Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer is one of the most impactful books that I have read (in fact, I’ve read through it three times now). The title might sound a bit head-scratching. It is based on a series of lectures by Schaeffer in the late 1960s derived form the biblical books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Romans. He draws the title from Lamentations 1:1 which speaks of Jerusalem after the inhabitants were either killed or exiled to Babylon and then sat empty, hence “death” in the city.
Ultimately, Schaeffer was writing a critique of western culture as it was shifting (and continues to shift) from an overarching Judeo-Christian worldview to one that is post-Christian. But his critique is not so much aimed at the culture at large but rather the Christian’s and church’s response.
I first read Death in the City as a college student in a time where my faith was being greatly shaped and coming into its own. Three main things stuck out then and still stick with me today.
First, building on the Westminster Catechism, Schaeffer considered what it means that humanity’s “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Christianity is not a cold religion or a dispassionate intellectual exercise. Christianity is not about escape from life but pressing into true life with excitement. It’s about finding whole-person fulfillment “in relationship to the God who is there.” In other words, Christianity is about finding joy and satisfaction that never fades but finding its source in Christ and not in the offerings of the world and culture. (Pg. 25-27)
Second, Schaeffer warned that Christianity becomes ugly when it divorces itself from compassion. The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to speak some difficult truths but he did so with tears. Yes, the Christian Gospel is a message of holiness, a sacredness devoted to the ways of God that often run contra the ways of humanity, yet at the same time it is a message about love. The two cannot be divorced nor set against each other. As followers of Jesus, witnessing to the world, we must speak of every person’s significance as an image-bearer of God, we must not shy away from the wrongfulness of sin and rebellion against God, but we must do so with compassion and a heart that loves others by seeking to meet their various needs. (Pg. 68-74, 118-23)
Third, Schaeffer encouraged to “go on” speaking about Jesus and Scripture, even if it seems those who listen, believe, and turn to Jesus are few and far between. It is the encouragement to be faithful and not worry about “the world’s concept of success.” At the end of one of his lectures, Schaeffer passionately said: “My last sentence is simply this: The world is lost, the God of the Bible does exist; the world is lost, but truth is truth, keep on! And for how long? I’ll tell you. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, and then keep on!”
The above pagination is from the third printing of Death in the City by Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.