The beauty in the building
How should we as Christians think about magnificent buildings? By Colin Sedgwick
My brother Fredd loves old buildings, especially churches. His idea of a good holiday is not so much a pub-crawl as a cathedral-crawl. He will plan a trip around the various cathedrals he wants to visit.
Well, I have to admit that that wouldn’t suit me.
Of course I can admire the splendour and magnificence of great buildings, including non-Christian ones. I am not greatly travelled, but I have stood in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Christian church which is now a museum, not to mention the marvellous Blue Mosque.
I have visited St Paul’s Cathedral in London and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I have wandered in the Parthenon in Athens. I have removed my shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and likewise the massive Hindu temple in Neasden, just a mile or two from where I live in north-west London.
All these have been moving experiences. But I don’t think I could summon up the kind of enthusiasm Fredd has.
Sometimes I feel guilty about this, that I’m a bit uncouth and uncultured. But when that feeling strikes me I take comfort from the seeming indifference of Jesus towards the coming destruction of the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem: Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.
But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left upon another; every one of them will be thrown down” (Luke 21:5-6).
It’s easy to picture the scene. Jesus’ disciples, country boys up from Galilee, are dazzled by the sight of the Temple: “Wow, isn’t it incredible! Look at those decorations! What a fantastic building!”
To which Jesus replies, in effect, “Yes, marvellous, isn’t it? - and very soon it will all be knocked down.”
Talk about pouring cold water on someone’s enthusiasm! And what he predicted did of course come true some 40 years later, when the no-nonsense Romans marched in and razed everything to the ground.
I’m sure Jesus, in fact, wasn’t indifferent. In common with his fellow Jews he would have believed that the Temple was the most important building in the world. It was the earthly dwelling-place of God, the place where heaven and earth came together.
But what really broke his heart wasn’t the destruction of a beautiful building - no, it was the judgment of God that that destruction represented on a stubborn and disobedient people. The loss of the building was a terrible calamity - but nothing like as bad as the failure of God’s people to share his glory with the rest of humankind.
This conversation between Jesus and his disciples triggers in my mind questions about two big topics - buildings and beauty - and how we as Christians should think about them.
The early church, of course, had no buildings. The first Christians met for worship and fellowship in hired halls or people’s homes. Only later did they start to erect special buildings.
And the question arises, Was this a good development? Did Jesus ever want his followers to put up special buildings, whether splendid cathedrals or modest little back-street mission halls? When it comes to the church’s mission, worship and evangelism, are special buildings a blessing or a curse?
My answer would be: they can be a blessing, certainly, but too often they become a curse. They consume large amounts of money and energy in upkeep and maintenance.
And, especially in the case of the very beautiful ones, they can become a distraction from God rather than a pointer to him. Worse, they can give to the outsider, the non-Christian, a very wrong impression of what Christianity is all about: pomp and ceremony, rather than loving God and living holy lives.
And so I find myself torn in two. I can stand in St Paul’s, for example, and hear myself talking with two completely contradictory voices. First, “Isn’t this glorious!” And second, “Why oh why did they ever build this place!” (If you can help me, please, to harmonise these two voices I would love to hear from you.)
All that is beautiful is to be valued and appreciated. After all, where does beauty come from if not from God? In Revelation 21:24 we are told that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendour” into the new, the heavenly, Jerusalem. (Something to think about, that!)
Beauty matters. Art matters. Human creativity matters. And this is a truth that we as Christians should affirm, especially perhaps in our western world where there is so much cheapness and vulgarity, so much shallowness and triviality.
But - and this surely is the key thing - what matters most is the beauty of character which the Holy Spirit produces within us. The reason Jesus didn’t lament the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was because he believed that he had come to replace it. Isn’t this what John 2:19-22 means? Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again”.
And isn’t it significant that Paul speaks of both the universal church and the individual Christian as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (put together 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 2 Corinthians 6:16)? Yes, we Christians, both corporately and individually, are meant to be the reflection of God’s supreme beauty, a “place” where people can meet with him.
Is that how you see yourself? A living, breathing, walking temple?
Can I suggest a prayer?...
Enable me, Lord God, to value and appreciate all that is beautiful and fine in this world. But enable me, still more, to be a beautiful, Christlike person, a true “temple of the Holy Spirit”. Amen.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
Photo: The choir of St Paul's Cathedral looking east towards the High Altar. By DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com
Aerial shot of St Paul's: Mark Fosh/Wikimedia Commons