Not Your Father's L'Abri
Alumni from decades past who have visited recently say they notice a change. "The people here when I've been visiting are not as serious," said Kyle McCormick, who first came in 1982. Of course, everyone seems to believe that L'Abri was at its best when they were there. The faddish intellectualism of L'Abri's earliest years must be taken with a grain of salt. But current workers agree that, as Laughery put it, "the emphasis has shifted to personal issues, which people less readily see as related to ideas."
The workers, who meet with students one-on-one each week to guide their studies, struggle to pull them out of their own heads. "For a lot of people, [L'Abri] is more about personal spirituality, which makes sensethat's the way religion is branded in the U.S.," said Jasie Peltier, a tall blonde from Houston who became a Christian at L'Abri when she came four years ago. Peltier tutors mostly female students, and though she'd prefer to talk about philosophy and theology, she usually ends up talking about boys. "No one has a clue what 'authenticity' is," she said. "They think it's spilling your guts, purging. They think, I'm going to be real here, and being real means sharing, over-sharing." In the evenings, students crowd into the small office on the first floor, which houses a single computer open for use after dinner. They squeeze onto the futon and sit cross-legged on the floor, swapping stories about past romances, crushes, and relationships gone sour.
Workers say this slumber-party atmosphere often fades a month or so after the start of each term, as students settle in and begin to confront their real reasons for taking several months off from school or work to come to L'Abri. Between peeling potatoes, hacking at weeds, and laughing through volleyball games on the grassy court overlooking the valley, students explore their faith (or lack of itthe occasional atheist finds his way here) by means very different from the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer. Those few students who have read any of his books consider him largely obsolete. The modernist philosophy that he targeted in most of his writings, the bogeyman of existentialism, is passé. "Now the question is, Is there truth at all?" said worker Thomas Rauchenstein, a soft-spoken Canadian with sandy brown hair and a close-cropped beard. "Postmodernism's critique of truth is more of a factor in students' thinking."
During one lunch at L'Abri, Rauchenstein led a discussion of biblical inerrancy over ham sandwiches on homemade bread (despite its meager budget of 2 Swiss Francs per person, per meal, L'Abri feeds visitors well). Students hunched forward in their chairs. They offered ideas about what it meant to interpret the Bible literally or call Scripture inerrant. Some strayed into fairly liberal territory; a quiet Presbyterian boy sitting across from me, fresh out of Southeastern Bible College, looked stricken.
No one, however, challenged the idea that the central events of the Gospels are literally true. Indeed, a few of the students told me afterward that they wished more atheists were around, like in the old days. Rachel Davies, 23, a Seventh-day Adventist from Washington State who heard about L'Abri from a pastor who came in the 1970s, said she'd expected "a backpacker atmosphere and hippies. When I walked in, I was taken aback by all the Christian people. I saw the crosses dangling around their necks, and I thought, This will be different from what I expected."