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Jul 23, 2021

Welcome to Upstream. I’m Shane Morris, and I want to reflect further on this week’s conversation.

We all remember the global shock and dismay on April 15, 2019 when one of the world’s most famous churches caught fire. Millions looked on helplessly as a large portion of Notre Dame cathedral, that architectural icon of Catholicism, focal point in literature, and symbol of France—went up in flames. While Paris took stock of the damage, we aired a BreakPoint commentary explaining why even many secular observers were horrified by the severe damage to the storied cathedral. Sacred spaces matter, said John, even to those who don’t believe in the sacred. A rash of church vandalisms worldwide in the weeks leading up to the blaze illustrated this. At the time, John remarked that, “Godless governments, racists, radical Islamists, and common arsonists” all seem to understand that such buildings matter, even if only as symbolic targets in their assault on Christianity.

It seemed everyone grasped the significance of sacred and beautiful spaces. Everyone, that is, except a certain group of vocal Christians online.

“…before the smoke had even cleared above Notre Dame,” said John, “well-meaning Christians took to social media to remind us that the church isn’t a building, it’s a people.”

This is of course true. It’s true in the same way that a family isn’t a house. But that doesn’t lessen the tragedy or sorrow for that family when their house burns down! Nor does it invalidate the way those who dwelt in that house came to identify it with their life together.

Why are so many evangelical Christians so quick to dismiss the importance and value of tangible beauty and creative expression, including sacred spaces? And why do we view so many of our church buildings as little more than functional facilities, building and decorating them in the image of shopping malls or corporate offices?

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor called this phenomenon “disenchantment.” It was his way of describing how a sacramental view of reality that most Christians and indeed Westerners once took for granted has given way to a preference for function over form—for business over beauty—to a world in which the immanent does not point beyond itself to the transcendent.

Where once Christians routinely saw the physical world of art, architecture, music, bread, wine, and water as conduits or means of grace, many who are not explicitly associated with a High-Church tradition now see these things as ornamental at best and as distractions at worst. According to this view, the real conversion, worship, and grace occurs in the privacy of a person’s heart, moved by information received from the pulpit or perhaps by an ineffable impulse of the Spirit from within. In fact, I even meet Christians who question the sincerity and reality of spiritual devotion that isn’t individual, spontaneous, and purely internal.

Like all errors, this one contains a grain of truth. True worship really can happen in the confines of a person’s heart, in the absence of visible beauty, or in the midst of material poverty. As John notes, “The book of Acts describes a pretty amazing worship service once held in a Philippian jail.” And to this day, many of our persecuted Christian brothers throughout the world feel blessed even to gather with one another to worship and study Scripture in a home or hideout.

Yet for those of us who face no such hardships, it seems odd that visible beauty, art, and creative expression claim so little of our attention or energy—at least when it comes to worship. There are moments when nearly all of us revert to that older, sacramental view of the world—when beauty once again takes center-stage, and something besides internal, spontaneous states of mind matter.

As I told my colleague Brian Brown in this week’s conversation, my wife and I recently attended an evangelical wedding. The scene would be familiar to any of my listeners: groomsmen and bridesmaids, all arrayed in matching apparel formally processing to the altar. Parents and grandparents escorted to their seats. The bride made radiant and dressed in white—greeted by standing guests and accompanied by elegant music as her father led her into the presence of her beaming groom. Guided by a pastor, the two exchanged traditional vows and even added a very material ceremony with biblical origins: a foot-washing—the groom honoring his bride.

Once they had exchanged rings—another symbolic act—their pastor pronounced them man and wife, and they sealed his words with a kiss.

I brought up this scene with Brian because it illustrates the unspoken knowledge we all still have that beauty, material symbols, and the sacred still matter. It’s not as if this couple had no choice. It is possible today to marry with little or no ceremony. The justice of the peace is always available for civil proceedings, and some couples even choose to elope. Yet in the midst of all our informality and utilitarian thinking, little islands of the symbolic and sacred remain. Weddings are one place where our leftover sacramental instincts show up. Funerals are another. And at these events we betray the fact that despite our habit of treating the spiritual and physical realms as largely disjointed, we know that they can and must touch in key places.

I am an evangelical Protestant. I don’t use icons in my worship, nor do my family and I meet the members of our church under gothic architecture each Sunday (although our worship is traditional by modern standards, and I like to think our building looks okay). Yet I’ve come to the conviction that beauty expressed in ceremony, liturgy, art, sacred music, and most of all the sacraments is anything but optional. God created us embodied creatures who live in a material world, and Scripture makes it absolutely clear that He meets us in material ways.

From the monumental artistic project of Solomon’s temple to the complexity and skill of the Psalms, from Christ’s use of a meal and a bath to mediate supernatural grace to the gemstone-encrusted splendor of the New Jerusalem where it’s no coincidence the first order of business will be a wedding, the Bible speaks of a God who believes in and uses sacred acts and spaces—a God who, as C. S. Lewis says, really “likes matter,” and habitually arranges it in beautiful ways.

I hope you’ll listen to my conversation with Brian Brown, founder of the Anselm Society, this week on Upstream. We connected over our mutual appreciation for beauty and creative expression, and over our longing to see Christians reclaim these treasures. We also recognized that most Christians will only have the opportunity, resources, and expertise to invite beauty back into our lives in small ways. Yet if enough of God’s people value and cultivate beauty in our lives for long enough, we may just find ourselves in a world where more sacred spaces are being built than burned.