It was one of the greatest disappointments of my young life. My middle-school catechism class teacher, and pastor at the time, explained to us that the makers of the film Road to Perdition (which was shooting in the area) had asked him if they could use our church in the movie.

He told us firmly: he’d politely but soundly refused.

To me, an almost-teenager, usually too keen to scoff at the adults (and even the pastors) in my life, this was a huge mistake. Our church—a red-brick, colonial-style building with a towering white steeple, its front door shaded by four wide, white columns, its only flaws a lack of air conditioning and a putridly yellow stained glass window—deserved to be in a movie. It had been chosen for its stately churchy-ness, its near-perfect adherence to a certain ideal of American church architecture. To reject such recognition made no sense. At least, it made no sense to me.

I understand now that my pastor’s rejection of the filmmakers’ offer was based in his understanding that a church is more than just its building—and that even this building, beautiful as it was, was more than its façade. It was a fragile, temporal, often all-too-easily-exploitable ribcage that housed, Lord willing, a heart fed and sustained by an eternal Spirit. To allow this building to be used for its own sake would deny that beating heart in favor of its earthly cage.

A few decades later, having forgotten that great but fleeting childhood disappointment, I moved to another state for work and started to look for a church. I found one very soon, housed in a brick building less grand than my childhood church, but with much in common: a proud steeple, a tall ceiling that drew the eye upward, wooden ...

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