Looking at Buildings and Listening to the Gospel

N. S. Coleman
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

Is a triangle inherently any more moral than a rectangle? Let that seemingly odd question sink in for a few moments. Now, how about a cube and a pyramid? Or perhaps a stone villa or glass-and-steel house? This distinction is what architects call "form"’that is, the physical shape, size, and material quality of the structures we build or do not build. While it has been said that form follows function, it can never equal function. The outward form of our buildings and cities cannot be equated with the social life and vitality that inhabit them.

Contrary to what a recent set of Modern Reformation articles seems to suggest ("How to Listen to a Building," September/October 2013, and "The Church Meets the Humpty Dumpty Zoning Ordinance," January/February 2014), I would like to offer that the forms of our buildings and cities have absolutely nothing to do with the most moral of all questions: reconciling sinners to a holy God. We might agree that the particular shape, cut, and style of our shoes, suits, and dresses do nothing to express the inward longing of each of our persons. My pajamas can tell you nothing of my hopes or my aspirations’not to mention the utter depths of my sinful depravity. Why do we expect our buildings to operate differently? Are we really comfortable saying that our desire for a tree-lined sidewalk is intrinsically more moral than our choice to wear loafers instead of tennis shoes?

Never mind that our preferences change as often as the evening sun sets. Just look at how many women wear sweaters with shoulder pads these days, or the number of men in bell-bottoms you might see swinging around. We would be ignorant to assume that our preferences for our buildings' aesthetics are not as fashionable as our choice in clothing. Obviously, the time and money that we devote to our buildings greatly increases their longevity vis-a-vis our preferences. It is no wonder that the psalmist talks of the heavens wearing out "like a garment" rather than a stone column. But even the ancient Greeks knew that stone columns do "wear out." The Ionic order followed the Doric, just as slim-fit suits followed baggie pants. One style of stone column became unfashionable and was exchanged for a more elegant "cut." It would be terribly presumptuous to assume that any one of these fledgling aesthetics is more intrinsically fitting to the gospel than another, that an architect's preference for glass and steel is more (or less) holy than stone and wood. What greater authority should our own changing fashions have upon the shape of our children's churches than our fathers had on ours? Will we set our children's "teeth on edge" with a weak attempt at Classical form, just to assuage the assault done to us by a rampant, uncritical Modernism?

Let me be clear: I adore beautiful buildings. They are, quite literally, my life and profession. And I say that as unequivocally as I can, being a fan of both Modern and Classical aesthetics. But to put the word gospel anywhere close to either of those preferences is to forego the only good news we truly have. To assume that whatever design our culture prefers is somehow equal to its own moral and religious vacuity, and thus claim it to be inherently anathema to our gospel message, is shortsighted and ignorant of the very hope declared in that proclamation. As much as I love a beautifully detailed Classical building, I must never hold it up against an equally well-designed contemporary masterpiece’at least not in the name of morality. Our proclamation of hope to this fallen world is not to be found in pedestrian-friendly streets or quaint villages over and against megalomaniacal cities and suburbs. Midtown Manhattan shouldn't give way to The Truman Show aesthetic of Seaside, Florida’not in the name of Christ.

Indeed, we really should take much more time and consideration in the design of our buildings than our culture (and greedy developers) prefer. We need to take all the time we can afford to make certain that our cities, homes, and churches are as functional, beautiful, and long-lasting as possible. But to propose that one particular style of building speaks any more willingly on behalf of the gospel is to ignore history. If buildings speak, it is only of ourselves’their creators’and the vain sinful desires that reek and fester within us. If the pediment on the front of a New England church could speak, it would tell of the horrors of ancient Greece and Rome, where it was first used on idolatrous temples and solemnly presided over licentious debauchery and murder. If the pointed Gothic arch inside a medieval cathedral could speak, it would moan over the feudal labor that hewed it into shape in a Europe presided over by a self-aggrandizing and doctrinally erroneous Holy See. Are we really prepared to uphold the architectural forms of the ancient heathen or the medieval hypocrite as a paragon of Christian "community" and its expression? Against those who would deny the justification of sinners, is aesthetics really the battle we are willing to fight?

We must remember that architecture and urban design have no ability to create community. That power rests in the glorious message of the gospel alone. Only the living word of Christ speaks, calling sinners from darkness to light. Against the accusations of our sin, the refractions of sunlight in a particular window or the shadow line from a classical cornice remain silent. While physical light and darkness are powerful metaphors for the spiritual realities of our struggle with sin (regardless of their apostolic use), to assume that they can become more than mere metaphor is to lose the forest for the trees. Metaphors always lead us to something more; signs always give way to the thing signified. And we have signs, signs that our Lord himself gave us: bread, wine, and water’not buildings. These alone are the visible gospel, completely independent of our churches' shape, size, or color. One particular heap of bricks can no more speak the words of the eternal Word than a pile of rotting drywall. And both remain impotent to encourage sinful men to love one another. Contrary to centuries of architects' failed attempts, utopia does not begin at the drafting board.

But man has always tried, even long before Modernism. Take the New England city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a quick example. This independent colony was founded as an attempt to presage the heavenly Jerusalem, with its streets laid out according to Ezekiel's temple vision (or at least a Renaissance approximation thereof), centered on a single church set in a generous park, a renewed Eden. But the search for an earthly paradise aborted any longing for their heavenly home. Even a city with a tall white steeple at its very center could not keep men from pushing Christ out of the center of their hearts. And without the Word-made-flesh, there is no shape or size of a city or building that can unite people. Architecture cannot make "community." Our hope cannot be in the form of our built environment, no matter how harmonious its shape and proportion, nor the promise of earthly bliss it may offer. We may imagine a city with numerous tree-lined streets, beautifully landscaped parks, and a stout stone-and-timber church at its center where the message of Christ's atoning blood is absent, and find nothing short of Sodom.

Our only hope for fellowship and empathy on this momentary pilgrimage will be found in the shed blood and risen body of our Lord, and only there. And with regard to him and his saving work, our buildings will always remain silent. But not our pulpits. When Christ is preached boldly, we can turn and see our own sprawling suburban wastelands, our tacky developer McMansions, and our shoddy, run-down churches ringed with acres of asphalt, and behold Zion. And more than any beautiful building or ingeniously planned suburb of our own design, may each of us long for that great city to come, begun so humbly in the faithful preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments. And there may we pilgrims finally behold the glory of our heavenly home, to which no earthly structure can ever compare, one "whose builder and architect is the Lord."

Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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