Church Architecture

Someone sent me a reflection about church architecture that included this quote from R.C. Sproul:

It behooves us, I think, to note the great care with which God gave His people plans for the tabernacle, their first worship environment. Like the temple that followed, the tabernacle was a place of beauty, glory, and transcendence. It was like no other place in the lives of God’s people. We need to understand that our church architecture communicates something to our visual senses, and, therefore, that architecture can promote or hinder our sense of the presence of God.

R.C. Sproul (attributed)

I haven’t read much of Sproul, but I admire what I have. This is a good example of how even the parts of the Bible that don’t seem very interesting — in my Bible, Exodus 25–27 spans five pages. In my Bible software, it spans 98 verses and 2400 words — are worth giving unhurried reflection.

I remember having the feeling of awe that Sproul describes when we went to Europe. It was especially evident in St. Peter’s, although we weren’t able to spend much time there. I understand Jacob’s desire to memorialize the thin space where he saw the angels going up and down the stairway to heaven.

But be careful. There are (at least) two dangers here, both related to idolatry. First, building God a house might be a noble idea, but then again, it might be an attempt to domesticate him, or at least put him in a box. If we’re honest, for most people it’s a little of both. And God doesn’t like being boxed in. Consider the way that the Israelites tried to use the Ark of the Covenant as a magic talisman. Note also that God never asked David to build him a Temple. God was happy with a Tent. Even the divine name seems designed (unlike our word “God”) to resist human attempts to limit or constrain or manipulate God.

Secondly, not every idol takes the shape of a Golden Calf. God specifically forbade the use of visual imagery to represent him and there’s a fine line between glorifying God and making an idol. God gave instructions for the Tabernacle and for the Temple, so I have to assume that, if they were followed, and followed properly, that danger was avoided. But when Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilt the Temple, it made people cry who remembered the old Temple. They missed the good thing that was being done right then, because of their lingering attachment to the former things. Jesus, for his part, seems remarkably unconcerned with the fine stonework in Herod’s Temple.

I can’t speak for other traditions, but Presbyterians aren’t enamored with the idea of sacred space. Yes, as the seraphim never stop telling each other, God is Holy, Holy, Holy — transcendent otherness, squared and cubed. And yet, as they also said, heaven and earth, are filled with His glory — all of earth, like all of heaven. If Jesus can sanctify a manger in a barn, or a gore-covered instrument of torture, then so can he make a big box in a strip mall become a house of worship.