ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

LAbri for Beginners

L'Abri for Beginners

by Pat Harvey

On Saturday 22nd October, 2016 nearly 40 ACG (Arts Centre Group) members and friends along with special guests gathered in Covent Garden, London for a unique event that told the story of the community founded in Switzerland during the 1950s by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Producer and host for the day, Pat Harvey, offers a review of this memorable day.   

Back Row: Jim Paul, Marsh Moyle Front Row: Nigel Halliday, Nigel Goodwin, Julia Bicknell, Pat Harvey, Ally Gordon, Steve Turner 

This event was billed as ‘taking the lid off a unique organisation which has always welcomed artists. The first session, Portrait of a Couple, was opened by artist Deirdre Ducker who recalled how, as a boarder at a finishing school in the Swiss village of Champéry, she first met the Schaeffers - ‘I was there before L’Abri.’  

She told how, in his squeaky American voice, Francis Schaeffer taught Sunday School in the English-speaking village church before being threatened with expulsion for teaching Protestantism in a Roman Catholic canton, and how, once settled in Huémoz in the Protestant canton of Vaux, the work of L’Abri really commenced, as his daughters invited student friends home for discussions, and Edith plied them with frosted cream cakes; a luxury not lost on Deirdre and her new husband, who arrived from post-war British rationing to be the very first ‘L’Abri Students’.  

Cynthia Kim, also an artist, recalls her astonishment at hearing, at one of the discussions held in a flat in London, a Christian man discoursing about Leonardo and Michelangelo. And the spectacle of Edith pouring tiny cups of coffee at four o’ clock because lunch, garnished with linen napkins and served to several nationalities, had lasted three hours.  

Barry Seagren, a student at Covenant Seminary in 1967, told how he and his fellow students were “gobsmacked”. He had been getting what he considered a respectable theological education, but “Schaeffer opened the doors quite a lot wider”. He told of Schaeffer’s high seriousness, even to the point of being a depressive who struggled with low mood, to the point where he would rely on his intellectual certainty about a God whom he deeply loved but often perceived only dimly. By contrast, his wife Edith was ‘a human dynamo’, whose energy, faith and vitality few people could keep up with.  

In session 2 missionary-in-residence Marsh Moyle, outlined what he called The Big Ideas. These include Francis Schaeffer’s overriding respect for what he liked to call ‘true truth’.  Not some religious truth, but ‘truth to the whole of reality’: the reality of what is there. There is only one reason to believe in Christianity, and that is because it is true. If it isn’t true everywhere, it isn’t true anywhere. Secondly, Christ is Lord of the whole of reality - not just the religious parts. Thirdly, ever since the Enlightenment, when reason was no longer subject to revelation, nature has become increasingly autonomous, so that it swallows up grace; thus resulting in man being seen as a machine. The answer to this has often been an irrational leap of faith - or mysticism - resulting in a split reality. Fourthly, ‘ideas have legs’; presuppositions have the power to shape reality, be it political, social, philosophical or practical. There is no other choice: man is either the result of an impersonal beginning plus matter plus time plus chance - and hence a machine with no meaning - or he is personal: the voluntary creation of a personal God.  

Art historian Nigel Halliday introduced The Rookmaaker Dimension, a reference to Professor Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch art historian who, while interned in the war, read the Bible, had access to Dutch Reformed philosophy, became a Christian, and came to hold a strongly reformed faith, which deeply informed his understanding of art history resulting in ideas which closely echoed those of Schaeffer. These included ‘All of reality belongs to Jesus; all of life is worship; we serve God in everything we do, including the arts.’ The two men met in 1948, and were greatly to influence one another – to the point where Rookmaaker – or ‘Rooky’ as he was known to his fans –  became a member of L’Abri. In particular, Rookmaaker helped Schaeffer develop a visual sensibility; and, most certainly, to mitigate the typically American evangelical averseness to art of any kind. 

In Bridgebuilding, actor and Arts Centre Group co-founder Nigel Goodwin described his personal odyssey; from being ‘zapped’ when he became a Christian on Wimbledon Common in 1957, to sitting in a café on a Swiss mountainside as a couple in lederhosen walked in whom he thought looked ‘interesting’. It was Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and ‘we started a conversation which lasted until their death’. Arriving at L’Abri during a time of personal turmoil (a broken engagement), he immediately became aware of ‘a family’, where ‘food was really important to conversation’ and of ‘the ferment of that place, but also the safety of that place’. L’Abri became a lifeline for Nigel, helping him to ‘re-shape his foundation’, and to ‘think Christianly’. In the words of Rookmaaker, ‘Christ did not die to make us Christians; he died to make us human’.  

 Or as Nigel puts it, “We are all being moulded by Christ; his artwork, his theatre”. In 1964, he had had a dream – of a room in a city – filled with painters, poets and musicians, ‘eating, laughing and crying together’– which he shared with other artists, including the newly converted Cliff Richard (who had been told he must forsake rock ’n’ roll and teach Religious Studies). Seven years, much prayer and many Chinese meals (Cliff’s favourite food) later, Nigel and his new wife Gilly moved into Hornton Place, and people were soon pouring through the doors in their hundreds – the first members of the Arts Centre Group. To the perennial (and according to Nigel, dumb) question, ‘Can I be a Christian and an artist?’, Nigel’s answer remains: ‘Dare I not be?’

In Current Players, three people shared the part that L’Abri had played in their creative journey.  

Artist Kaori Homma, who grew up in a Japanese Christian family, but found no way of reconciling her new-found faith with her desire to study Fine Art at Tokyo University, described a feeling of ‘total vindication’ as, at the suggestion of a friend, she read Escape from Reason (Schaeffer) and Art Needs No Justification (Rookmaaker), and how, as a member of All Souls’ Church she went on to embrace John Stott’s notion of ‘double listening’: to the Bible and to the surrounding culture. This in turn inspired her to respond to her country’s triple catastrophe of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima – both in her art work and by founding Art Action – a project partnered by the ACG to enable Japanese artist residencies in the UK.  

Contemporary painter Ally Gordon shared how his early appreciation of Schaeffer and Rookmaaker’s books was rounded out by eight years as a UCCF staff worker – allowing wide reading (on the long train journeys) and rich interaction with art students. Ally described this experience as ‘almost like a second art school’ as he mastered the thought-forms of post-modernism and became equipped for a robust dialogue with the tutors on his MA course at Wimbledon; many of whom became friends. Ally’s paintings, with their staggering realism, draw on a 17th-century Northern European form of artistic illusionism known as quod libet – or ‘what you will’ – which refers to humble objects tossed down on to a table. In contrast to contemporary Catholic portrayals of Christ, the saints and mythological characters, it references the Reformation view of reality that all is sacred. Ally, the ‘King of Masking Tape’, frequently paints this mundane material, even the bits discarded after finishing a painting. He currently has 12 varieties in his studio. 

The third Current Player was poet, biographer and music journalist Steve Turner. He told how, having been prodded by Nigel Goodwin and his brown paperback copy of The God Who Is There in the 60’s, with its mention of Dylan Thomas, John Cage and the Beatles, he thought ‘This is definitely for me’, and set off for three months at L’Abri. Already enjoying some success as a journalist, he nevertheless lacked role-models for his desire to work in the secular media; the standard reaction being, ‘There are some good Christian publications around now!’ He was impressed with Schaeffer’s humility as he sat on the chapel floor during discussions and advised that Steve should never degrade opposing views. Asked to recount a memorable experience, he replied, ‘I’m not namedropping; but it regards Paul McCartney.’ Speaking to Paul’s brother on the phone, he heard him say, ‘I’ll have to ask our kid’. Next was the Beatle himself: ‘You’re the Catholic poet, aren’t you?’    

In L’Abri Today, Jim Paul, director of English L’Abri at Greatham, Hampshire, took the floor. In keeping with the theme of the day, he confirmed that artists need l’Abri and L’Abri needs artists more than ever. It is still ‘a safe space’. There is even more fragmentation and disintegration of our culture than in Schaeffer’s time. For example, people are deeply suspicious of ‘ideas’. Many even have no notion of doctrine or history (for example, at a recent L’Abri discussion, 8 out of 10 people at the table had never heard of the Reformation) – but if they see something, they get interested. To the digital generation, Descartes’ dictum ‘I think therefore I am’ has been replaced with ‘I am seen therefore I am’. Hence the rise of the ‘selfie’. We, particularly young people, are also increasingly emotionally driven: witness The X Factor. There is a hunger for the transcendent. That is why sport is so popular: because it is a place where we worship; where we gain ecstatic experience.  

What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent; to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice? There is a sense, said Jim, in which ‘the world is the salt and light of the church’! And he pointed out that a lot of OT prophets were performance artists, the Gilbert & George of the biblical world. How about Jeremiah: ‘Go and buy a jar of clay, and smash the jar’? 

The final session, Assessing the Legacy, was chaired by ex-BBC journalist Julia Bicknell. How relevant is L’Abri in the 21st century? Ally Gordon: ‘Any organisation that champions the lordship of Christ over the whole of life will always be relevant’. Nigel G: ‘Present yourselves a living sacrifice . . be transformed . . have a Babette’s Feast together’; Nigel H: ‘I’ve drifted into church leadership. We are good at keeping our teenagers because we refuse to be shocked; giving honest answers to honest questions’. Jim P: ‘We don’t make strategic plans. It’s very counter-cultural.’ 

But the last word has to go to Nigel G: ‘You can flee technology but it’s here. How can you embrace it – but not be embraced by it? Christ did not look at his Rolex and say ‘Three weeks to Jerusalem.’


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