Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is There Room For an Altar?

Last week, I visited grandmother’s house.

It is crammed with memories for everyone who ever lived in or visited this home.  There's probably not a single member of my family who would not like to take a few things from it for his own grandchildren. Unfortunately, our  family is too large for that. If we each took a few things from grandma's house, there would soon be nothing left. That's why it looks pretty much they way she left it, twenty-five years ago. 

We can take pictures though, and that's what my daughter did.

We have been sharing those pictures with other family members and they have been making comments about how the scenes affect them. Every one of my fifty-four cousins (and all their children) know what they are looking at when they see them. They evoke old emotions and irrepressible sensations.

Grandma's house was modest.  Her belongings were few. However, during the time most of us were growing up, she kept the same things in the same places. That's why they bring back a lot of memories for us.

Take her picture of the Last Supper. It is an inexpensive reproduction, like ones most of us have seen at countless flea markets. It has an aluminum frame that scrolls around its subject like metal lace. On top  is a light, which gets its power through a cord that hangs down the wall.

Woven through both sides of the picture frame are plastic flowers.

Grandma was a Pentecostal Protestant. She would not have been comfortable with historic Christian iconography. Nonetheless …

My blog is not about icons though.

It’s about a larger question: whether one should purposefully order his or her living space in such a way that acknowledges (and encourages) sacredness.

To put it another way: does the way we decorate our homes say anything at all about our values or our faith? If so, what sorts of things should we leave out? What sorts of things should we put in?

That leads me to another question: what about the way we decorate our churches? Does it even matter? 

There was a time when all churches, however simple and unadorned, were unmistakably arranged for one thing: worship.  Even the most iconoclastic denominations ordered their worship space in ways that set church buildings apart from other kinds of buildings.

For most of Christian history, church architecture has been a sermon, preached in concrete and wood. As a worshipper’s mind wondered from the sermon, his eyes would take in the message the building was preaching. A cross here, a stained glass window there, a verse of scripture, a banner or the communion table – something instructed his soul from every part of the room. 

At the center of everything, in every church, was a table; an altar if you prefer.

Now, what we called “the altar” in our little Pentecostal church was actually a kneeling bench. As we sang, “Is you all on the altar of sacrifice laid,” we imagined ourselves kneeling in front of that bench. That’s where we submitted ourselves to God. It was, therefore, an altar.

The table was there too, often covered with a cloth, bearing the words “Do This In Remembrance of Me.” 

The area around the kneeling bench and table was called "the altar area." It was sacred space and little children did not run or joke up there.

Over the front of the pulpit was a cloth, with a picture of a crown and a cross. I later discovered this cloth is called a "parament," though I never heard that term as a child. 

We Protestants have always been cautious about the ways we use art in our worship space. We remember the medieval excess that violated, or that we believe violated, the first and second commandments. However, it is only very recently that we decided worship space ought not be set apart at all, that space cannot be, or should not be 'made sacred." 

For many years, we have been asserting that worship space is not different in any way than other kinds of space. Now, even the concept of sacred seems strange to many people. 

So, am I saying that ‘contemporary’ just another word for ‘secular?’


After the Second World War, the British debated about rebuilding the Parliament Building.  When some English leaders proposed a contemporary design, Winston Churchill thundered, “No! This is our nation's heart. Human beings design buildings but then those buildings mold the people who use them! We must rebuild this building as it has been if we want our descendants to be truely English.”

It is an important concept.

There is nothing necessarily unholy about contemporary architecture. Some buildings, even beautiful ones, are profane. Some contemporary buildings are sacred. The issue is not about style. It is about intention and impact.

Do you know what the worship space of your church (or the decor of your home) says to the souls of those who enter it? You can be sure your home and church says something, but what? Do you know? 

Grandmother’s house was not a shrine. Most of her art was not even religious. For example, in her dining room was three pictures of China, or at least China as the artist imagined it. All around the rest of the house were pictures of our family, which, although many interior designers say is some sort of grave sin against the god of aesthetics, the Scott family insist is the heart of the home.

Why does that simple little house hold so many of my earliest thoughts and dreams? For one thing,  I know all the people in the pictures. A lovely little voice told me who they were a thousand times. She told me because I kept asking her, as I walked from picture to picture, from room to room who they were.

“And that soldier? And that little boy? Who are they?”

“Oh, that is your uncle Benny. He was a sailor in the war. That is your daddy when he was little, like you.”

And finally there was the picture of the unseen part of our family, having a last meal together. And, on top, a plastic flower hanging on an aluminum frame. 

A little boy looks at it all in wonder, not knowing or caring what others think about what he sees. This is his grandmother's home and it has a story to tell to those who live here. That's why every piece in it evokes a tear or a laugh from the fifty--nine year old that the little boy becomes. He is a child of a certain time and place and these inexpensive artifacts anchor him to all he treasures most.  

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