Laurel Gasque is the Associate Editor of ArtWay and the author of Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker. She is also sessional lecturer in theology and the arts at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. and adjunct professor of art history at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., Canada.
A European Continental reading of Rookmaaker is needed. So much of what has been written about him offers an American perspective on a person whose thinking was formed outside of American culture, even to some degree outside of Western culture since Rookmaaker’s formative years were spent in the Dutch East Indies.
This, together with a tendency to associate Rookmaaker with theological and philosophical thinkers, has masked his unique voice as an art critic and art historian informed by a Christian perspective. Co-opting him to a specific theological perspective is not helpful for understanding his thinking, the dialogue between art and faith or the wider world of art today. Rookmaaker needs to be seen in his own right. In his time he was not separated from the world of the art that he talked about as are most of those who comment on him today.
The Calvinist thinkers he is attached to, such as Francis Schaeffer and Calvin Seerveld, had a different background. Schaeffer was very much an American, though he lived the better part of his adult life in Europe. Seerveld, though American, has lived in Canada for decades. Providentially, Seerveld’s immigrant family gave him the gift of speaking Dutch and becoming multilingual. Schaeffer was monolingual, despite his living in Switzerland. Rookmaaker was multilingual, something that has escaped his Anglophone critics, who have barely read his Complete Works translated into English for their convenience.
Schaeffer and Rookmaaker met in 1948 through Rookmaaker’s fiancée, Anky Huitker, who arranged a meeting for Hans with Schaeffer when he was in Amsterdam to help convene a meeting of the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), a Fundamentalist response to the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Rookmaaker was ten years younger than Schaeffer, still a graduate student. There is no doubt that his meeting with Schaeffer had an enormous impact on both of their lives. Their first encounter started with what was to be a half-hour long conversation that was supposed to help Rookmaaker learn about black music in America. (It is doubtful that Schaeffer knew a thing about this subject!) Their discussion ended at 4:00 AM! To his credit, it seems that Schaeffer listened to this young man and thus received his first lesson in the history of jazz, blues and spirituals, but also in modern art as well.
There was definitely a meeting of minds as the two men entered into what was to become a life-long friendship, but this was not a systematic, symbiotic way of thinking that led to a joint intellectual project between the two men. Rookmaaker, in fact, became Schaeffer’s tutor in art. Again, to Schaeffer’s credit, he listened as best he could. But he was already formed by both the American Christian Fundamentalism of Carl McIntire as well as the philosophical apologetics of Cornelius van Til, his teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
There is no doubt that Rookmaaker appreciated having an older friend who opened him to a wider world of English speakers. But he always remained his own man. The bond between Rookmaaker and Schaeffer was deep. However, they were quite different from each other. Heartfelt friendship does not necessarily mean total agreement, even when deep values and beliefs are held in common. We see this, for example, in the profound friendship of C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield.
Schaeffer was an American evangelist with a Fundamentalist formation who was also an intellectual. Rookmaaker was a European intellectual with a Reformed formation who was in his own way an evangelist. Artists and art students came to faith after many of his lectures. Rookmaaker was certainly not trying to recruit converts, but his presentations were convincing. Schaeffer and Rookmaaker complemented each other in an extraordinary way that affected the actual lives of many people for much good.
Intellectually, they must be considered independently from each other in order to appreciate and to appropriate the direction in which Rookmaaker was heading. He was not the rationalist that Schaeffer tended to be. Before Rookmaaker died in 1977 he had some Schaefferites worried about the direction of his thinking. He was grounded and thinking on a number of fronts. He was not afraid to go where many now associated with post-modernism are in their critique of modernity. He equally espoused art creation by Christians in the contemporary world without any kind of control or constrictions on style. To that end he mentored artists and cared lovingly for his art historian students, even when they did not understand clearly his formation, direction and mission.
The personal bond of friendship between Schaeffer and Rookmaaker must remain intact, but the intellectual trajectories of the two men must be separated in order to have a clearer idea of who Rookmaaker really was and what he actually thought and achieved.