- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

L’Abri, the Swiss-based community that has served as an intellectual center for evangelical Christianity, celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend

in St. Louis with a conference for many of the former hippies and students who found faith within its walls.

More than 1,000 people are expected at the conference about L’Abri, which means “the shelter” in French. It began in March 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer, a Presbyterian missionary couple living near Lausanne, were forced by Swiss authorities either to buy a chalet or leave the country.

At the last minute, enough money came through to buy the three-story Chalet les Melezes in the mountain village of Huemoz. What seemed like a rushed purchase in the face of an immigration problem turned out to be the founding of a movement that sent thousands of Christians into politics and the arts with the hope of influencing the world for their faith.

“Perhaps no intellectual save C.S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole,” former University of Notre Dame professor Michael Hamilton wrote in a 1997 piece on Mr. Schaeffer in Christianity Today.

Mr. Schaeffer’s writings are credited with giving an intellectual boost to evangelical Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century. His simple Christian study center overlooking the Rhone Valley has mushroomed into a network of communities in England, Korea, the Netherlands, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Sweden and a new one near Vancouver, British Columbia, which is being overseen by Maggie Curry, the couple’s granddaughter.

Soon after the Schaeffers bought their chalet, their eldest daughter, Priscilla, began inviting home fellow students from the University of Lausanne. These were Europeans steeped in the philosophies of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Heidegger and Sartre.

As students discussed their despair and search for meaning, Mr. Schaeffer taught basic Christian doctrine. Students began flooding the place, with up to 25 of them staying every weekend by 1957. Six other chalets were added, and L’Abri developed a program of lectures, discussions and worship, coupled with half-days of doing chores.

In the fall of 1960, Jim Hurley, a 16-year-old American agnostic studying at a nearby Swiss private school, dropped by “to laugh at the fundamentalists.”

“He was talking about a God he knew,” he remembers of Mr. Schaeffer. “He believed in people having honest questions and him giving honest answers. There weren’t any unfair questions [or] unaskable questions.”

Mr. Hurley became a Christian the next spring and is now a family therapist teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss.

“Schaeffer was really good at seeing the framework from where a worldview operates,” he said. “Buddhists, materialists, existentialists: He’d walk up to where they were, look at the skeleton of their intellectual framework, help them think through the implications, then bring his Christian faith to where they were.”

Dick Keyes, who directs the Massachusetts L’Abri, arrived in Lausanne in 1964 while avoiding the draft.

“People from all the world were there,” he says. “The food was good and it was cheap. But I got a lot more than I bargained for. I heard Schaeffer talk and I realized he was putting all sorts of pieces together: philosophy, theology and art history. But I was afraid of God being Lord over different areas of your life.”

After a year, he converted to Christianity. “I realized I believed all this stuff,” he said. “The world without it was more implausible than the world with it.”

Bill Edgar, a music major from Harvard University, was bicycling through Europe when he discovered L’Abri in 1964.

L’Abri “changed my whole life,” he says. “It gave me meaning and a sense of calling, straightened me out morally, and it changed my professional direction.” He now teaches philosophy and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

He credits Mrs. Schaeffer, who “took care of hundreds of people who came through there. Her hospitality was extraordinary, and without her, L’Abri would not have been as successful.”

Internet journalist David Virtue, then a student from New Zealand studying in London, remembers the hospitality as the crowning point of his 1965 visit to this “Christian guru tucked away in the Swiss Alps.”

“Not only was Reformation theology being espoused and defended against existential despair,” he wrote years later in the journal Touchstone, but “L’Abri, as a Christian community, was in some ways a more powerful apologetic statement than all the theology and philosophy that flowed from Schaeffer’s tapes and lectures.”

Also in 1965, Mr. Schaeffer caused a sensation at the evangelically based Wheaton College near Chicago.

“At Wheaton College, students were fighting to show films like ‘Bambi’ while Francis was talking about the films of Bergman and Fellini,” Mr. Hamilton wrote, referring to Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. “Administrators were censoring existential themes out of student publications while Francis was discussing Camus, Sartre and Heidegger. He quoted Dylan Thomas, knew the artwork of Salvador Dali, listened to the music of the Beatles and John Cage.”

The visitors increased after Mrs. Schaeffer’s 1969 book “L’Abri,” was published. One was Nancy Pearcey, a student in Heidelberg, Germany, who encountered L’Abri in 1971 as an agnostic.

She converted to Christianity later that year, then returned to L’Abri in late 1972. Today she is a writer and scholar living in Woodbridge as well as the Francis A. Schaeffer scholar at the Asheville, N.C.-based World Journalism Institute.

“The campus group I was part of had no concept of how to answer intellectual questions,” she said. “L’Abri was the only place I could find people who could show Christianity is really true and that it can stand up to the challenges of the academic world.”

Together, the Schaeffer couple produced nearly 30 books. Mr. Schaeffer died of cancer in 1984. His wife lives with a daughter in Switzerland.

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