Not Your Father's L'Abri
Amelia Hendrix, a tall brunette and the daughter of a Presbyterian Church in America minister, has spent her life as "a poster child for the church." Toward the end of her four years at the University of Tennessee, however, that role proved harder to play. Her "Christian bubble" dissipated as friends from church got married, and she found herself befriending people with different values: non-Christians, gay students, and pot smokers at the record store where she worked.
At university, Amelia took classes on modern American religion. "That was eye-opening," she said. "I did a lot on Jerry Falwell, the conservative party, and the consolidating of the Christian right. It made me question everything I'd been taught. I was raised conservative, pro-life, anti-gay; I was taught that Christians should be in power. I came out thinking nothing I was taught had been right."
When Amelia graduated last December, she told her father she was thinking of going to L'Abri, the Christian study center and commune in the Swiss Alps founded by celebrity apologist Francis Schaeffer. "When I brought up the idea, Dad said, 'That's great, I love Schaeffer,'" she said.
If her father remembers L'Abri as it was when Schaeffer was alivea place where thoughtful young Christians went to breathe the fortifying Alpine air and to sit at the feet of their goateed guruAmelia embodies what L'Abri has become: a community ambivalent about Schaeffer's legacy and ill at ease with mainstream evangelical culture. Half a century after L'Abri's founding and more than 20 years after Schaeffer's death, students come with very different questions, and they look askance at the politicized faith that Schaeffer helped create.
From Radical to Politico
Shortly after Francis and Edith Schaeffer came to Switzerland as Presbyterian missionaries, their eldest daughter, Prisca, began bringing college friends home to talk with her father about religion. Word spread of Edith's hospitality and Francis's willingness to take on questions that many Christians avoided. The stream of visitors grew, and L'Abri was born.
Between L'Abri's 1955 founding and the early 1970s, the ministry attracted European students schooled in modern philosophy and existentialism, as well as young Americans backpacking through Europe. "At that time, you would have found a countercultural temperament at L'Abri," said Ronald Wells, professor emeritus at Calvin College, who visited three times in the late 1960s. "You know the old joketen ponytails, but only three women."
Once a fundamentalist who worked with Carl McIntire, Schaeffer at this time believed a true Christian spirit demanded that he and Edith welcome into their homeand admit that they might learn fromyoung people trying to square the Bible with Sartre and Kierkegaard. Timothy Leary, countercultural icon and proponent of lsd's spiritual benefits, visited twice.
The atmosphere at L'Abri changed as Schaeffer's profile among evangelical Americans rose. In 1965, Harold O. J. Brown, then minister at Park Street Church in Boston, arranged for Schaeffer to give a series of lectures in the area, followed by a visit to Wheaton College. The lectures were unlike anything his audiences had heard before. Using his famous "line of despair" diagram to trace the decline of the West, Schaeffer wove thinkers as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and Karl Barth into a confident narrative that sought to demolish modern secular philosophy and vindicate Christianity.
"He was talking about [filmmakers] Fellini and Bergman when Wheaton required students not to see films," said Greg Laughery, L'Abri's current director. Wells recalled, "We didn't so much listen as levitate."