White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

How to Listen to a Building

Published Friday, August 30, 2013 By C. R. Wiley, David Stocker

Once upon a time, the people who built churches believed the buildings could talk. Today, many of the people who build churches for a living don’t know what their buildings are saying. The buildings still speak, but mostly the messages are unintentional. And regrettably some church buildings actually contradict what is being preached from the pulpits in those buildings.

The authors of this little essay are Presbyterians, and we love the Reformed faith: one is a pastor and the other an architect. The pastor has a background in the visual arts’his artist mother enrolled him in his first art school when he was only 7. The architect is that new breed who actually believes in old truths about architecture. Together, we feel quite out of place at times’like men wearing tuxedos to the beach. We wonder why no one understands us when we talk about listening to buildings.

We’ve got stories. In the pastor’s previous church, the congregation hired a design-build firm that specialized in churches to create an 8,000-square-foot education wing with the standard gymnasium/fellowship hall combo tacked on. The first architectural drawing included a roofline for the new gym that dwarfed the existing sanctuary. The pastor asked incredulously, “What does that say?” The man who had built numerous churches with this firm looked at the pastor blankly and shrugged. “It says,” the pastor told him, “that the important things that happen in our church happen in the gym.” The man didn’t get it. The pastor told him to lower the roofline and make sure the most prominent feature of the church remained the sanctuary. The man still didn’t get it. The pastor couldn’t determine whether the incomprehension was due to the fact that he believed buildings talk or that the man truly did believe a gym is more important than a sanctuary.

Why We Have Gone Deaf

We conservatives are plain-speaking people. That’s why, when it comes to art, Pilgrim’s Progress is what we go for. It is a fine book, a genuine classic’but the reason we like it so much is because it is almost impossible to misinterpret; seemingly, it performs its work like a doctor on a patient under anesthesia. It promises clear and unequivocal truth. And because most art cannot make a similar promise, we tend to dismiss meaning in the arts. But the most plainly spoken truths still require some interpretation. Even Bunyan knew this; that’s why one of his characters is named Interpreter. This shouldn’t surprise us; after all, it’s not as though there hasn’t been a lot of debate over the plain little proposition, “This is my body…”

We will always need interpretation on this side of the darkened glass. But that doesn’t mean that any interpretation is just as good as another; nor does it mean we are on our own when it comes to interpretation’whether we are interpreting nature or art.

Above all, the Bible is the inerrant guide. And while we can use Scripture to interpret Scripture, sooner or later we have to look outside of its pages to understand it. Take the resurrection’it happened in history before it was recorded in the Bible as history. It was meaningful before it was interpreted by the apostles. We can say the same for the sun, the trees, the flowers, and even bread; before the Bible was, they were. Speaking of bread, it is worth remembering that bread is something people make, and yet Christ used it to reveal himself.

Failure to recognize this rather common-sense truth is one reason why there is so much philistinism in the church. But it gets worse. This failure to appreciate meaning outside the Bible leads to absurd assertions about the “neutrality” of cultural forms’as though anything can be used to say anything we want’as though the world is made of Silly Putty and we can impress images onto things without having to account for intrinsic meanings. We behave like those atheists who insist that all meaning is culturally determined. But the Ten Commandments were not written in Silly Putty; they were engraved on stone because stone says something about the Ten Commandments. Without an appreciation for the intrinsic messages of our media, we can contradict ourselves without realizing it’or we can make so much noise, we actually drown out what we are trying to say.

Perhaps one reason church leaders can’t hear what their buildings say is because they have never been encouraged to listen. We did some quick and thoroughly unscientific research. We surveyed the course offerings in practical theology at four well-known and well-regarded Reformed seminaries to see what was being taught on the subject of theological aesthetics. We discovered that the answer is pretty much nothing. Since it wasn’t addressed under the heading of “practical theology,” one of us quipped that a new division should be created for “impractical theology.”

Why the neglect? One supposes an already over-crowded curriculum is partly to blame; but if the worship wars tell us anything, they tell us that theological aesthetics is very practical. Most pastors, however, are ill-equipped to address meaning in the arts. We do not mean to imply that a course or two in seminary would clear up everything’after dozens of credit hours in systematic theology and biblical studies, there is still plenty of room for disagreement on doctrine and biblical interpretation in local churches. But at least pastors would be more likely to look for normative patterns in the Bible, in theology, and yes, even in creation, rather than in the office park or the local Starbucks.

Our silence speaks to the world; it loudly asserts that meaning in art is arbitrary’that art is a zone of subjectivity; that the Logos, when speaking the world into being, left the meaning out of things, or at least failed to adequately connect appearances to meaning. It also says that we are at odds with the classical school of art’a school that taught us to discern meanings in creation and represent those meanings in the arts. When it comes to architecture, do we really share more common ground with modernist Philip Johnson than with classicist Christopher Wren?

Learning to Speak Again

The problem is partly a legacy of the church-growth movement with its crude appropriations of sociology and management techniques to increase the size of local churches. “Becoming all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) is a favorite proof-text. But there is good reason to believe that the apostle Paul was doing something very different than what we refer to today as “packaging.” The church-growth movement implies that the cradle-to-grave cultures of the first century are no different in substance from the age-segmented and consumer-oriented lifestyle enclaves we know today. The apostle Paul lived in a sinful world too, but he also lived in a world more attuned to the rhythms and patterns of creation. We live in a sick and dying postindustrial culture, one populated with self-absorbed and radically subjective individuals.

What are our buildings saying these days? If they are modeled on the local Costco’those frictionless warehouses of consumption’why are we surprised by a consumerist approach to spiritual things? If we are postmodern hipsters, will our buildings’with all the self-congratulatory bricolage of medieval votive candles, gluten-free communion wafers, and Etsy-art foyers’say nothing more than “Jesus can be cool too”? Perhaps the best way to be truly relevant in this dying culture is to perplex people by giving them buildings they don’t understand. Maybe needing an interpreter is a good sign. Philip thought so when he came upon the Ethiopian eunuch.

Modernity has harmed the church like a stroke. Like the victim of a stroke, we have lost command of some of our faculties. We need therapy. We need help to speak again with forms consistent with the gospel. The Christian tradition and its architecture can be a great help. Let’s rediscover the world our God has given us and the Bible he gave us to interpret it with and go from there. If we do that, we will design buildings that are at once fresh and vibrant as a May morning and as rooted in the Bible as an old-growth redwood in the soil.

  • C. R. Wiley
  • David Stocker


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