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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

     

 

Part VI:  The Place of Art in Worship

Chapter 1

A Place to Meet or a Place of Worship

      EVERY GOOD in this life can be a source of evil. I sometimes think that one of the most deceiving things in the world is human eloquence. Should we seek to diminish it where it exists, or redeem it for the Lord? It is all too true that an eloquent man may have a profound influence upon a congregation for good or for evil, but the fault lies basically, not in eloquence, but rather in the end which it is made to serve.
     Beautiful architecture or music or literature or art may, like eloquence, be made to serve the wrong end: but none need necessarily do so. The knowledge that the introduction of art in any of its forms into a worship service may be dangerous by ministering to man's aesthetic needs as though they were synonymous with spiritual needs has led many earnest Christian people to avoid them altogether. By the same token, fear lest wine

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should minister to man's lower appetite has led one Christian group to abandon the celebration of Holy Communion. In both cases these people are being guided by experience which stems from situations that are not necessarily everywhere the same. These people tend to fail to reach or communicate with those of good taste who, merely because they have good taste, are not as a consequence indifferent to spiritual things nor unaware of spiritual needs and who often prove upon conversion to be outstanding leaders in the household of faith. Such people are frequently helped initially when they find themselves in an atmosphere not entirely lacking in those evidences of culture which have been a normal part of their everyday environment
     Perhaps some good may be served by looking simply at these
various artistic "aids" to worship to see in
what sense they are justified, in what way they contribute helpfully with benefit to the worshipper without their becoming an aesthetic substitute for a spiritual reality.
     Briefly I should like to present my own personal feelings about this whole matter by considering successively the questions of architecture, music, the graphic arts, and finally, liturgical form.

     The church door is open and one steps inside. In the rush of life, one has suddenly felt the need to be alone with God for a few moments. It may happen that the building is modern in every sense: brightly lighted, polished hardwood floors that reflect the chairs and the lights, a flat ceiling, bare walls, virtual absence of adornment, broken only perhaps by a Scripture text painted across the end wall. . . .   One sits down in a modern chair that, in spite of the austerity elsewhere, has for some reason been designed for comfort; finding nothing to kneel on, one leans forward touching one's head against the chair in front and tries to "sist" oneself before the Lord. Is one really helped in an atmosphere so essentially aseptic, to move from a secular world which places so much emphasis on precisely the same things that give this environment its character, into the presence of One who is, after all, awe-full and far removed for all His gracious approachableness?
     Perhaps it is another church door: this time, heavier, larger, quite unlike our own front door, and requiring that much effort to open it that, when we have passed inside, the outside world is shut out in a much more positive way. A few steps bring us into the center of a building whose columns reach upward and meet far overhead in such a way that there is not the slightest sense of being "shut down" from heaven but rather of being lifted up. Everywhere there is a majesty both in size and in conception. Here, one feels, is a building that is a worthy habitation for God, even though we know that God is not enclosed in buildings made with hands. The very "vastness" of such a structure tends to humble one and to create a hush. It seems as improper to

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speak out loud here as it seemed natural to carry on a conversation in the other building. It seems more appropriate in this vastness to sense the presence of the Lord and to be silent before Him.
     There can be little doubt that as we personally draw nearer to the Lord we are drawn nearer to all others who are in His fellowship. But I have been in many places of worship where one might judge the reverse to be true, that by a conscious drawing together in fellowship usually borne witness to by exchanging greetings with as many people as possible one is then as a consequence drawn nearer to God. I feel this is reversing the true order of worship, and in this I am not alone. Donald P. Hustad wrote:
(1)

     And how do we approach such a God as this? Coming "boldly" to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16) does not mean brashly, or irreverently, but soberly. It is obvious that we can properly prepare our hearts to come into His presence only in an attitude of quietness, of heart searching. Yet so many times, in the five minutes preceding the typical morning service, the atmosphere is more like that of a convention or a community gathering, in which we are more concerned with meeting our friends than with meeting God.

     It is obvious that true worship, even though practiced corporately, is a voluntary, personal, and private act, and no two persons can prepare to worship in the same manner.
     While it is up to us personally to remind ourselves that this is the house of God, there is surely no need for us to design our places of worship in such a way that we may easily lose sight of their identity as places of worship and mistake them for convention halls or even pseudo-theaters. The identity of the house of God should be unmistakable by being quite different from any structure we design for secular use. Consider the prayer of Henry Yevele, the Master Mason of Canterbury Cathedral:

    And I built my nave: and I determined there should be no mistake about what it was, or what purpose it was meant to serve. It should be a good thing, a vast clean building. Immeasurably lofty pillars should raise their shafted heights to Heaven, undistracted; a great hall of prayer, which should teach men to be simple. There is nothing eccentric about my nave: it leads men simply and calmly upwards.

     It may well be true, as Mercer Wilson said, that many of these wonderful places of worship in England and Europe were paid for out of money received from the sale of Indulgences. But it cannot be denied that these

1. Hustad, Donald P., "Music for Worship, Evangelism, and Christian Education" in Bibliotheca Sacra, October, 1960, p.303. 

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monies were spent ultimately to the glory of God when they could easily have been accumulated by those who collected them for selfish purposes. The average man lived in comparative poverty insofar as his own personal conveniences were concerned. The labors of each day were not put into the bank to be spent selfishly. What wealth the common man had was surrendered for a cause which, whatever else may not be said for it, can at least have this said in its favour, that the end-result was a thing of lasting beauty.
     Anne Fremantle observed in this connection that people gave not only money, but labour. Archbishop Hugo of Rouen described the mood of the times in a letter to Bishop Thierry of Amiens:
(2)

     The inhabitants of Chartres have combined to aid in the construction of their church by transporting the
materials . . .   The faithful of our diocese and of other neighbouring regions have formed associations for the same object;  they admit no one into their company unless he has been to confession, has renounced enmities and revenges, and has reconciled himself with his enemies. That done, they elect a chief, under whose direction they conduct their wagons in silence and with humility.

     Can one imagine any builder today, even a builder of churches, requiring that all his workmen first confess their sins and promise to live in harmony with their enemies before being allowed to proceed? Is it any wonder that there is an aura of worship in all the ornamental figures that adorn such buildings? Kenneth Clark remarked upon this same phenomenon the production of a spiritual art by men who were really at heart very much of the earth, earthy. Speaking of the carved statues adorning such cathedrals, he said: (3)

     I believe that the refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal. I fancy that the faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of an epoch. Of course something depends on the insight of the artist who portrays them. If you pass from the heads of the master-mason to those of his more old-fashioned colleagues you are back in the slightly woozy world of Moissac.
     But good faces evoke good artists and conversely a decline of portraiture usually means a decline of the face, a theory that can now be illustrated by photographs in the daily papers. The faces on the west portal of Chartres are among the most sincere and, in a true sense, the most aristocratic that Western Europe has ever produced.

     In itself formal beauty has no spiritual power. The man who was laid at the temple gate which was called Beautiful was apparently little benefited (Acts 3:2). Yet lack of beauty is not therefore to be preferred. Today

2. Fremantle, Anne, The Age of Faith, in Great Ages of Man series, Time-Life, New York, 1965, p.125.
3. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, British Broadcasting Corporation and John Murray, London, 1971, p.56.

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we often justify the plainness of our own places of worship on the grounds that there is no excuse for spending vast sums of money when so many are in need elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the "vast sums of money" thus saved are expended in smaller sums by each one of us for new washing machines and dryers and other such things. We adorn our own homes and feel no particular need to excuse it. The house of God remains unadorned because the expense is unjustified.
     One factor, of course, is our fear lest what is designed as an aid to worship shall become, instead, first of all a prop and then a substitute. A spiritual awareness may then become merely a kind of aesthetic uplift which lasts only as long as we are "there". This argument, however, is not really valid unless the unadorned environment serves the purpose more effectively which unfortunately it all too frequently does not.
     It seems to me that we have gone to the other extreme in many of our little gospel churches because of our fear that the spirit is only contaminated by the body and would be far better off if entirely free of it. Scripture might seem at first sight to lend some support to this view but, professing as we do to believe in the resurrection of the body, it cannot be altogether true that man would be better without it. It is, in God's economy, an essential component of man's being, and while it must be ruled by the spirit it cannot be altogether ignored by it. As John Taylor has aptly put it:
(4)

     It is important that we should not confuse these two dimensions of duality [vertical and horizontal], nor suggest that body belongs more to the animal pole and soul to the spiritual pole, of man's spirituality. Body and soul are parallel and interpenetrating along the whole range of man's being; his soul is involved in his animal nature no less than his body; the body shares in his spiritual experience as well as the soul.

     Years ago I used to attend a prayer meeting where we sat around in a circle on straight-backed chairs and discussed the needs we were going to pray about, and then we all turned around and knelt down on the hardwood floor facing away from each other. One very mature Christian member of that prayer circle had the habit of bringing a small cushion which quite unobtrusively she would slip under her knees as she knelt down. This used to bother me because, basing my judgment on my own immature, idealistic, and highly artificial sense of "dedication", I equated lack of comfort with achievement of spiritual vigour. In her wisdom this lady spoke

4. Taylor, John, Man in the Midst, Highway Press, London, 1955, p.17.

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to me one day, having perceived my unspoken disapproval, and said, "When one gets to my age, a hard floor like this is so very uncomfortable to kneel on that I find myself spending more time thinking about my discomfort than thinking about the Lord." 
     I am sure she was right. Just as we sometimes tend to equate poverty with spirituality, so we tend to equate discomfort with dedication. I think both equations are false. Our bodies make demands upon us, and to ignore those demands often leads to a breakdown of our spiritual strength. It was surely recognition of this fact which made the Lord call Elijah aside for a period of recovery after his great victory on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18 and 19). It is important to note that this recovery process recovery, be it remembered, of his spiritual strength was a process in which chief attention was paid to his body. He was allowed to sleep, provided with food by providential means the moment he awoke, and then allowed to sleep again. This cycle was repeated. Sometimes when we are extremely tired we try to recover our strength by making a tremendous effort to pray and study and enlarge our devotional life . . . only to find we keep falling asleep. Personally I believe we should not allow this tendency in such a situation to grieve us too much but should accept it as part of God's economy and just
go to sleep. It is not such a terrible thing to be found asleep on one's knees. Livingstone slept his last sleep this way . . . and Stephen also.
     So some provision must be made in worship for the comfort of the body. Once again we run the risk of allowing something which should be a help to become a hindrance. Like music and architecture and air conditioning, padded seats and padded hassocks may be either a help or a hindrance. We do not solve the problem which exists in each of these situations by using unrefined music, "naked" architecture, thoroughly uncomfortable pews, and hard kneelers, all in the supposed interest of unworldliness, self-discipline, and "pure spirituality."
     I am persuaded personally that every effort should be made to make the house of God as beautiful as it can be and so designed architecturally that it both lifts us up and humbles us and makes us feel the mystery which surrounds the fact that little creatures like us, creatures of time and space, can somehow make contact with the everlasting God, the Ancient of Days, for whom no house is large enough and yet who is pleased to meet us here.

     Quietly one takes a seat, perhaps noticing a few others are present. The first sense is usually one of relief at being seated! One kneels down, seeking to find a posture of relaxation. After a moment, one tries to assure  

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oneself of the Lord's presence, stilling the thoughts that came in with one, thoughts of the busy-ness outside, of the store clerk who didn't give very attentive service, of a rude car driver, of the person who marched through a door and let it swing in one's face, of a hundred little frictions that wear away at our peace and good nature...All are trivial, but each of them as part of the stuff of life contributes to our weariness and distraction.
     With a jolt one realizes one's thoughts have been wandering already, and a fresh effort is made to turn to the Lord. Outside a car puts on its brakes too quickly...and a train of thought is almost on its way: but again one forces attention back to the presence of the Lord. What energy it requires to be really "there"!  For a few minutes there is silence, until two people a little further forward begin to carry on a conversation in a whisper, conversation which might have been quite bearable if they would only speak out loud and be done with it. For the most part all one can hear are the esses.
     One wishes that people would keep quiet, that the outside sounds would stop for a while, that the comings and goings within the building could be hushed for a few moments at least, that one could get quietness, real quietness, for just long enough to assure oneself that the Lord really is listening.
     Yet, somehow one knows that this is only part of the problem, for too great a silence is almost as distracting as too great a noise...because we are not used to it. We may often find it easier to study in a library where other people are also studying than in the silence of our own room, even though in the library situation there are constant "distractions". In the same way it may be easier to meditate and pray where others are similarly engaged, even if they do make noises. Perhaps it is the sharedness of the experience which helps the feeling that we are not being isolated from man merely because we are seeking the Lord.
     The point is an important one. It is a well-established fact that we operate at our best in the kind of environment that has become most familiar to us. A dog that pulls constantly against a leash, eager, it seems, to run ahead and explore the world, will often lose all such eagerness when set free! So our search for complete silence is sometimes a misguided one, for we are simply not used to it and it may be even more disturbing than the noises from which we seek to escape. David said, "Oh, for the wings of a dove far away would I fly and be at rest." It seems like it. But I doubt whether it is true in any abiding sense. The religious folk who fled to the seclusion of the monasteries soon found they had to impose upon themselves a more severe regimen of discipline than the daily knocks in real life had
imposed. We are not at our best when we try to exclude the

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world entirely, because the atmosphere then tends to become so strangely unreal that it is itself a source of disquiet. Even a retreat seems best carried out with other people. As Kretchmer rightly said, absolute isolation is death.
     So we need an environment free of distraction, not because it is utterly silent, but because the distracting noises are masked by something that is not itself a source of distraction. Music may form this mask in a unique way but it is a very special kind of music.
     A single note played continuously might conceivably achieve the desired result. In his early years, Livingstone found it easy to study with the hum of machinery all around him but very difficult when the machinery closed down. Yet a single note would take some time to become accustomed to, and the real
problem for most of us is that we don't have that much time.
     On the other hand, while a melody or a rhythm might be far more pleasing, it would have the same basic defect of drawing attention to itself. Experience tells us that it is difficult to turn a deaf ear to a familiar and pleasant melody. The moment the music entertains us, the moment we begin to notice that it is nice music, then in the context we have in mind, it has become a distraction rather than an aid to meditation. What is required is a background of sound pleasant to the ear but not insisting upon a hearing by reason of either its volume, its rhythm, its melody, or its familiarity which will successfully drown out all other sounds and leave what amounts to an apparent quietness.
     The writing of such music is an art perhaps better, a fine art for there is a very sensitive balance between mere monotony of sound and attention-catching variations. To my mind a composer or a musician who interprets the composition is doing a great disservice to the worshippers when he seeks in any way to entertain them or draw attention to his own art. Occasionally in the time before the service one may find the organist playing familiar hymns. Without the slightest doubt, his intentions are good but in fact he is robbing us of freedom: the freedom to meditate our own meditations.
     Of course, it may be argued that we have so lost the power of meditation that we must either have our thoughts guided for us by music that has some familiarity to it, or we must be given something to read (usually a message on the back of the church folder), or there should be no raised eyebrows if we freely carry on a conversation with our neighbour. I think undoubtedly that some of these tendencies are encouraged in modern

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forms of church architecture where we find ourselves in what is, after all, merely another room. Many colleges use the chapel as a classroom perhaps one really ought to say, use the classroom as a chapel a practice which arises from necessity, no doubt, as a separate chapel costs money...But the practice undoubtedly encourages the absence of awe and reverence, makes us a little less careful to remember the words "God is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him," and robs us of one of the most fruitful avenues of spiritual growth private reflection in the Lord's presence.
     Clearly, then there is a place for art in worship, but it is a fine art, requiring real inspiration for its creation, a unique kind of music which belongs in Christian worship and probably no other. This is not to say that other kinds of music don't also belong, though, if I read Scripture rightly, the only music that really pleases God is that which we make in our hearts unto the Lord, whether we are singing with or without accompaniment. I'm quite sure that a musician may play his instrument unto the Lord, but his instrument should accompany his heart; all too frequently, I fear, our hearts are supposed to accompany the instrument. Perhaps there is no other way, human nature being what it is.
     Praise expresses itself naturally in music, even when we least suppose. Joseph F. Daltry rightly observed:
(5)

     Although most Quakers and a few others have largely excluded it from their worship, the greater part of mankind expresses religious joy most easily through music. Among civilized men the point is readily illustrated by such exclamations as "Hallelujah," "Amen," "Hosanna," and "Praise the Lord."
     These words are seldom enunciated as they are in ordinary speech. One does not hear the brief "Hallelujah" of the well-bred curate reading the Sunday morning lesson, one hears "Ha-a-a-le-lu-u-ujah," the vowels sustained over a substantial period of time on notes of definite pitch. It is a song rather than a spoken utterance.

     Of course, many people feel that the reverse is equally true: music not only is inspired out of the heart but may itself become an inspiration where the heart is lacking it. One often hears people speaking of how much they "enjoyed" i.e., were inspired by a musical program. But it is not certain what the nature of this kind of inspiration really is, for it appears to be highly transient. Susanne Langer has a word to say on this: (6)

5. Daltry, Joseph F., "Religious Perspectives in College Teaching: In Music," Hazen Foundation, New Haven, n.d. p.27.
6. Langer, Susanne, Philosophy in a New Key, New. American Library, New York, 1948, p.17. 

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     Music is known, indeed, to affect pulse rate and respiration, to facilitate or disturb concentration, to excite or relax the organism, while the stimulus lasts; but beyond evoking impulses to sing, tap, adjust one's step to musical rhythm, perhaps to stare, hold one's breath, or take a tense attitude, music does not ordinarily influence behaviour. . .
     On the whole, the behaviour of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.

She then adds in a footnote the following:

     For an exhaustive treatment of the physical and mental effects of music see the dissertation by Charles M. Disserens, "The Influence of Music on Behaviour," (1926). Dr. Disserens accepts much evidence that I would question, yet offers no report of practical acts inspired by music, or even permanent effects on temperament or disposition, such as were claimed for it in the 18th century.

     One is reminded of the transient effect which music had when David played his harp to quiet Saul's troubled spirit. The quietness appeared to last no longer than the music; or if it did last a little longer, certainly the effect was not permanent, for David had to be called again and again. The point Susanne Langer makes about the effect of music lasting only as long as the music itself may perhaps bear some relation to the fact that certain types of architectural setting may in a similar manner assist one to achieve a meditative or prayerful frame of mind. For here again this effect is in some very real way connected or tied to the particular setting in which it occurs, and to leave the building and to mingle with the crowd on the street again is often to lose the reflective and prayerful spirit quickly. Neither beautiful music nor beautiful architecture has any permanent or even very lasting effect for good.
     The point is an important one, because the transient effects which these art forms have upon the worshipper are apt to be mistaken for something much more profound than they really are. They assist us to lift ourselves with the least possible delay out of the hurry-burly of daily life into an atmosphere of quiet contemplation conducive to prayer and reflection. But they do not in themselves have any carrying power. In many Anglican churches there is an atmosphere in the sanctuary (that part of the building immediately surrounding
the "altar" or table) which makes it easier for us to feel the presence of the Lord in a very "local" sense. This seems to be a

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gain if life is so hectic that we need this kind of assist to escape from the busy-ness outside. But the more concretely this sense of the presence of God is bound up with the environment within the church building itself, the more difficult it may be to leave the building without at the same time losing the sense of the Lord's presence. Many Anglicans, as they leave their pews, turn to the altar and, as it were, bow their adieu. This is a practice which must indeed sadly confirm the worshipper's sense that he is not only leaving the house of God, but going out from the presence of the Lord. To this extent, then, the gains which accrue from making it somewhat easier to feel oneself in the presence of God must surely be balanced against the very real loss of the sense of the Lord's presence which may result from departing from this particular kind of atmosphere.
     It seems likely to me that any particular place where the Lord has met us in a special way will tend to be a place where we will again find it easier to meet the Lord. Jacob was reluctant to lose sight of the spot where his encounter had taken place, perhaps for this reason. So a simple little gospel hall with its bare walls, uninspiring architecture, harsh lighting, and institution-like seating arrangement may nevertheless sometimes provide an atmosphere because of past association where it is easy to lay aside the cares of the world and feel oneself in the Lord's presence in a special way. Nevertheless one wonders whether this rather stark kind of environment may not have a somewhat different effect upon the visitor who comes in without such associations and who may not even find in himself any very great readiness to worship the Lord.
     Perhaps the place of beauty in worship, whether of music or architecture or setting as a whole, is not so much to lead people to the Lord which I'm sure it never does in itself but to make it a little easier for the mind to recover in the shortest possible time something of the sense of quiet mystery which must always be associated with the fact that creatures of time and space such as we are can come into the presence of God who dwells outside of time and space. Still, we must remind ourselves that what begins as an assist to worship may become a substitute in which "enjoyment" of the music and "appreciation" of the architecture take the place entirely of seeking the Lord's presence, of coming before the Lord for forgiveness and cleansing and strength, and for offering thanks.
     There are people who earnestly believe that any kind of church building at all is a mistake, since God is everywhere. Yet these same people would probably readily admit that even within their own home there are certain places a room, or a desk, or perhaps even a chair which have become in a special way a meeting place with God and where they find it requires less effort to think about the
things of the Lord. We are, after all, 

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circumscribed by both time and place so that it is a good thing to set not only a place apart, but even a time apart. Obviously we might all agree in a local community that we would worship "together" at some set time, each in our own "private little chapel," as it were; but it seems unlikely that any very great spirit of unity or feeling of corporate existence as a local body of Christ could result from such an alternative. In this case, if we are agreed that we should meet together in some place set apart for worship, that place must acquire by the very nature of things the status of a house of God in a special way. Should we not, then, seek to beautify it to the end that everything about it may serve to help us reverently and in the shortest possible time to achieve a state of preparedness for corporate worship? The thing which has to be guarded against somehow is leaving the impression that God can only be worshiped there.

     From this, I think it is fair to say that a body of believers is something more than a mere aggregate of individuals, and therefore a house which they share is something more in the sight of God than merely a convenient meeting place. It ought to be different entirely from all other places where men assemble to work or play or live together. In the strictest sense it should be set apart: that is to say, it should be a holy place. 

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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