continuing base of true and comprehensible answers, well-founded hope and a meaningful life.

The gathering of believers and others in church was in Schaeffer's mind and prayer always something unique. Here we came not to discuss, but to worship, to listen and to take our stand in the stream of the people of God through history.

Most of us had scars from earlier battles. They had been physical in the experienced destruction in war and displacement of lives, homes and goods. On a deeper level, intellectual battles had taken their toll, when the inherited order and certainties had been displaced in politics and law, in commerce and the arts. Instead of providing a corrective to the intellectual explorations and cultural risks the churches had abandoned its foundation and had then increasingly supported both national goals and humanist manifestos. The certain knowledge from God about Man, Meaning and Morals was made impossible due to the embrace of the so-called scientific theology of liberalism with its kinship to Darwinism and idealism. The 20th century gave birth to horribly evil consequences of the humanistic beliefs about the progressive goodness of man and nurtured a belief in the absence, or death, of God. We were left with the presence of mere matter, but without meaning. Plays, films, but also the lives and opinions of many exhibited this, before the cultural climate would replace the resulting pessimism about God with a blind optimism about personal, privatized and privileged pursuits. Having more and more things, embracing loopy ideas about life, health and beauty and youth, exploiting greater opportunities to travel for distraction and legalizing easy ways to abandon the unborn child and the unwanted mate characterize the new market to which the liberal church adjusted its appeal.

Schaeffer's eighteen sermons in this volume cut through all this with a content that does not invite you to another world, a new community and more happy experiences by an embrace of irrational feelings. Instead the focus is on the lasting truth of the Bible, the faithfulness of God, the sufficiency of the work of Christ and the reality of God's Spirit in history. Edith Schaeffer remembers today that often parishioners in churches would complain that Schaeffer never gave an invitation to believe or to ‘come forward' at the end of a sermon. You won't find one here either. Nor will you find concerns about church growth, fund drives or attractive programs. Even denominational particulars or the testimonies of famous converts are absent. Schaeffer thought any way to manipulate people was wrong, even when it was to help them recognize the truth of historic Christianity.

The only reason to become a Christian was and is that it is true: true to the real world, to real people and to real history. "It is a special annoyance of mine that men try to separate philosophy from religion. This is a false separation, because both ultimately seek the meaning of life." The thirst of man can only be satisfied when he has answers to these two questions: What is the meaning of life? And How to address the basic dilemma of man that he is great and wonderful at the same time as he is evil against an absolute, not merely a cultural moral standard. Only the Bible gives an answer to these two questions in establishing man's guilt by choice before his creator and then offering the solution of Christ's substitutionary death for sin and the bodily resurrection for eternal life.

The one way one can discern truth from falsehood and god-words from knowing God is to apply the content, which God has given of himself in space and time history by revelation. We then believe what can be truly and reasonably comprehended from Scripture.

This confidence, which Schaeffer expressed in such terms to answer serious questions and not only personal emotional needs made him an interesting person. It was not a gimmick, a model or a method, but a deep conviction. He was not slick. He revolted against false appearances of leadership, growth statistics and any show, in which he saw the dangers of pretense, performance and praise or men. He had been there and found it dishonest, dangerous and finally condemning. Instead he urged us to pray for those ‘extruded' by God to leadership and importance in the church almost against their desires and gifts.

You will find here sermons that take you through the Old and New Testaments. They will introduce you to the man David, for better and for worse: king of Israel, mighty warrior, sensitive poet and great sinner. You will discover the shepherds' response to the angels on Christmas night in a new light. Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his brothers, will stand in a wider context of David and Christ. The wonder of the events on the Mount of Transfiguration will become clearer in its broad historic significance after tying Moses, who had died, with Elijah, who had ascended to heaven and is alive, to Jesus in glory. In this way the disciples could understand the promise of the work of Christ at the second coming for both the dead and the living.

The whole Bible, that verbalized prepositional truth from God to man, in its correspondence with reality is the basis for the confidence Schaeffer had in the truth of Christianity. He understood it to be from the same one author, God, and therefore compared Scripture with Scripture, established links between the Testaments and explored the meaning of words in their continued use and imagery. He saw a similar continuity between creation and redemption, between life now and after death and then after the resurrection. "The same meaning to life exists at this tick of the clock as in eternity." For truth is true to both God and man, in history now and later. There are no separate worlds or separate truths.

Schaeffer understood that for truth to have any say or claim it must be very different from merely personal truth or religious truth, which are ideological. They are an idea about truth, but do not relate to the world of facts, data, the miracles in the Bible and the resurrection in time and space. They pretend, much like Hinduism pretends, that reality is an illusion; or Islam pretends, without historic evidence, that Allah is merciful and just in a world where pain, death and cruelty really exist.

The truth of Christianity is rooted in God's existence; our faith and our performance do not make it so. And yet, after the fall of Adam and during this time of faith and waiting, the temptation is always to turn this around. God becomes our private interest and source of pleasure, while man becomes the performing artist, the manager, the leader, the visible symbol of power. In God's kingdom there are ‘No little people', when God calls us to greater things. Yet there can only be "one good fighter for Jesus Christ: the person who does not like to fight."

Three central things constantly stand out in reading through these sermons. First, there is the love of God, who through the text of the Bible gives revelation to shed light on our lives. God's holiness, grace and power, his compassion and abundant grace are recognized in the flow of people's lives. God works always with weak servants: The greats of faith are people like drunk Noah, lying Abraham and Isaac, idolatrous Aaron, frustrated Moses, but also Rahab the converted harlot and Nicodemus the parliamentarian, who comes only under cover of darkness to find the light.

Second, there is a deep awareness of what a mess the fall of Adam and Eve created. Separation from God is very real. Most of us have not seen God, for man was evicted from Eden. The fall of Adam has shattered all harmony and left broken vessels, for we are also separated from ourselves and from nature. We are at a considerable loss to understand what all this thing called ‘life' is all about. Yet we are called to lean against such fractures through compassion, watchfulness and generosity. The Bible reveals to us that what we have or are in the present is not final, but part of a process to be completed later. There are encouragements to the weak and warnings to those strong in their own eyes. Temptation pulls at our hearts and minds and lingers at our feet.

Third, many of the sermons integrate God's word with surrounding and daily realities of life. Here lies their practical application to confront the uncertainties of our life as well. For we continue that dilemma of being people in a real history which none of us has made, but to which we all contribute. The discussion of the benefits and limits of democracy to encourage what is good and to limit what is evil flows from a broad understanding of Biblical reality. But such uncertainty and required responsibility rarely create moral character; they rather lay it open.

Schaeffer often saw the extremes of many sides and the dangers of leaning, as a rider on a horse, too far against a problem until he falls off the horse on the other side. In the account of God's miraculous deliverance from certain death of the three men in a fiery furnace he reminds us of the unique event, which contains no promise from God of a life free from problems, hardships and even death. A miracle is not the normal event in the lives of believers. A miracle is a special act of God in the context of many other actors who may stand in the way for the time being. Texts, such as Hebrews ch. 11, show that there are no general promises of safety for God's children outside of being kept by God in his family.

Yet this should never lead to a sense of resignation and acceptance of evil. History is not our master. Circumstances should not determine our choices. We are not called to go with the flow, to embrace the average, or the convenient, or the smooth. David's lawful and unlawful vindications distinguish between the need for justice on moral grounds and King David's own failures as a man. Both have continuing consequences in the life of the nation and in the lives of members of his family. A broad tapestry is in the Bible spun to show how complex reality becomes and how unfair much of it is "under the sun" for everybody, when it is measured merely between birth and death.

By contrast, a fatalistic religion sees everything as resolved or already as God's perfect plan. Like any utopian temptation it avoids dealing with reality and focuses with a blind faith on unreality. Only a romantic perspective can suggest that life is fair and that all problems are of our own making. Most religions suggest this as an explanation. On the other hand, when reality is more honestly observed, a cynical perspective remains: There is no justice anywhere and everyone must swim or sink.

Schaeffer shows that the Bible does not promote either of these tow reactions. Instead God promises real justice in history when Christ's reign commences with the second coming. He avoids the loss of compassion inherent in the utopian faith of the first and the loss of moral orientation suggested in the second.

Most interestingly Schaeffer treats intellectual and moral problems of any age in the context of Biblical answers, yet without either merely citing Biblical texts or condemning those who are wrestling with real existential problems and have come tentatively to alternative answers. His description of the problems of communism is in no way outdated by the collapse of the Soviet State. Theological liberalism, Roman Catholicism, secular rationalism are also each unveiled to show their flaws in the central concern to understand human life in a flawed, often raw and unfinished history.

As Amos addressed the hollow religious institutions of the northern tribes, which disregarded the law, the prophets and the covenant of God, Schaeffer points out in several sermons the dangerous neglect of practiced Christianity in the church. He wonders where humility is practiced and experienced within the church on the basis of confident certainty about God, people as individuals and a broader understanding of the difficulties of life in a fallen world.

With the fitting insight from the Bible into the human condition we must be willing and able to serve a needy world, to bind up her wounds and to offer real material, intellectual, artistic and spiritual help. We can pray for wisdom to do that and to carry it out faithfully, for in God's mind and hand we are "no little people"

1. Introduction to a new edition (September 2003) of No Little People by Francis A. Schaeffer, Crossway Books, Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60173.

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