Sticks And Stones

Every building communicates something about its use, its builder, and its age. Did you ever stop to think what your church building says to the world about you and about your faith? If not, as you sit in a pew next Sunday morning before the service begins, analyze the pew, the pulpit, the windows, the floor plan, the appointments of the church, and consider what all these tell the world.

The manner in which a people choose to house their gods can symbolize the religion, the concept of the god, the worship service, the nature of the people and their relationship with other cultures. For example, the tabernacle—a tent with carefully prescribed partitions and environs and floor plan—is a striking image of a nomadic people, of the God who spoke to them through their leader, Moses, of their obedience to the very letter of the law. It was set in the midst of the people to remind them that God himself dwelt in their midst. It housed the Ark of the Tabernacle, a reminder of God’s law and his voice speaking unequivocably to his chosen people. Its adornments were their tribute to his glory. Its Holy of Holies was a symbol of his “otherness.” Its laver and altar and table were reminders of their ritual. The symbols were all far more complex than this would suggest, but this outline provides a useful pattern for analysis.

The more affluent, settled Judaism shows itself forth in Solomon’s Temple with its cedars of Lebanon, its gold inlay and delicate wall decoration. The continuity of the religion is apparent in the preservation of the floor plan, the maintenance of the discrete elements and symbols (such as candlesticks, table of shewbread, altar), the approach through cleansing and burnt offering and prayer to the final sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies. The opulence reflected Solomon’s own love of glory as well as the fact that this was to be a kind of royal chapel. The ornate carving of “cherubim and palm trees and open flowers” speaks of advances in craftsmanship and relations with other cultures (Phoenician and Egyptian). The darkness of the Debir speaks of the mystery of God. C. Ernest Wright comments:

The Temple of Solomon … was a typical Phoenician temple. Solomon, engaged as he was in the attempt to place Israel on the cultural map of the world, borrowed the whole religious equipment and paraphernalia of his culturally superior neighbors [Biblical Archaeology, Westminster, 1966, p. 144].

The temple becomes testimony to “Israelite religious syncretism.” This corruption of native religious concepts (according to Wright) was eventually to precipitate the great prophetic conflict. Thus a clear look at such an artifact as Solomon’s temple (were it still available for our contemplation) could lead us to the awareness of the deeper religious problems imbedded in the splendor of the craftsmanship.

Parallel analyses might easily be made of other civilizations and of the temples they have erected to house their gods: for example, the Parthenon as a culminating symbol of the Greek instinct for worship, and the Pantheon as the symbol of Roman worship. The placement of the one temple high on the Acropolis and the other in the center of the city; the dedication of one to the protectress of Athens, Athene, of the other to a multitude of gods absorbed into Roman culture; the emphasis in the one case on exterior statuary, friezes, and columns, in the other on interior space; the native marble blocks fastened with breathtaking accuracy in the post-and-lintel construction of the Doric temple, the veneer of imported marble over the massive concrete of the domed cylindrical temple—these and many other differences reflect a difference in climate, in religion, in skills, in resources, in aesthetic concern. That both have at times been used as Christian churches (and the Parthenon as a Muslim mosque) suggests man’s occasional blindness to the meaning of architecture.

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Yet early Christians were intensely sensitive to the implications of architecture. Their conflicts with pagan forces left them antagonistic to temple structures associated with pagan power and brutality. The earliest Christians apparently met in the open, in public places, in homes, and in hidden rooms. Without power or affluence, they met where they could to sing, to pray, to hear the Word of God, to baptize their young, to mourn their dead, and to share in love feasts. Like the pre-Mosaic Hebrews, they had no fixed house for their God, not even a tent in the midst of them. With the break from Judaism, even the model of the Hebrew temple became irrelevant to their needs. Gradually, they appear to have built more permanent places of worship until, with the advent of Roman power under Constantine and his successors, they were finally able to build symbolic homes for a God whose Son had no place to lay his head.

As H. W. Janson describes the new problem:

Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the state [or court] religion of the Roman Empire had a profound impact on Christian art. Until that time, congregations had been inconspicuously in the houses of the wealthier members. Now, almost overnight, an impressive architectural setting had to be created for the new official faith, so that the Church might be visible to all [History of Art, Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 159].

In actuality, the process extended over the years, culminating in the declaration by Theodosius in 395 that “the Empire was a Christian state to the exclusion, and abolition, of all heathenism” (Erwin R. Goodenough, The Church in the Roman Empire). They chose the basilica, a choice Janson describes as uniquely suitable:

The Early Christian basilica was a synthesis of assembly hall, temple, and private house.… The pagan basilica was indeed a uniquely suitable model for Constantinian churches, since it combined the spacious interior demanded by Christian ritual with imperial associations that proclaimed the privileged status of Christianity as the new State religion [History of Art, p. 159].

A footnote on this from Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, provides a useful hedge to overgeneralization about the use of the basilica:

No one now will maintain that the Christian basilica was the invention of Constantine, or that the earliest extant examples of it were actually the first. We assume that prior to the fourth century this type was well established as the result of a gradual development—even though we have to admit that there is more truth than evidence in favor of this assumption [Pantheon, 1947, p. 106].

The discovery at Dura on the Euphrates of a church dated before 256 Lowrie notes as important because “it is absolutely unique.” The choice of the basilica was significant: a building with emphasis on the interior (on the initiated rather than the outsiders), a building with no prior religious connotations (paralleling their earlier places of worship in the business districts of the cities), one whose imposing size, floor plan, and orientation met the needs for expanding public ritual, for large congregations, and for focus on the altar.

Their willingness to decorate it with paintings reflects a Roman heritage and indicates a real break with Hebrew thought regarding graven images.

The descendants of these early churches—the cathedrals with their baptistries and bell towers and cloisters—become interesting documents of a people’s religion. First there were the ponderous earth-bound arches and sturdy walls of the Romanesque, and later the heaven-pointed Gothic with its emphasis on light and height and mystery. The jewel-like beauty of stained glass, the loving detail of the carved pulpits, the rich embellishment of tombs are part of religious history as well as of art history. John Ruskin studied the craftsmanship of the medieval cathedrals and found there a joy in work and a rugged independence that thrilled him. Henry Adams meditated on Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, discovering in them an inspiration lost to modern man. This veneration of the Virgin, the centrality of the cathedral to the community, the thousands of workmen, the hundreds of years in the building—this monumental effort and dedication recorded in the stones of Chartres or Notre Dame rings alien to our ears.

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Thus a Romanesque or a Gothic cathedral can open to our minds and imaginations an age, a people, a religion different from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and still more different from our own.

The American art historian could trace such patterns as these in our own heritage—from the stark white wooden churches of New England to the neo-Gothic cathedrals of our large cities. Certainly, the American heritage is more eclectic than most, but we can easily trace the strain of English Protestantism in our modified copies of Sir Christopher Wren’s steeples and domes and columns. In our love of the neoclassical, we can see our concern for becoming a new Rome. The perennial Christian concern with maintaining the values of a traditional faith is mirrored in the Gothic revival, along with our lingering love of the old-world culture in a new world that has few craftsmen and little need for didactic art to teach an illiterate congregation.

Not only the great cathedrals of New York or Baltimore or Washington come to mind to exemplify the American use of the Gothic but also numerous smaller, more modest examples of a modified Gothicism. A lovely little church in the middle of Washington, D. C.’s Foggy Bottom is a classic example of this American blend of medieval and modern: a small stone Gothic building sits with its small, cloistered yard in the midst of the towering World Bank, which appears to threaten and envelop this vulnerable rectangle of grass and stone. The tiny church, echoing a now diminished community of settled families and sober civil servants, seems quaintly anachronistic among the starkly modern apartment buildings and government agencies. As it furnishes a haven for those seeking rest and renewal, so it is a relief to the eye weary of massive whiteness, a remembrance of a medieval faith combined with no-nonsense Protestant plainness.

Other examples that come to mind are city churches of plain red brick, much like the row houses they neighbor; or new churches in new housing developments of spacious and abstract design, a natural part of their roomy, split-level, suburban community. Some are works of art, pointed out mechanically by tour guides, tributes to man’s creativity rather than God’s. Some are ugly in that familiar style of loving over-decoration. Some look like school-houses or homes or barns. Each congregation, as it designs and builds its new sanctuary, broadcasts its faith and its tastes and its concerns.

It is consequently instructive to take a minute on Sunday morning to look around the sanctuary at the church you may know so well you love its cracks as you love the lines on a familiar face. Trying to look with fresh eyes at our little church (a small-town church with a small congregation), we notice that it is very plain, free of any graven images except for a Celtic cross right in the middle of the wall. It is clearly a nineteenth-century structure, a part of the classic revival, with its fan-shaped floor plan, its columns, and its balcony. Details of adornment, such as the red carpet, the plush chancel furniture, and the impressive organ, testify to generations of careful stewardship by people who believe that things should look quietly elegant in God’s house. But an austerity also shows in the simplicity for the minister in his Geneva gown, handling the plain brass collection plates. It is also right for the congregation of modest, middle-class, tidy, simply dressed people who worship together with love and with grace. For reasons such as this, we settle comfortably in our pews, expecting quiet prayers and tasteful music—but no blinding light.

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Testing our faith by that of the apostles, we might wonder whether we have insulated and cushioned ourselves against the Holy Spirit. Is this building too comfortable in the face of the world’s agonies? Is it too remote from the teeming heart of life? And is it too close to another church doing much the same things for the same kinds of people? Would it repel or confuse the fiery evangelist or the homeless Saviour? Would we do better to emulate our apostolic brethren by meeting in a store-front church in a shopping center? Or, perhaps better still, should we emulate our Saviour by having no place to call our own? Why not meet in public meeting rooms in libraries or banks or movie houses? Why not use the same buildings with other congregations, instead of using so many buildings the self-same hour?

Perhaps the new generation of Christians, many of whom were converted in a stadium and learned to worship around a campfire, will be more inventive than we have been. Although many of us may be understandably reluctant to relinquish the sanctuary that echoes our own tastes in life and in worship, we might do well to reconsider our priorities and our attitudes. Brick-and-mortar religion is selfish and materialistic. We cannot contain God in even the most perfectly built structure; we air-condition and heat for our own comfort, not for His kingdom. We have too many church buildings and too few born-again Christians worshiping in them. We do not need to tear down the past: keep the parish churches and the cathedrals, but more important keep the faith.

This reconsideration of old values, of real needs, of the apostolic faith may demand in the future a new church-without-walls. Architecturally, we shall be the poorer for building no new monuments to house our God and ourselves. But spiritually, we shall be the richer for admitting that no walls made by man can house the Church of Jesus Christ.

Nancy M. Tischler is professor of humanities and literature, Capitol Campus of Pennsylvania State University, Middletown.

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