Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


E.M. Reitsema - Friendship between FAS and HRR

The Intriguing Friendship between Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker

by Edith M. Reitsema, 2006
When I first met Peter Smith he reminded me of my father, in the sense that he is somebody who has been strongly influenced by a great thinker, and the influence goes so deep that he sometimes finds himself choosing to dress in a similar style to the man he admires. Peter Smith as an artist has been encouraged and inspired by Hans Rookmaaker, and so the first time I met him he had a tidy suit on. My father, Arie Reitsema who is a missionary in Africa, was profoundly shaped by Francis Schaeffer’s thinking, and so especially in the winter months he tends to wear corduroy knickerbockers with long socks.
This is to me a clear example of who both Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker were. They were both men whose insights made lasting impressions and had life changing effects on the people they came into contact with. They were both men who had vibrant personalities with a striking charisma flowing forth from their faith convictions. In 1948 in Amsterdam, in a Europe still reeling from World War Two, 26 year old Hans Rookmaaker met 36 year old Francis Schaeffer. It was a happy meeting and the start of a lifelong friendship and collaboration. - Intriguing that two such strong characters would form such a lasting friendship. Perhaps it was because they each had their own particular focus that their bond was so strong. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was a Christian apologist whose remarkable breadth of cultural interest and penetrating insights into modern life, led many to a profound spiritual reality. Hans Rookmaaker (1922-1977) was an art historian whose Christian insights in art, music and culture influenced many. However, not only did these two great thinkers have strong personal convictions, they also had a powerful impact on each other. This is what makes their friendship so mysterious.
Both Schaeffer and Rookmaaker came to faith in their early adulthood through reading the Bible. This gave them their own fresh approach to the truth – which for both of them surprisingly ended up being a Reformed worldview. They both came from non-believing families. Schaeffer came from a poor family in Philadelphia, in the United States. And Rookmaaker came from a rich, colonial family in the East Indies, schooled in the Netherlands.
Schaeffer and Rookmaaker were an amazing marriage of minds. They were both remarkable popularizers, in that they had a vision for intellectual depth, but had the longing to be very accessible to non-specialists in their ideas. They had their own unique way of thinking. They each had a mind of their own – but it was exceptional. Both of them used art forms to show the course of history. Not only Rookmaaker, but also Schaeffer in his work, acknowledges the philosophical cutting edge of art – that it is “avant-garde”, if you like - up front in expressing the inner feelings and moral habits of our day, whether the artist is consciously aware of his task or not. This makes philosophy (almost) as important a discipline for the artist as the use of light in his work.
There was massive cross-pollination between Rookmaaker and Schaeffer. The most obvious being how Schaeffer influenced Rookmaaker to integrate his worldview into more concrete life, hence Rookmaaker’s starting the Dutch L’Abri community. And you can also see Rookmaaker’s influence on Schaeffer in the choice of art works Schaeffer used in one of his major works, How Should We Then Live. Both Schaeffer’s and Rookmaaker’s works encourage us to engage with reality. This is a thread which weaves its way through all of their work. Their work expresses the deep longing for people to have not only a real encounter with reality, but through that encounter also to realize their need for a relationship with their Creator. Both Schaeffer and Rookmaaker had an aversion to subcultures, and in particular to Christian jargon. They objected to religious answers that did not manage to convey their content to their audience. They both emphasize the fact that being a Christian makes a person more fully human, and that this should be visible in every aspect of our lives. As Schaeffer describes:
“Yet, when a man comes under the blood of Christ, his whole capacity as man is refashioned. His soul is saved, yes, but so are his mind and body. As Christians we are to look to Christ day by day, for Christ will produce his fruit through us. True spirituality means the Lordship of Christ over the total man”.[1]
Rookmaaker makes this idea clear when he applies it to art:
“When we ask for Christian activity in the arts we are not calling for a sectarian style, the art of a subculture. We ask for art that is fully art, which springs from the fullness of what we are, and which takes into account the whole reality in which we live, a reality immeasurably greater than simply the total of nature plus man. Such art will express joy and beauty, it will give honour and praise – but it will never close its eyes to sin and misery. It will be an art born of the freedom given to man by God. Art should be a form of play, rejoicing before the face of God”.[2]
This can be compared with what Schaeffer wrote in his booklet, Art and the Bible in which he says that it is impossible in one piece of art “to reflect the totality of an artist’s view of reality”. And yet our view of the world can be expressed in the “body of an artist’s work”.[3] And in that worldview Schaeffer challenges us to make a distinction between the major themes and minor themes in works of art. The minor theme is the brokenness of the world, and the hopelessness and sinfulness of this world. The major theme is an expression of morality in art. This is an expression of God’s character, a reflection of who God is. The possibility of not only acknowledging the minor theme in art, but also expressing something of the major theme – that there is a right from wrong, and that there is a possibility for justice amidst the brokenness of life, is an exciting challenge for us to communicate, as we reflect God’s image: as we attempt to use the structure of our work to say something true about Him.
Interestingly, when Rookmaaker lectured on Art Needs No Justification[4] he challenged what Schaeffer had said about revealing the positive and negative in art[5]. Rookmaaker says that you always have to be positive in art, that you can only be positive if you show that the negative is wrong. Showing the negative for what it is, negative. In this way, Rookmaaker does some maths, a negative plus a negative equals a positive. He urges us to fight against the evil and expose evil as such. This does not mean that we have to make it too obvious. Rookmaaker jokes that we are often worried that people won’t understand, but they’re usually more clever than we are ourselves. He is not just talking about the themes, the subject matter, but he is talking about the motive, the meaning which is behind the art. The message which is in its form. The question is, what is communicated? You show an attitude and mentality through the form, which should be: love your neighbour. Rookmaaker advises us to judge art on the basis of the meaning of things, and the communication of that. You should always be careful to judge art by what it wants to say, and not by what it portrays. Beauty in art is related to the reality it depicts. Good art is having a good grasp of reality. If you tell a lie about reality and you try to do it beautifully, it becomes really ugly.
In this differentiation it sounds to me as if Rookmaaker assesses art on the basis of reality and our need to engage with it, and to see its beauty, while Schaeffer assesses art on the basis of morality, God’s existence and creativity. In trying to help artists myself, I have tended towards finding Schaeffer’s wording slightly more helpful here. But in essence they’re approaching the same issue from different sides. The way in which both Schaeffer and Rookmaaker talk about beauty, shows the “dance” between these two people’s ideas, and their appreciation of life. Rookmaaker said:
“Art is the ability to make something beautiful (as well as useful), just as God made the world beautiful and said, “It is good”. Art as such needs no justification; rather it demands a response”.[6]
And Schaeffer’s value for beauty is clear when he says:
“When I was younger, I thought it was wrong to use the word create in reference to works of art. I thought it ought to be used solely in relation to what God can do. Later, I saw that I was desperately wrong; I am now convinced that it is important to understand that both God and man create. Both make something. The distinction is this: God, because he is infinite, can create out of nothing by his spoken word. We, because we are finite, must create from something else that has already been created. Yet the word create is appropriate, for it suggests that what man does with what is already there is to make something new. Something that was not there before, something that began as an un-mannish part of reality, is transformed by the mannishness of man and now reflects that mannishness … It is worth man’s while to create works upon the basis of the great works God has already created”.[7]
What a challenge to be called to respond to God’s creation - to create things that resound with the beauty of God’s creation in freedom and love - communicating to the “watching world”!

[1] Art and the Bible, 1973:8.
[2] The Creative Gift, 1981:103-104
[3] 1973:37,56-57.
[4] English L’Abri Fellowship X582.
[5] Although he did acknowledge that it might just have been a matter of definition.
[6] The Creative Gift, 1981:113
[7] Art and the Bible, 1973:35;60.