Thursday, July 25, 2013

What's up with that: Extravagant churches

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An informal series addressing questions Protestants and Catholics have about each other
It's been awhile since I posted in this series.  I had hit on a lot of things that were weighing on me and it took me sometime to remember what else I thought should be addressed.  I have a few more posts in the works, but if you think of new topics, please send then along!

Back when the Puritans were around and trying to purify the awful Church of England, one of the things they loved was nice, simple, plain churches.  This is a common desire still among many Protestant denominations, especially newer ones.  Some Protestants look at the gorgeous cathedrals of yesteryear and wonder, What was the point?

I've mentioned before how a lot of how Catholicism works can be easily explained by picturing life and minds of people during the Middle Ages.  I think that works again here.
Notre Dame
Back in the day, there were no skyscrapers.  Cathedrals were the skyscrapers of the day.  They rose high above everyone and everything, reminding people of the awesomeness of God--pointing to heaven.  People also couldn't read.  All of those beautiful stained glass windows in Notre Dame and the statues all over the outside and inside were the Bible.  Christians would see the stories represented in art form and learn the Bible that way.  The physical church building was a teaching tool.

And why did the building have to be so extravagant?  In our modern world with developed minds we don't really see it this way, but medieval Christians felt that they were bringing glory to God with their creations.  Their actions benefited themselves of course, because obviously God can do without lavishness if need be, but it was an exercise in helping the person to bring God the best, just like the Jews would sacrifice the best animal they could afford.  It's another instance of "fake it 'til you make it" in Catholicism--actively working for God and in turn gaining greater devotion to Him.

But what place does all that have now?  I think it's still relevant.  Maybe we don't need all of our newer churches to be built the same way, though I do think the pictures and storytelling can still be beneficial.  But even today, we still have these cathedrals of yore.  And I've visited a lot of them.  During our travels we must have visited at least 30 churches, and most of them were magnificent buildings.  I always considered the men who labored to build the church.  Many buildings took hundreds of years to build and generations labored one after the other.  These poor people never even saw the completed building.
Cologne cathedral
When I would look up into the rafters of a church or up to a towering dome or see the top of a church casting its presence and standing firmly, permanently in the middle of a city, I would consider how its builders had worked for love of God.  And it was inspiring to me.  I am still reminded of the bigness of God when I am in a big church and soaring steeples cause my spirits to be lifted heavenward as well.

To me, these old churches are not obsolete in our modern day.  They continue to serve their purpose by teaching and reminding me in a very physical and tangible way of a faith that can sometimes be hard to grasp.  A blog post I read earlier this week reminded me that this was a topic I wanted to touch on and I encourage you to go and read it here.


  1. I love to think about the cathedral builders, too...and I love that upon stepping into Notre Dame or Chartres or even the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (which isn't that old or Catholic, for that matter!), it's immediately evident that you are not in an everyday place. You're in a space that has been consecrated for something intentional, something special, something Other. It's holy ground.

    It's not that you can't worship God in folding chairs in the storefront of a strip mall or on a hiking trail. You totally can. But being in a place that was specifically designated as a sacred space (and designed specifically to remind you of its sacredness at every turn) can bring a sense of holy distance and awe to your heart.

    I don't think that will ever be outdated or unneeded. :-)

    1. You are so right, Abbey. I think the bigness of a church coupled with the smallness of me always brings that awe that you describe.

  2. Great post! I really appreciate hearing your perspective on some of these things I take for granted.


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