Blubberland and the Church

I’ve confessed before, I’m a sucker for a cathedral. Give me a grand church building with spires and vaulted ceilings and something shifts inside. It’s an odd thing for a Baptist. Historically we non-conformists have shunned the grand and iconic for the stripped-back and practical. It’s gotta work! And my years in house church only cemented the bias. Still, show me a good stained glass window and I’m putty in your hands.

There is something about the desires for transcendence and beauty that are connected … certainly for me. Maybe it’s the grey hair, but place matters. I’m impacted by what I see and feel in a space in ways I can’t explain. And I’m not alone. I’ve been around the restaurant and café sector long enough to know just how critical space is to the success of a business. Dinner is about much more than eating. Our senses and longings are deeply connected.

Farrelly has some interesting things to say about this in Blubberland (a book I commented on yesterday). According to Farrelly, the longing for beauty is akin to the desire for truth. It lies at the heart of the human soul. Though we are distracted by the more cosmetic lures of ‘happiness’—immediately gratified—it’s a deeper and more lasting beauty we long for.

Interestingly, Farrelly identifies the church as one of the traditional reservoirs of this beauty; the poetry of its theology, architecture and worship pointing us to truth. However, she bemoans the fact that contemporary expressions of religious faith are running on empty:

Religion, once a perennial source of beauty, is now principally a bums-on-seats business, competing for market share with every other lifestyle choice, from scuba-diving to virtual reality games, and striving therefore to be groovy, unthreatening, accessible and, above all, popular.

The churches of today, Farrelly asserts, ‘seem determined to snatch mediocrity from the jaws of transcendence.’ As churches leave ‘sacred architecture’ behind, they’re embracing corporate or corner-store architecture in its place: ‘Times when sacred music, liturgy and architecture were troves of transcendent beauty are long gone, good-riddanced by the ever-more-populist church herself.’  She continues:

It’s not that the church doesn’t do Church anymore—far from it. Hillsong, for example, promises its Yuletide customers ‘awesome church’ in the same cheesy tones with which Viagra retailers promise ‘awesome sex.’ It’s more that church-as-activity has come to preclude church-as-artefact. So that now, although the corporate church is more publicly and politically apparent than for decades, the buildings themselves camouflage into the commonplace with an aesthetic language that is deliberately mundane. Not a steeple or stained glass window in sight.

Some may say this is a good thing: the church shrugging off its materialist obsessions in favour of a more genuine spirituality. But Farrelly argues that this is not what it’s about; ‘this is no new Puritanism.’ Watch the contemporary worship of the mega-church with its theatre lighting, big bands, glamorous voices and dry ice to see this is not the church denying the senses in favour of a deeper integrity of mind:

What it denies is the traditional role of abstraction and metaphor—beauty, in a word—in engaging those senses. Just as the Bible is increasingly literalised, so the material church is being stripped of all penumbral and symbolic meaning.

Despite my weakness for cathedrals, I am not sure I can travel with Farrelly all the way. Though I can hear her criticism and feel a similar sense of loss in much that is offered in the name of worship, Farrelly has something too particular in mind when she speaks of beauty. At its worst, there is even an elitist air that surrounds her thesis. While my spirit soars in a space of stained glass and ancient chorales, I’ve also encountered the most inspiring beauty in spaces that are marginal or mundane. And the truth of God’s redeeming beauty in places and experiences of apparent ugliness is profound. Still, her point is worth hearing. What place does beauty have in our spaces and acts of worship?

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