Imagine somewhere in eternity Pope Francis bumps into Francis Schaeffer, the Presbyterian pastor-theologian-missionary-philosopher, who died in 1984. They share with each other that on earth people knew them both as "Francis." As they talk, they find more commonality: a mutual passion for art.
In his much-noted interview in the Jesuit journal America (I read all 12,000 words with fascination), we not only met the Pope Francis who wants the church to be less "obsessed" with abortion, same-sex marriage, and birth control, but an Argentine who has a sweeping knowledge of and deep-seated passion for art.
Chagall the painter (the "White Crucifixion"), Fellini the film-maker (especially "La Strada"), even Wagner the German composer (the "Ring"), along with Fernando de Rojas, the author (La Celestina) make the short list of the Pope's favorite artists.
If they met in eternity Pope Francis and Francis Schaeffer might take a few millennia to mull over Schaeffer's book, Art and the Bible. "In God's world the individual counts," wrote the evangelical philosopher, and "therefore Christian art should deal with the individual." And the Catholic Pope would give a thoughtful nod. In the America interview, Pope Francis said that "in life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them (with mercy), starting from their situation."
Pope Francis is now stirred. "Ours is not a 'lab faith,' but a 'journey faith,' a historical faith," he says to Schaeffer, remembering what he told the America interviewer. "God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them, out of their context."
"The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars!" Schaeffer responds, sparking the Pope's enthusiastic concurrence with a line from Schaeffer's Art and the Bible.
Then, after 500 or so earth-years of basking in their harmonious camaraderie, the common path of the two men begins a slight divergence. The farther they walk, the further the two Francises veer from one another.
It all begins with a mention of the "prophetic," a pesky topic that becomes a swarm driving them dashing up two different trails. (I'm sure there are no pests in Heaven, but go with me on this.)
The split appears when Schaeffer opines, as he did in Art and the Bible: "We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art, it can be far more devastating than if it is expressed in poor art. The greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and its worldview under the judgment of Christ and the Bible. The common reaction among many, however, is just the opposite. Ordinarily, many seem to feel that the greater the art, the less we ought to be critical of its worldview. This we must reverse."
Such raw assertiveness gives Pope Francis disquiet. He does not disagree with the lordship of Christ over all human endeavor but with Schaeffer's in-your-face style.
And the artist as prophet?
"Religious men and women (the clerics and nuns) are prophets," Pope Francis replies, recalling words from his America interview. "Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves. I do not know how to put it.... Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say 'a mess.' But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel."
Anyone who knows Schaeffer will agree that he loves making "a mess" of small thinking and trite doctrine. He delights in stabbing fat lumps of dough with catalytic yeast. But why can't artists and teachers and truck drivers and insurance sales-persons and doctors and football quarterbacks and rappers and farmers and politicians and accountants be prophets, he wonders?
And what's this about prophets "making waves": How does that square with the Pope's desire that the church get over its "obsessiveness" with abortion and the like? Schaeffer brought gale-force winds to every ocean he swam.
If the Pope's desire for the Catholic Church to ease off on confronting cultural sins is so the Church won't suffer collapse, he either does not know about or believes Catholicism is immune from the fate of liberal Protestant churches in the West. The Mainline churches accommodated themselves to culture, and took on so much water they foundered.
Pope Francis, however, sets his desire for a new tone in a context that gets Schaeffer's attention. "I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation…Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives."
Schaeffer's ears, faraway now, pick up a resonating tone: Bring people to Christ and His salvation first, then disciple them in the Bible's moral principles. Don't expect the unregenerate to embrace biblical morality up front. Evangelicals who have been singing "Just as I am without one plea" for generations, and in more recent times, "Come just as you are," should applaud the idea.
"There is nothing moreugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion!" Schaeffer shouts across the one-more narrowing chasm.
Suddenly, as Christ stands in the gap between the two Francises' paths, they seemed to be drawn closer, as His centrality becomes their joint focus. Is it possible the convergence between the two Francises and the movements they symbolize will walk together closer than ever?
Stay tuned for the final installment in this series, where we earth-bound folk will ponder where all this is heading.