Cover Story

Taking the roof off

"Taking the roof off" Continued...

Issue: "Francis Schaeffer's legacy," March 26, 2005

Workshops focused on the various facets of "The Central Themes of L'Abri," "Transforming All of Life," and "True Spirituality." The evenings closed with classical music concerts.

But unlike most idea-packed conferences, the program also scheduled in time for fellowship: an hour and a half devoted to lunch; 30 minutes between sessions; free afternoons and early evenings so people had time to talk. People who had grown close in the Christian community of L'Abri but who had not seen each other for decades hugged and laughed and resumed their conversations. Family members recalled the early days. Mr. Macaulay said the Schaeffers cleared out the furniture, set up chairs, and made elaborate preparations in their chalet, while Schaeffer, wearing a black suit, preached a brilliant sermon-all for three people. Mr. Macaulay remembers thinking, "Oh, if everybody could hear this!" In those days, he said, it was exciting when 10 people showed up at L'Abri.

At first Schaeffer resisted taping the lectures, fearing it would spoil his spontaneity. But one day his daughter Susan surreptitiously hid in an ivy plant a microphone attached to her portable cassette player. The tapes circulated in student groups in England, creating a demand for more tapes and a steady supply of L'Abri pilgrims. Eventually, he turned some of his lectures into books.

More and more people-students, hippies, homosexual priests, drug addicts, and other wanderers trying to "find themselves"-sought out this "shelter" in the mountains. Some stayed for a few weeks, others for several months. By the 1970s, several hundred might be there at a time, staying in chalets built on the expanding property above a switchback mountain road.

Schaeffer exchanged his American preacher's black suit for lederhosen and a walking stick. He engaged visitors in personal discussions fed also by the growing number of L'Abri workers who joined in the ministry. Visitors took part in the life of the community, eating meals together, doing physical labor, studying the Bible, prizing deep conversations, and walking in the mountains. This remains the pattern today in the L'Abri branches around the world, except that Schaeffer is heard only on tape.

In the course of 50 years, according to Larry Snyder, director of Rochester L'Abri, no one knows how many people went through L'Abri. No one kept records. What mattered then-and is evident now (see sidebar)-is that L'Abri was a life-changing experience.

Schaeffer persuaded nonbelievers to face up to the contradictions in their own worldviews by revealing their inability to account for what is most important in life (love, beauty, meaning). He would, as he described it, "take the roof off," bringing the nonbeliever almost to the point of despair, to acknowledge his lost condition. Then he applied the gospel of Christ. While conversant in the theology of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, Schaeffer was captive only to the worldview set forth in the Bible-God's good creation, man's fall into sin and its consequences, the redemption through Christ-which he said accords with reality in all of its dimensions. Nonbelievers cannot bring themselves to be completely consistent with their own presuppositions, an inconsistency that is a result of common grace. "Thus, illogically," he wrote in 1948, "men have in their accepted worldviews various amounts of that which is ours. But, illogical though it may be, it is there and we can appeal to it."

Even with hostile visitors, Mr. Barrs said, Schaeffer "had an acute sense of people's brokenness and fallenness," and "thus would treat them with compassion."

Out of those encounters grew a body of written work: Escape from Reason (1968), True Spirituality (1971), and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972). Schaeffer developed extraordinarily fruitful concepts: how human beings need both "form and freedom"; how people today compartmentalize their lives into a meaningless objective "lower story" (the realm of science and fact) and a mystical, nonrational "upper story" of subjectivity and emotion (which becomes the realm of religion, aesthetics, and morality); how human beings are sinful and broken due to the Fall, yet how at the same time human beings have an intrinsic value and dignity, bearing the image of God.

Those concepts-fueled by practical discussions and communal living at L'Abri-quickly gathered public momentum. Before L'Abri, many conservative Protestants had no problem with legalizing abortion, considering it a Catholic issue and responding out of a knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. But the Schaeffers showed that abortion-along with the growing acceptance of euthanasia and the coming genetic engineering-constitutes a horrible assault on all that it means to be human. With the book and video series How Should We Then Live? (1976) and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), Schaeffer's ideas spread to a broader audience. With A Christian Manifesto (1981), he called evangelicals to the fight against abortion and to political activism to reverse what he saw as the trend toward both moral anarchy and political tyranny.


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