Schaeffer’s Staircase: Thought shapes art and art shapes life

How ideas are transmitted to our culture through art

By Jonny Mellor / Wed 03 Feb, 2016

When I finished school, I decided, on a whim, to study philosophy. I had never studied it before, but I thought it sounded enticingly exotic. Upon making this decision, I approached my dad to ask him if he knew anything about this mysterious subject that I was giving three years of my life to. He went to his bookcase, dusted off some tatty paperback and said ‘Read this!’ It was ‘The God who is there’ by Francis Schaeffer (nothing to do with pens!). I remember finding it fascinating, but I didn’t really get it. However, I have found myself coming back to Schaeffer over and over again ever since.

For Schaeffer, thought is powerful and thinkers shape the world. He was a man who did not critique secular culture for its superficial foibles, but instead he delved deep into its foundational ideas and philosophies. He understood that philosophers like Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger shook more than just the academic worlds they worked in, but that their systems of thought shape the lives of normal people even today.

What I find most interesting though is that Schaeffer describes the method by which these ideas trickle down from the ivory towers of academia to educate the presuppositions, assumptions and reasoning of normal people. It is not through widespread reading of their books. It is not through their influence on politicians or journalists. It is not even through education. It is through art. This is Schaeffer’s staircase: the philosophers, at the top of the stairs, hand their ideas down to the artists lower down. These artists then repackage these ideas in a way that can be easily passed down to us at the foot of the staircase. Or to put it another way: thought shapes art and art shapes life.

So let’s think this through. Here’s how I think this all plays out.

Brainy philosopher writes book. Hardly anyone understands it, but those who do think its great/profound/world-changing/etc.

At this point, 99.9% of people are none the wiser. Or foolisher.

Shortly after. Talented artist reads book. Talented artist makes film, painting, novel, etc of the driving theme of brainy philosopher’s book.  Other artists follow suit with sculptures, plays, songs, etc.

At this point, 99.9% of people have subconsciously imbibed an entire philosophical system without even knowing it. If the art is good enough, most of them will probably follow the philosophy, even if they can’t fully articulate it.

Schaeffer didn’t exactly put it like this, but I think that’s the gist of Schaeffer’s staircase.

We can see this happen all around us. As a secondary school teacher until very recently I’ve witnessed a worrying tendency in teenagers to elevate animal life and degrade human life.

So. Classic RS lesson dilemma. You’re driving along a road. In the road on the right: old man. On the left: small dog. You can’t stop. Who do you run over? Usual response: It doesn’t matter. A life’s a life. The poor dog. Well, he’s already lived his life hasn’t he? Or something non-committal. Very rarely does anyone categorically kill the dog to save the old man.

I think this has changed significantly since I was at school (not long ago, by the way!) but what has led to this concerning devaluation of human life?

Well, to oversimplify things massively, at least two things:

Firstly. Ethical philosophers like Peter Singer have been steadily putting forward the case since about the middle of the 20th century that when we consider the consequences of our actions, we should consider animals just as highly as people (anything else is ‘speciesism’).

Immediate result. Nobody really cares. I go to school in the 80s and early 90s and note a strong conviction that old men are better than hounds.

Then. Artists get inspired. Watership Down leaves a whole generation clutching their poor little bunnies. Morrissey declares ‘Meat is Murder’. Jonny Mellor takes his 3 year old to the cinema to watch some cute cartoon called ‘Animals United’ and hears a turtle called Winfred delivering the film’s keynote speech: a wild anti-human rant.

Result: Dog? Old man? Which one’s the cutest?

Now, obviously this is not exactly how it happened but I think the general point holds and, for most of us, I think we could probably trace this drip down of ideas in many other areas. If we delve deep, we’ll see it at work in ourselves.


Schaeffer’s staircase is therefore a very helpful lens (its a glass staircase, if my mixing of metaphors causes you a problem) through which to understand how certain ideas gain ascendancy in our culture. More than that though, it also helps us to think very clearly about how to shape the fundamental thought patterns and values of our culture as well:

Yes, we clarify our worldview. We debate. We write books (some of them hardback, with italic bits in Latin and everything).

But we also need to make art. Not just critique it, but actually make it. Good art. Challenging art. Beautiful ugly funny angry righteous thought shaping art. And we put it out there.


In the 20th century, Christianity had a place on the staircase. CS Lewis. GK Chesterton. JRR Tolkein. All of them handed down the Christian worldview to normal people through their writings.

But who is doing this now? We’ve got lots of great people at the top of the stairs- Ravi Zacharias, John Piper, Tim Keller, Andrew Wilson, etc, etc. But where are the artists making their ideas presentable and attractive to the people who can’t really be bothered to read theology?

Richard Dawkins has his Philip Pullman. Who has NT Wright got?


Schaeffer’s Staircase: Schaeffer’s Legacy

So, Schaeffer was the don! No question! However he hasn’t been around for about 30 years and wrote his major works almost half a century ago. What of his legacy?

Well, he has certainly left an indelible mark on evangelical Christian culture. Christian apologetics would certainly be a pretty different beast without him (a dead one probably). However, on the whole, very few have actually started descending the staircase.

The top of the stairs has become crowded, that’s for sure. And this is no bad thing. Gifted theologians and philosophers jostle with communicators par excellence to make sure that every angle of the Christian worldview is defended. Quirinius’ census, Joshua’s Canaanite excursions, original sin- any old google search will show you that we’ve got answers. Our paradigm holds together. This whole Jesus thing stands up. Ask Ravi. Bill. Professor Lennox.

But most of my friends still think that the Bible is a fairy tale on a level with Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner version).

But that was Schaeffer’s point. Good thinkers aren’t enough. We need those who will hand down the ideas to the masses. We need the artists.

But that is the bit that’s been missed. Its true that Schaeffer has changed the way that evangelicals relate to art, but it has largely led to a Christian culture that will respond to art but not participate in it.

Schaeffer (with the help of others) has helped Evangelical Christianity to grow out of its reactionary phase towards the arts. Evangelicals go to the cinema. We attend gigs with the heathen. We read novels that get on the Booker shortlist. And we can pull apart the themes and subtexts and identify all the pop culture references. We can spot the way post modernism has perniciously crept into our homes through Kylie Minogue as well as through Charlie Kaufman. Most of us could probably pass an exam in Media Studies. Even an A-Level.

We then shake our heads and bemoan the advance of secularism, individualism, New Age spirituality and general stupidity that is being propagated by these pagan but very talented artists. But at least we know what they’re up to.

This is how we engage with the arts. Or to put it another way, this is how we don’t engage with the arts.

Andy Crouch, in his brilliant book ‘Culture Making’, makes this point powerfully: ‘The only way to change culture is to create more of it’. On the way to this astute observation, he puts forward 4 other strategies of approaching culture that will have no transformative effect whatsoever. Unfortunately these have been the main methods generally employed by evangelicals in recent history:

1)      Condemning culture– the ‘if you play Phil Collins backwards, I think he tells your kids to worship Satan’ approach.

2)      Critiquing culture– the ‘how can we tell the gospel through Star Wars?’ approach

3)      Copying culture– the ‘whats popular now? Lets do an inferior version in the name of Jesus’ approach

4)      Consuming culture– the ‘I’m so glad us Christians can be cool nowadays. Anyone for ‘Hostel 2’ tonight?’ approach

Much more could be said on each of these, but I’m not going to bother- simply read Crouch’s book. You won’t regret it. All I will say is this: the problem with all of these is that they are all passive. They don’t really engage with culture at all and they certainly won’t change anything. As Crouch concludes: ‘creativity is the only viable source of change.’

If I want to reverse the drift towards pantheism, my primary task is not to publish a detailed critique of Avatar. Its to make another film that presents a worldview centred around an external, personal, conscious God. If I am appalled at the fact that most people get their view of our Heavenly Father from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984, just noticing this is not going to change anything. I’ve got to write a book that presents an omniscient God to whom we are utterly accountable who we fall in love with, not just reluctantly bow to.

Well, I don’t necessarily need to write it. Maybe you could though.

Now, just to be clear- we will be critiquing art on this website. We may even be condemning, copying and consuming every now and then to boot. However, if that’s all we do, that really is a rather tentative descent down the staircase and I imagine it will not put us within spitting distance of most of those at the bottom of the stairs. (As an aside, spitting on people is also unlikely to help). For every review we write, meme we dissect or original animation we share, I hope that we can inspire 10 pieces of art that have the potential to flesh out our convictions in a way that is compelling and digestible.

I think that would be the kind of legacy Francis Schaeffer would be happy with.

Schaeffer’s Staircase: How to stand in the middle of the stairs

So to finish this mini series, I want to reflect on some how-tos: How can we develop as artists? How can those who are already at work get better? How can artists, whose output presently serves Christians, start to broaden their appeal? How about those who are just starting out and want to produce high quality art to help shape our culture for God’s glory?

In ‘Culture Making’ Andy Crouch picks up on something that I think is vital:

‘The first responsibility of culture makers is not to make something new but to become fluent in the cultural tradition to which we are responsible. Before we can be culture makers, we must be culture keepers.’

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If I want to be an excellent film maker, I need to understand and appreciate the art of film making. Same goes with music, photography, writing, and any other art form you can think of. The image of ‘fluency’ is helpful here. To be fluent in a language, its not just a case of studying it from afar, you have to immerse yourself in the language and the culture that the language is part of. To be truly fluent in a language, you actually have to spend significant time in the place where that language is spoken with native speakers of that language.

But here is where we have a problem as Christians wanting to become fluent in artistic traditions. For some of us we don’t fully appreciate and understand the traditions we work within. This would often be the case with bands that are formed for purely evangelistic purposes. For example: you want to share Jesus with the young people you work with (a good idea!). You notice that the kids like hip hop. Therefore, you start writing raps to make the gospel relevant. In fact, you may even gather together others who know their way around some music sequencing software to create some backing tracks.

And this may work. To a degree. However, obviously you’re not going to create anything lasting or important. Why? Because, you have not become fluent in the tradition of hip hop. You do not understand it. You do not appreciate it. Therefore you will never make good hip hop music.

Lets consider another musical example: you love playing the guitar and become very good at it. You meet some Christian friends who are also very good at their instruments and you decide to form a rock band. However, being good Christians, your points of reference for your music are primarily Christian bands. You love a bit of Jars of Clay, Third Day, even POD.

And here lies the problem. These bands have their merits. In many ways, they have done/are doing a great job, but they are not a breeding ground for fluency in the tradition of rock music. In fact, many Christian bands, to use one of Crouch’s categories, have ‘copied’ culture. They produce sanitised, safe versions of the original product. To continue the analogy, they are competent French speakers, who get the grammar and know the vocabulary. They may even have a level of fluency themselves. However, to become fluent, you need to go to France! You need to hang out, not with those who are fluent in French, but with those who are French!

If you didn’t want to hang out with French people, you would never become truly fluent in French. Similarly, if you don’t want to hang out with the architects and innovators in rock music, you will never become fluent in rock music, and therefore will never make good rock music.

To become fluent in the tradition of rock music, you need to spend significant time with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Metallica and Megadeth, Nirvana and Soundgarden, Tool, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails. And not just as a cultural critic. You’ll need to appreciate their art.

However, lets face it, a lot of these bands are not going to serve as background music while you discuss the sermon at Life Group on a Wednesday night!

I can completely understand a Christian who would say ‘I don’t want to immerse myself in that stuff’. God may have even specifically told you not to do that. If that is the case, you need to obey him. However, at the same time, you are probably not then called to be a rock musician in any significant way.

This is a very real problem though, but one which the Bible encourages us to confront. I think the book of Daniel gives us great insight into this whole area. Daniel was exiled to Babylon and the chief of the court officials was ‘to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.’ (Dan 1:4) Babylon was not the homeland of virtue and goodness! It has not become the symbol of all that is ungodly for nothing! An intense course in Babylonian culture was going to be an immersion in blasphemy and perversion. But Daniel took the course. In fact, he seemed to throw himself into it with gusto. He still made a stand for righteousness, but he didn’t see his immersion in Babylonian culture as necessarily compromising that righteousness. As you read Daniel, his fluency in Babylonian (both its language and its culture) was a crucial factor (along with the occasional miraculous dream interpretation) in his gaining the king’s ear and becoming a significant voice in that nation.

The Bible gives us Daniel’s example and, through this, permission to get inside cultural traditions, even when they are not thoroughly upbuilding and pretty.

But we don’t get a practical guide detailing how to pick our way through the minefield that lies before us as we try to do this.

This is no bad thing either, as in this area more than any other, I’ve found myself having to rely on the Holy Spirit.

The truth is that we each have different struggles and weaknesses, meaning that a Christian blacklist of films, songs, books or pieces of artwork is almost impossible. I may be able to enjoy a film like the ‘Big Lebowski’, but if you struggle with the language you use (and I’m not talking about French this time), you may want to give it a miss. You may not have a problem watching movies which are built around extra marital affairs, I tend to steer clear of them. You may find that listening to ‘Rage against the Machine’ fuels in you a righteous anger against injustice, someone else may find it just makes them aggressive. This is why we need to rely on the Holy Spirit massively in this area and I think that practically the most important thing we need to do as we look to become fluent in different cultural traditions is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

In a sense, the list below is just an unpacking of some ways we can do that, but here are some things I have found helpful:

1)    Balance your diet

A balanced diet does not just require avoiding unhealthy food. It also involves eating food that is good for you. The same is true of our lives. It is important to pay attention that we are not consuming unhealthy substances and this is true in our engagement with art, but it is also vital to make sure that we are also feeding ourselves on what is pure and good.

I need to be careful to listen to the Holy Spirit to work out what He thinks is unhelpful but it is at least as important to be making sure that I am also being fed by what David calls ‘the faithful in the land’ (Ps 101): by godly people and most importantly by God himself.

Are you spending more time reading God’s word than you are watching movies? Do you instinctively put on your favourite music on the way to work, or do you sometimes use that time to listen to sermons? However edgy your musical tastes, do you ever press pause and put on something else that may not push the envelope creatively but may feed your soul?

2)    Hold on to your favourite art loosely

In my time I have smashed more records, cracked more CDs and binned more videos and DVDs than I can remember! Now perhaps I should have been a bit wiser when purchasing these items in the first place, however for me I don’t always hear God’s voice in the shop beforehand, He usually delays how he speaks to me. Sometimes, I’ll just feel a slight internal discomfort when listening to a certain album or watching a film. I’ve learnt that I should never ignore that and should do something about it. At the very least, I need to ask God if He’s talking to me and whether he wants me to stop listening to that song/watching that film.

At other times, I find it helpful to mentally place my favourite albums/films before God when I’m praying and ask Him if He wants me to get rid of them all regardless of their content, which leads nicely on to my third, final and most important point…

3)    Constantly assess where your heart is

I always thought that God was most interested in the details of what I listened to/watched- the language used, the sexual acts referenced, the body count, etc. However, now I don’t think this is the big issue at all. His main concern is whether I love Him more than the ‘thing’ I’m into.

I remember one time when God told me very clearly to get rid of a certain record. This puzzled me as the record in question featured nothing that seemed too bad. It certainly was no worse than other records that I owned. However, as I put forward my case for retaining that particular piece of plastic, God spoke to me. He told me that it was about my heart. He wanted to know whether I loved him or hip hop.

Our first calling is not to understand our culture, but to love God more than anything else. If we feel called to be an artist but we realise that we love our artform more than God, we need to take a break from our art, repent and sort this out.

There is a degree in which an artist must love his/her artform. This is important if we are going to create anything important within that tradition. However, if that love starts to compete with our love for God, we’ve got to get our priorities straight. It’s a very tricky path to navigate, but I believe that God wants to help lots of us to start such journeys and actually, on the way, as we learn to avoid hazards and reject wrong turns, we will get to know Him so much better.

And hopefully we’ll start to redeem the traditions that we become fluent in.

Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.