A couple of weeks ago, I chaperoned a field trip to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. Built at the turn of the twentieth century, it was modeled in the Gothic style after the Abbey Church of St. Denis and the cathedral of Notre Dame, both in Paris. Though not as formidable as its predecessors, the place is still breathtaking.
Stained-glass windows (eighty-two of them) fill the expansive walls. Gorgeous stone sculptures and wood carvings greet you at every turn. Green and white marble floors, inlaid with brass, spread underneath your feet, making you feel as if you’re on the very road to heaven, especially as you gaze upward at the soaring vaulted ceilings and the angels they contain. As our tour group was about to leave, a professional organist arrived to practice for a wedding that weekend, and he played, beautifully, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the catherdral’s organ with its 3,863 pipes resounding in perfect harmony.
I couldn’t help but compare this sensuous experience to the space in which our own church worships. It’s not, shall we say, aesthetically pleasing. It’s a gym. The colors on our walls don’t come from stained glass, but from quirky school spirit banners. And instead of stone-carved cherubim observing our worship from celestial ceilings, we’re overshadowed by steel beams and huge exposed HVAC ducts.
Where would you rather worship?
I must confess that my heart was filled with reverence and awe as I walked into that stunning cathedral. It made me want to be a part of whatever goes on there. I wanted to stay for hours and gape at the galaxy of artistic detail that enveloped me as I sat in the beautiful oak pews.
But there was one catch: the entire sanctuary was filled with idols. Idols upon idols, in fact. Truth be told, the main reason people go there at all is to see and admire the works of man’s hands—not the works of God. And sadly, even those who do go to commune with God find themselves instead bowing their knees to graven images, or offering prayers to the body parts of dead saints. The whole place is a house of spiritual death.
When I walk into the gym on a Sunday morning to set up for our service, I am not filled with awe. My soul is not elevated by the mechanical whir of motors lifting basketball goals into their less distracting positions among the rafters. And there’s not much glory in arranging black plastic chairs on a dizzying array of intersecting out-of-bounds lines.
But as the time for worship approaches, God’s people begin to gather. And then, together, they offer fervent prayers to God. They joyfully sing praises to the name of Jesus Christ. And they faithfully listen to the preaching of God’s Word.
Which sanctuary is more beautiful?
After our field trip, I mentioned the spiritual death of the cathedral basilica to another parent on the field trip. She acknowledged the truth of what I said, but she expressed a longing to be able to have that kind of aesthetic beauty in worship, even though we’re not Roman Catholics. “Can’t we have both?” she asked.
What do you think? Can you have both beautiful aesthetics and the presence of God’s Spirit in worship?
Here’s my answer:
Sometimes God graciously grants both. He may grant an impressive building to a faithful church. He may grant skillful musicians to a humble congregation. And yet, Scripture clearly teaches, you can’t set your heart on both.
Many Christians fall into the trap of thinking they can safely devote themselves to the kingdom of Jesus Christ and to the pursuit of earthly, fading glory. But Jesus says you cannot serve two masters, because either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and aesthetics.1
For one thing, outward beauty quickly fades away. Just look at Notre Dame. Men may succeed in rebuilding her famous spire, but, in the end, even Our Lady of Paris will be nothing more than a pile of rubble. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”2
So what does make worship beautiful? In God’s sight?
I plan to spend the next installment or two of these writings exploring some of Scripture’s answers to that question.
|↑1||Of course, what our Lord said was, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). But do you know what you get when you take a tour of a bona fide basilica? Endless descriptions of how many millions of dollars it took to replace that matchless white marble, to acquire that hand-etched glass from Germany, to finish that façade with the rose window that looks so much like Notre Dame’s . . . Decadent aesthetics and the pursuit of wealth go hand in hand.|
|↑2||Proverbs 31:30 (niv).|