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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Beauty of Worship

Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I go out of sight:
And to 'scape stormy days, I choose
An Everlasting night.

--John Donne, A Hymn to Christ, At the Author's Last Going to Germany


I was off work today, so I spent the afternoon running errands. Amidst necessary stops, I took the time to drop by a couple of Christian stores (formerly known as Christian book stores) and check out their wares. Christmas merchandise was already in abundance, of course, for those who might be ready to skip past any Holy Days between now and that most covetous of days, December 25th.

Christmas and all its trappings are an interesting mixture of good and bad. There's the cheesy and sentimental, and then there are those things that reflect the greatest elements of Christian art through the centuries. And yet the things I saw for sale simply reflects Christianity in our time. The Christian church today is a mixture of good and bad in all areas, just as it is of beautiful art and ugly art. At Christmas, however, good art tends to step out of the shadows a bit more than it does the rest of the year, and this always strikes me as a bit strange. Why do we turn to traditional music more at this time of year, and ignore it the rest of the year? Why do we mail out Christmas cards featuring traditional, Renaissance-type paintings of the Nativity, but live in the realm of cheesy contemporary Christian art the rest of the year?

I think there are various things that have led to our practices. Dickens's A Christmas Carol has so captured the American mind that we immediately identify things Victorian with Christmas. Also, there's still some consciousness, thankfully, that Christmas is a special time of year, being the celebration of our Lord's birth. If only we celebrated His resurrection with such fanfare!

And while the Christmas hymns we are familiar with are generally good hymns, the other hymns most of us grew up with in the church were derived from the Revivalism of the 19th century, and were therefore pretty hokey. No wonder Contemporary Christian music has become the norm, as hymns are on the out. Sadly, the best hymns, which come from the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican traditions, are fairly unknown.

We also live with the results of the iconoclasm and anti-aestheticism that emerged from some parts of the Reformation. And then there's the Rationalism of Modernism, that sees Propositionalism as the only reasonable way of attaining truth, therefore looking down on artistic forms of expression.

There's also the fact that Christmas really is a High Holyday, and actually should be celebrated in a grander fashion than the Lower Holydays. But while this is true, I'm amazed at how little visual art there actually is in Evangelical churches throughout the year. I think, for instance, of the megachurch where I attend Bible study once a week with some friends. The building is large, and looks like a business building. (A Chinese exchange student I met there, who was visiting the church for the first time, even commented on this to me. "This doesn't look like a church to me," he said. To think someone from Communist China knows this, and we don't!) As one walks down the hallways, one is struck by just how bare the walls are. Now if this were based on some sort of Puritan commitment to the Second Commandment, then I would understand it. But based on my experience with Evangelicals, I have my doubts that this has anything to do with it. There are sometimes feelings of anti-Catholicism, no doubt, based on some individuals' Catholic upbringing, along with a general anti-traditionalism. But I generally find that Evangelicals have never even considered such things. The determining factors, it seems to me, are Christian Commercialism and Pragmatism. And if Christmas is any indication, then this in fact is the case. For as soon as the season arrives, wreaths and Christmas trees are in abundance in the church building.

While I still struggle myself with certain implications of the Second Commandment, I still believe there is a great need for a return to beauty in the Church. While this should take place in part in the Christian home, it should also return in a significant way to our church buildings. Catholic and Orthodox churches still lead the way in maintaining the great artistic heritage of the Church, but, sadly, there have even been failures in these two bodies (in Catholicism more than Orthodoxy). We need to reacquaint ourselves with the history of art in the church, and, drawing off of that history, to reintroduce beauty to our worship, as well as the rest of our lives. I long for a recovery of the church building as a place of reverent worship, full of beauty, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week.

I used to go occasionally to a local Catholic church after work to pray, until one evening when I found the doors locked. I later found out that, due to the increase in crime in our city, the church had had to begin locking the doors at six o'clock. I had gone to the Catholic church because its doors were open at unusual hours, unlike the rest of the churches in the city. But its beauty was still a factor. If a Baptist church had had its doors unlocked as well, I doubt I would have gone to pray in it.

Our God is the Author of All Beauty, and is Himself a Beautiful God. Therefore He should be worshiped in a beautiful way. But since these things are true, then man has an inborn desire, though marred by sin, for beauty. More than something superficial and secondary, beauty is something man needs. When we force believers to worship in an ugly way, we deprive them of an important part of their sanctification. For the sake of the whole church, then, a return to beauty is a must. But so long as we take Christian Commercialism as our cue, we will end up with mixed results at best.

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