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Friday, January 19, 2018

Frumpy in the extreme

We build lousy modern churches because we don’t believe in the power of art.

The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin (Courtesy Wikipedia)
One of the joys of being an intellectual mynah bird is that people lob the most interesting ideas my way. Yesterday someone said, “You know what makes me sad? The lack of passion in modern church design.” She is right. Modern American church design is frumpy in the extreme.

Consider Canterbury Cathedral, consecrated in 1070 AD. It’s meant to reach up to the heavens, while at the same time impressing and humbling the pilgrim. It is a good visual analogy of our longing for and relationship with God. It is the product of the highest and best gifts of eight centuries of artists. The relationship between God and man, our yearning, is palpable.

Lakewood Church in Houston, TX (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Compare that with the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church in Houston. Its congregation is 40,000 people. It’s housed in a building with all the charm of a basketball stadium. That’s no surprise; it’s the former home of the Houston Rockets. It has altar calls, but no altar. Its preachers work on a large stage.

Outside the city walls of Canterbury is the Church of St Martin, the oldest Christian house of worship in England. It was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent in the 6th century, before Augustine arrived from Rome and officially established Christianity in Britain. It’s austere and slightly larger than my living room, but there is no doubt it is a sacred space.

The quire at Canterbury Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Not all modern churches are terrible, of course. The original Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche was nearly destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943. It was rebuilt from 1959 to 1963, when Germany was recovering from the devastation of WWII. It’s a masterpiece of beautifully-crafted, controlled religious fervor.

Congregationalism may descend from the Puritans, but their austere churches were nonetheless beautiful, testimonies to the clear light of faith.

Old South Meeting House, Boston, MA (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Why, then, are modern American churches often so ugly? It’s not that we’re a post-Christian society; there are new congregations being formed and new churches being built here every day. And it’s not that we’re all poor; ours is the richest nation in the richest period in world history.

By and large, American Protestants subscribe to a practical theology of dualism. We believe that our physical space is separate from and less important than our spiritual life. We’re also transients at heart; we move around and take our churches with us. Like our Big Box stores, they’re built to be temporary. In part that comes from our premillennialist leanings. If Jesus is coming back soon, why waste money on the building?

The monumental choir screen at Chartres Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
We also feel guilty about art. Who among us hasn’t heard the canard that the Vatican should sell its treasures and use the money to feed the poor? That denies any connection to the transcendent, or any worship role for the architect and artist. It repudiates the purpose of the art.

Bernini did not build his amazing St. Peter’s Baldachin so it could be sold to grace some wealthy man’s office; he built it for the greater glory of God. And that’s a Biblical position. Bezalel was named the chief artisan of the Tabernacle by God himself, who said, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft,” and then let him loose.

Of course, our culture as a whole is fashionable, rationalist, pragmatic, and consumerist. In church we want contemporary music, good production values and an entertaining preacher. They mean a stage and an audience, not an altar and congregation.

Churches see themselves as vendors of Christ, competing with vendors of other cultural properties, up and down the road. That doesn’t leave us much time or space to offer beauty up to the Lord.

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