In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.
Over time, as those friends came and enjoyed the warmth of their home and the delights of hospitality, they began discussing religion and philosophy with the pastor. In time, these friends brought more friends who brought more friends. And soon this family, the Schaeffers, had students living with them long-term, assisting with the work of the home while also having liberty to study the questions of interest to them and to discuss those studies with Francis Schaeffer, the pastor first sent to Europe seven years before by the BPC.
In time, this work matured into the ministry known as L’Abri, which continues today in branches around the world in South Korea, Brazil, Australia, and Switzerland, amongst others. What’s interesting about L’Abri is that it represents an evangelical take on the Benedict Option–and that it began 29 years before MacIntyre’s After Virtue was published which of course is where the term “Benedict Option” comes from in the first place.
Briefly stated, the Benedict Option is the idea that Christians should selectively withdraw from mainstream American culture in order to live a life of simple Christian piety and virtue–something which is rendered far more difficult by proximity to mainstream American cultural values and norms. In his AmCon feature, Dreher defines it as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.”
L’Abri in many ways fits that definition: A student’s typical day at L’Abri is spent working around the property, sharing meals with the other students and workers, discussing topics of interest with workers and students, and taking time for quiet reading and reflection on one’s own. Noticeably absent from the routine is internet access, TV, or extensive involvement in the surrounding community outside of L’Abri. During my time as a student there, I didn’t check email or read anything online for the duration of my stay.
Yet what makes L’Abri so interesting as a model for the Benedict Option is its openness, a value not inimical to the Benedict approach but one certainly not often discussed by its proponents. L’Abri is a place where literally anyone can come and join the life of the community. During my time there I roomed with one student who was a fairly convinced evangelical and four or five other men who didn’t really know what they thought of Christianity, but were there because they were curious. The women there were similarly diverse–young Christian women from home-schooling families with close L’Abri ties to a singer-songwriter from Amsterdam (who was Christian) to a ballet dancer from the upper midwest who, at the time, was not Christian. My roommate and the guy I was probably closest to during my term now describes himself–last I heard anyway–as a “Lockean realist.”
What sustains the life at L’Abri then is not that the community is closed or that it has many gatekeepers that ensure only a select group of people can enter into it. L’Abri tends to be rather allergic to such things. (The Benedict Option doesn’t require such an approach, of course, but one can detect a certain exclusivity in the language used to describe it by some.) Rather, it’s the quiet confidence embodied by the leadership in the goodness of the Christian way of life and their desire to invite others into that way, regardless of whether or not they actually believe in the claims of Christianity. The effect, as I mentioned the other day, is that non-Christian students experience the fruits of Christianity while they wrestle with the claims of Christianity.
L’Abri then, seems a fine example of the posture Matt has called for so regularly in this space–a purposeful walking away from mainstream American culture, not with angry shouts of protest, but whistling a tune as we merrily march out toward an alternative Christian community. It also highlights the need for confidence in our proclamation of the gospel. L’Abri works because the workers do not feel threatened by alternative truth claims or alternative ways of life. Nor do they waver in their commitment to Christian orthodoxy in some misguided attempt to build bridges. They are crystal clear on what they believe–and couldn’t be happier about it.
In one of his poems James Wright describes a blue jay hopping up and down on a branch: “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself to entire delight, for he knows as well as I do that the branch will not break.” It’s this laughter flowing from quiet confidence that chiefly marks L’Abri–and that must chiefly mark our churches in the years to come.