The church I attend was born 140 years ago, a classic little white clapboard. The first time I saw her, I sighed at the thought of calling her home. The front is a blocky triangle, due to the addition of bathrooms on either side of the original facade (post-Victorian weaklings decided they were needed, and there was nowhere else to put them). The steeple is another block. It once soared appropriately heavenward, but it resigned itself to a heavy upward lunge after a lightning strike took out the taper. The overall effect of the exterior is a squared-off walrus.
Not so the inside. Past a narrow narthex, the pilgrim steps into the holy ark, upside down. The thinly boarded vault resembles the interior hull of a shapely ship. Below it is suspended an omega-shaped balcony running the full length of the nave. The spread of the great O’s feet frames the chancel. The pastor could well pray a Psalm of Ascent as he climbs nine steps to deliver his sermon from the elevated pulpit. The lectern rests on a pavement elevated by two stairs, and the altar facing ad orientem is raised another step. A high white reredos stands before a periwinkle apse on which the Holy Spirit hovers over the face of the deep. A carpet runs up the middle aisle, but the hardwood floor of the nave surprises the eye once more by lying diagonally, rather than at some boring dining-room longitude.
Despite its charms, however, there are problems. The marvelous wooden balcony needs cleaning and refinishing. The windows are fitted with tinted plastic panels that bring some color but little else. And then there is the large painting of our Savior that draws all eyes to the reredos. He stands with hands open, but unscarred. His face could be loving or maybe a bit fed up. He is set upon a utopian field of gold shapes tangrammed into a pattern suggesting a giraffe. This painting, I learned, is dearly loved by most of the congregation. But they could see that time was turning the giraffe’s golden hide green and failing to heal other wounds. The saints of Trinity Lutheran, therefore, pledged to refurbish the Lord’s house in honor of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.
A friend of the congregation sent me a link to a set of “before and after” photos of other remodeled churches. Although most of them looked okay “before” to me, the “after” ones were breathtaking. Mosaics, seraphim, Madonnas, glory and honor and might—they were beautiful, truly. They were also unlikely to replace the current soft and tender image of Jesus calling these locals to come home. He is the Jesus they come to behold. They therefore entrusted his restoration to the artistic group that had originally given him to them decades earlier. Providentially, a pastor at a neighboring parish was also a stained glass artist, and he was brought onboard to refit the ark’s portals.
Father Dwight Longenecker argues that beauty is the language of worship.1 Reflecting on the renovation of his own parish in Greenville, South Carolina, he maintains that “the language of beauty is universal” and “unites everyone.” Speaking specifically of church art, architect R. A. Cram says,
Art, if it is worthy of the name, is primarily the manifestation of beauty of some sort, and this beauty is not, as some curiously hold today, a variable and a personal reaction or idiosyncrasy; it is in certain ways absolute. Neither personal taste nor changing fashion can make the parabolic curve of a Doric capital or a Gothic moulding other than beautiful, or a cubist sculpture or post-impressionist still-life or an art nouveau apartment house other than ugly. In some mysterious way there is kinship or analogy between this visible beauty and the underlying truth of creation.2
At the same time, reasonable people should hesitate to demand that a winner be declared between a Doric capital and Gothic molding. It is as silly to imagine the only beautiful woman to be a slender soprano who holds a doctorate in German. How tall is she? What color are her eyes? Are we really settled on sopranos?
Variance, though, is one of the simpler troubles with beauty. Among the philosophical transcendentals (truth, beauty, and goodness), beauty alone is slippery. Contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton explains:
Someone charmed by a myth may be tempted to believe it: and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth. . . . A man attracted to a woman may be tempted to condone her vices: and in this case beauty is the enemy of goodness. . . . The status of beauty as an ultimate value is questionable, in the way that the status of truth and goodness are not.3
So, who’s right? The lowbrow crowd or the pretentious elites? Those with the gift to be simple or those with the gifts to be extravagant? The home-spinners or the artists? Should churches be outfitted by Gaudí or Marie Kondo? If truth is objective and beauty is truth, then we’ve got ourselves a problem. My church’s Jesus fails in the eyes of many. The sublime tableaus of other chancels stand a good chance of striking my field-and-stream neighbors as gaudy, weird, affected, or jarring. The idea of beauty as human unifier, even with the acknowledgment that style admits countless manifestations of beauty, can break down in any sanctuary.
There are two questions we may ask to help our judgment of beauty in an individual house of the Lord. First, what is fitting? Second, what is becoming?
The first question comes from Mr. Scruton, who offers the examples of placing a door in a wall or setting a table for guests. “You will step back from time to time,” he says, “and ask yourself: does that look right?”4 Stepping back, however, is trickier than it sounds. The viewer might back out of the church doors altogether. He would take in the soybean field immediately behind the church, the exclusively modest dwellings of the village, and the two-block downtown where only half the buildings house active businesses. He would see the sign Population 1044. He would make ecumenical notes: Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Assemblies of God, Baptists—meaning that the Lutherans represent the only liturgical tradition in town and the most sacramental theology. He might be tempted to think that words such as apse and chancel are unfitting here, and how much more the things themselves.
The juxtaposition of confession and culture calls for wisdom, but it can largely run on common sense. The Lutherans are among those living in these modest dwellings. We wear camo and drink Stag; we collect Precious Moments figurines; and we don’t say “ya’ll” but we do say “youse.” We are also at this church for a reason. The Table set here is one that moved our forefathers to erect an eighteen-foot reredos in a bean field. It looks right in our house of worship. Our pastor is among those who maintain that adorning oneself with the gospel does not make one glow in the dark. He wears a collar to the men’s popular Bible study he hosts at the town bar every Wednesday and dons vestments in a chancel where he would look kooky only if he didn’t.
It is fitting that the Lord’s house demonstrate the truth about beauty—that it is far more than taste. The eye of sinful man must be trained to behold rightly. A holy beauty shows forth truth and goodness and, in doing so, teaches us to know what is beautiful.
For the people of God to adorn the house he has given them, it is necessary to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. The painters had a style, as did the stained glass artist, and neither style resembled Precious Moments. In living memory was a warning from a departed mother of the congregation: Don’t you ever get rid of that dove. No ma’am! A member of the window committee mistook the window artist’s sketch of the traditionally clean-shaven John at the Last Supper for Mary Magdalene (thank you, Da Vinci Code). A Johannine beard was judged more ministerial than tradition for our window. Nobody got exactly what they wanted, except that everyone wanted the same thing. We wanted a church that in a single glance proclaimed and taught that he who hath no comeliness is our Beautiful Savior.
The second question, that of what is becoming, derives from my father. He had the good sense of any good dad to tell his daughters they were pretty, and he did it in a helpful way. “You look nice,” he would say, studying the outcome of a rookie’s bitter hour with a curling iron. “That hairstyle is very becoming.”
Becoming! Who says that anymore? Too few people, which is a shame. Looking for what is “becoming” is a useful way of looking at beauty, which is always in danger of being thought useless. One lady looks nice in a sheath and another in a shift. To one, a cowl is becoming and to another, a bateau. Saint Lorenz might look a bit off if she dressed like the Shepherd of the Hills. What “becomes” Calvary in Kansas City is unlikely to fit so well at St. Paul’s in Laurium or St. Mark’s in Manhattan.
Furthermore, no one is comfortable adorned in a way that does not suit her whole person. There are ladies who are never quite at ease in an evening gown, regardless of how well the dimensions of each align. Others just couldn’t feel right in L.L. Bean’s signature poplin or a broom skirt. But everyone will be thankful if no lady shows up to a formal occasion wearing a crop top or other such things that would be becoming to no one. Even the lady who can technically get away with a crop top has poor sensibility if she appears in it anywhere but on a pontoon boat fueled by beer.
Every aesthetic confesses something. A church can look like it grew out of either 1 Thessalonians or the think tank that gave the world Applebee’s. Orlando, Wall Drug, Portland, Hungry Horse, Rome, Wittenberg, and Geneva all need their churches. If only one kind of beauty were the right one, then IKEA could design our sanctuaries. But if we can allow latitude for a congregation to know what becomes her, the light of comfort and joy in her eyes will open our own. If I dress with the dress of Kate or furnish with the furnishings of Westminster, but feel like a Midwestern poser, I will look awkward and sad—which is not a good look for anyone. In Narnia, one’s dress clothes are also the most comfortable. That is the kind of insight for which we need Narnia.
Latitude to find what is fitting, however, does not give us license to show up in pajamas. Nothing will be fitting if it is not becoming; even girls who love fishing off muddy banks with Dad wear gowns to homecoming. Although dress shopping can be tiring and even discouraging, learning to dress well is both a skill and a courtesy. Every gathering in God’s house is a little homecoming of his people, so it is fitting that the bride should graciously receive what becomes her: adornments that tell the truth of her love and the goodness of her Lord.
These adornments need not be costly. The eye must guard against rule by the stomach. The beauty of God’s house is not her own, but the beauty that is rightfully hers to house tells us that something better than particle board is in order. The grace of God’s house is his gift to her. Her purity comes from his forgiveness, and her radiance is his light. To suggest that her possession of these things by his merits renders them unworthy of honor has the same odor as explaining to one’s mother that Mother’s Day is a junk holiday for the soft-minded.
To date, my congregation’s refurbishing committee has deepened the color of the apse to a chromatically heftier ultramarine. The reredos gleams in contrast before it like a lighted temple in the night. The Paraclete descends among six- and eight-pointed silver stars on the advice of contemporary liturgical artist Ed Riojas (the five-pointed variety traditionally represents the Epiphany, but in cultural context can only mean the USofA).5
Our Lord’s hands now invite us to gaze, with Charles Wesley’s rapture, on his glorious scars. The indefinite gold background was replaced with a partly cloudy welkin, echoing the apse and placing beholders at the Ascension. Windows throughout the building tell the story of the Savior’s life, death, and resurrection, and the growth of the church. I regularly take Sunday schoolers on mini-field trips to learn the depths of meaning in these careful symbols. Even geography counts: the Evangelists occupy the four windows at the church’s entrance. The myrrh-bearers make their wrenching journey in a stairwell used only by those who perform some of the church’s least seen and least pleasant tasks. Great is their reward.
I believe our parish has “cleaned up good” while remaining entirely recognizable as herself. The perfect fit neither disguises a person nor flaunts her. It arrays the best of her, whoever she is, in the most becoming way. That’s how you treat a lady.
Rebekah Curtis received her master’s in exegetical theology from Concordia Seminary. She is a professional indexer for Concordia Publishing’s scholarly Concordia Commentaries, and she has written for Modern Reformation, Chronicles, Touchstone, Salvo, and Lutheran Forum, and for websites including First Things, Front Porch Republic, The Behemoth, Babble, and The Imaginative Conservative.
- Dwight Longenecker, “Beauty: The Language of Worship,” The Imaginative Conservative, December 2, 2016, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/12/beauty-language-worship-dwight-longenecker.html.
- Ralph Adams Cram, introduction in Frederick Roth Webber, Church Symbolism (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1927), ii.
- Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2–3.
- Scruton, 69.
- Ed Riojas, “Star Gazing,” The Art Curmudgeon, January 27, 2017, http://theartcurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2017/01/star-gazing.html.