Truth in beautiful spaces

January 31, 2014
Fulda, Germany, cathedral nave. Some rights reserved by barnyz

I was sitting with my family in the pews of a stunning Romanesque sanctuary on Christmas Eve. A very large mosaic of the transfigured Christ hovered above the chancel. The candlelight reflected on our faces and the stone walls arched far above us as we sang “Silent Night.”

As I sat I wondered—when did we stop taking church architecture seriously? It’s almost impossible today to get a serious sanctuary building project off the ground. Instead we’ve littered the American spiritual landscape with big-box “worship centers,” 50-year-old A-frames with felt banners scarring the walls, and 200-year-old Puritan wannabe churches with peeling paint and bells that no longer work. But if you ask about this—and I have—someone will shrug and say, “It’s just a building.”

Christians used to devote themselves to church building projects that lasted well over a hundred years. Everyone once thought that was a grand idea. Now they’re just buildings.

Do we think this way because the church has become more conscious of the poor and feels horrible about spending money on bricks and mortar? I would love to think that’s the reason, but I doubt it. When a congregation builds an inexpensive warehouse worship center it’s usually not so they can give millions more to missions.

Is the problem that we just can’t afford beautiful sanctuaries? Maybe, but I am amazed at how much a congregation spends on expensive sound equipment, choir tours through Europe, state-of-the-art websites, church schools and multiple pastors. Our treasure has always followed our heart.

Here’s another explanation. We all learned the childhood lesson that a church is not a building or a steeple, but open the doors and you’ll see all the people. At least this explanation is grounded in a theological conviction that the church is composed of the diverse body of Christ.

My last idea: Christianity has a historic fascination with the early church and those who huddled together in homes and catacombs. But this wasn’t a choice the church made. Private homes and catacombs were all that was left for the persecuted church. As soon as it was legalized the church immediately used Roman basilicas for its worship.

The fourth-century basilica was just a public meeting hall before the church baptized it. The place where the magistrate sat became the bishop’s chair, the table on which official imperial business was conducted became the table of the Lord, and the elders began to sit around the table where the city leaders used to sit as jurors. It was once a non-Christian public building. Then it became an ancient big-box worship center. No art, no religious architecture and no effort at beauty.

Why, in the centuries that followed, did we start to think more seriously about sanctuaries as places designed to reveal God’s holiness? Why did the church spend money as a patron of religious arts, and why did we invent the organ and go crazy about music? Why did we develop Gothic cathedrals in the 12th century? Why did frontier churches in America carefully construct buildings that reflected their simple but sturdy gospel? Maybe it’s because the soul of the church yearned for more than a utilitarian theater or lecture hall. We wanted sacred space.

I’m not advocating for a return to expensive building programs. I understand that whatever it is that makes space sacred is very dependent on cultural context. But it isn’t enough to worship simply by talking about the gospel. Even if the church is meeting in a high school gymnasium, there has to be some encounter with beauty because it can never be separated from truth.

“One thing have I desired of the Lord, . . .” David said, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all of the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4, KJV). There it is—sacred truth and beauty are one thing.

Our gospel is not just more words about God. Truth has a twin sister called beauty who beckons us to bow the knee. This beauty may be seen through the icons on the walls of an Orthodox church in Eastern Europe, or the stark white walls and high pulpit of a Congregational church in New England, or the palm leaves intricately woven to form the roof of a sanctuary without walls in the Amazon rainforest. But it all helps worshipers “behold,” which is one of the angels’ favorite words. It doesn’t have to cost much; it just has to attempt the beauty of holiness.

The sanctuary is the place where people gather week after week to remember that the holy is also in the places of their lives that are not so beautiful. It is where they bury their parents and spouses, baptize their babies and walk beautiful daughters down the aisle to a groom wearing a naive grin. Pastors sit alone in this sanctuary after a hard visit to a nursing home and ponder what God is doing in the lives of the congregation he loves. All of it is a way of beholding the sacredness of life. To behold such holy work we need holy spaces.


Great thoughts.  Part of the

Great thoughts.  Part of the explanation, I believe, lies in the erosion of a theology of place--be that through cosmopolitanism, globalization, or other conditions of late modernity.  We fail to apprehend the basic Pauline lesson that we are free to be bound to God, one another, and even the places that shape us.

I have just returned from

I have just returned from time in East Anglia studying the medieval mystics of the 14th century.  So many churches--large and tiny, old and ancient, all full of the prayers of centuries.  I found myself studying a tiny decoration on an immensely high fan vault and thinking: "No one but God, the artist, and a 21st century tourist with a super-zoom lens will ever see that detail.  The artist who carved it 600 years ago did it for the love of God alone.  And, perhaps, for me in this unimagined time."  And I thanked God for that ancient artist's love of God.  It is that love, still warm in the stone, that made the space holy. 

While I heartily agree with

While I heartily agree with most of what you say here, I must take exception to one particular historical note: the early basilicas were not "ancient big-box worship centers" with no art or beauty. They glittered with the same mosaics whose beauty you noted at the opening of your piece. Consider, for example, the early fifth-century apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana in Rome:

Or the sixth-century apse in San Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna:

Or the fifth-century nave and arch mosaics in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, such as this scene from the life of Moses:

Letter from Terry Tippens

I  resonate with M. Craig Barnes’s sentiment about how beauty helps us experience truth, but his sequence regarding our money and our heart is out of order when he says: “Our treasure has always followed our heart.” In Matthew 6:21, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus is saying that where we invest ourselves and our resources will determine what we care about, not vice versa.

The fact that our heart follows our treasure actually gives greater force to Barnes’s lament—by ignoring the link between beauty and truth, we’re missing out on both by settling for cheap church architecture and diverting our treasure elsewhere.

Terry Tippens
Winder, Ga.

Letter from Carl Flick

Barnes certainly contributed to my appreciation of the relationship between truth and beauty in worship spaces. As a U.S. Navy chaplain I was often privileged to lead worship services in beautiful chapels ashore. However, beauty could be a bit scarce on warships.

One Easter Sunday aboard a nuclear cruiser off the coast of Greece, I met with several sailors topside to watch the sun rise between two peaks on the mainland and to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. There we read scripture, sang, and prayed as the rays of the sun reached us. It was a space made sacred solely by the intentionality of the gathered worshipers. Truth was there, as was beauty of the best sort.

Carl Flick
Wake Forest, N.C.