Thursday, May 08, 2008

Beauty and Waste: More Thoughts on Space and Worship

While watching a television show the other day about bread, I learned of a simple, but beautiful custom of Jewish bread bakers. While preparing the traditional Jewish bread Chullah, the baker will tear off a portion and bake it by itself, or simply throw it away. Traditionally, this was for the temple priests, offered as a tithe. But the tradition continues today to act as a sort of sacrifice, a reminder that God provides all that is needed, and this portion of the bread can, in essence, be wasted. This expresses very well what is at the core worship…that a component of waste is helpful in understanding what it’s really about, that it’s not a business, and that indulgence is, in a tangible way, a wonderful reminder of all that we have been given.

But in a conservative and efficient culture, waste has come to be seen as an altogether negative concept. In a culture where the “bottom line” dictates our thinking and where energy is to be prized, to waste at all is almost a sign of weakness, or failure. Certainly no church with a “green” conscious would want to be wasteful. But I’m not talking about turning up the thermostat or using plastic plates instead of Styrofoam, but substantial choices about space and aesthetics. We see, for example, the elevation of the “big box church”, where, even when churches have money, thoughts of beauty and waste are rarely afforded the architect. Instead, any space, be it a movie theatre, basketball arena, or shopping mall, can be converted into a place of worship, even if terribly tacky and not suited very well to the task. I can hear the head pastor saying, “Hey, they offered a free six month’s rent and it’ll seat 3,500! Perfect!”

But how can you convince someone that it might be worth creating a space that’s less than efficient, and that might take years to complete, not months? I could certainly quote scripture, where Jesus defends a woman who cleans his feet with costly nard. Surely this text allows the Church to be “wasteful” when it comes to adoring Christ. And it’s hard to argue that beautiful spaces help us do such adoring. Yet, this idea is foreign to many Protestants, who give little regard to aesthetics in lieu of practicalities like financing, efficiency and multi-use space.

Instead of offering beauty and mystery to its congregants, it replaces those needs with an emotional experience and preaching that promises certainty. The spaces used is often more corporate and functional than beautiful. Indeed, one has to wonder looking at the stage lighting and drum set surrounded by Plexiglas if beauty ever entered their minds. In other words, the space need not communicate; we’ll do all the talking. And talk they do. And talk, and talk, and talk…

But true worship, and its space, I would argue, may best be understood from the paradigm of waste. Yes, waste, as in, a sacrifice. After all, we agree we’ll only be here for a short time. So let’s enjoy it, and let’s splurge on our place of worship. Let Wal-Mart keep costs down by erecting ugly buildings. Let’s tack on another 5 years of a mortgage for stained glass, stone, flexible spaces and flowing fonts. Let our buildings speak volumes about our faith, let them say something when our words cannot. Let our worship be influenced by natural, not artificial light, and let the space be good for one thing and one thing only: worship.

Of course, there is a dark side to this way of thinking, and as always, we must find a “happy medium.” I think of Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of opulent, but spiritually dead churches. I found this quote here:

“Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher-theologian, once described how he went into the great cathedral in Copenhagen and sat in a cushioned seat and watched as sunlight streamed through stained glass windows. He saw the pastor, dressed in a velvet robe, take his place behind the mahogany pulpit, open a gilded Bible, mark it with a silk marker and read, 'Jesus said, "If any man be my disciple he must deny himself, sell whatsoever he has, give to the poor and take up his cross and follow me."' Kierkegaard said, 'As I looked around the room I was amazed that nobody was laughing.’

Here, in very few words is the perfect critique of waste for all the wrong reasons. When visual beauty takes the place of serving one’s neighbor, the issue has gotten away from us.

But the other extreme offers us problems as well. I’m reminded of a college friend critiquing the church, saying it was wasteful to even build a church. God could be worshipped out in the fields just as well. Wasn’t God in nature? But what about all that wasted nard? This story tells me that if we waste our treasure correctly, then it’s okay to waste it.

Or in other words, there are ways in which we worship beyond our feelings and our words; prayers in stone matter, too. Indeed they stand apart from a world that is looking more and more monolithic, where big box churches, malls and retail stores blend together all too seamlessly. Funny that when the architecture blends together, so too does the music, theology, and driving motivations for even existing.

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