Table of Contents
Part VI: The Place of Art in
A Place to Meet or a Place of Worship
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.
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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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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)
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
4. Taylor, John, Man in the Midst,
Highway Press, London, 1955, p.17.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
6. Langer, Susanne, Philosophy in a New Key, New. American
Library, New York, 1948, p.17.
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
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,
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.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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