Reclaiming Beauty

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If you follow me on any social media platform, you’ll know that I recently went to Rome. If you’ve known me for any period of time, you’ll know that I have always wanted to visit Rome. Why? One word: Vatican. I may not be a part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I have always longed to see the Vatican. Who wouldn’t? It’s full of art, architecture, and beauty. IMG_4236

While visiting Rome, I kept thinking to myself, “we need to reclaim beauty.” Here is what I mean:

I am a part of the American Evangelical Church. I have been my entire life. While walking through the beautiful cathedrals, all I could think about was how much the church used to appreciate beauty. It was sculpted in their structures, painted on their ceilings, and even engraved in their floors. Every single place you looked was beautiful. The American Evangelical church does not appear to appreciate beauty like the Roman Catholic Church. Now, before you get all angry and start saying, “we want to use our money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless,” let’s analyze this a minute.

When it comes to mission, I am 100% in favor of giving all that we have to help those in need. We should be using our resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. That is what Christ commands us to do. Looking through the beautiful churches, one might suppose that the Roman Catholic Church is not about those things. But they are. In fact, they do more than most. Just take a look at Catholic Charities, one of the largest charities in America.

IMG_4400As they help, they appreciate beauty, as well. It’s intriguing to me that evangelical churches are so concerned with helping the poor and criticize monumental cathedrals when they are willing to spend millions on buildings that won’t stand the test of time. This is what I am getting at. Millions are spent on new buildings but are these buildings beautiful? They may be modern, but I would argue that they do not contain the beauty that is found in the structures of several cathedrals (both Roman and other high-church denominations).

The church can be criticized for spending as much money as they do on buildings and I will listen to those critiques. But when you’re walking through the cathedrals of Rome, you cannot help but think, “they appreciated beauty in all aspects and they wanted to glorify God with these buildings.” And glorify Him they did.

Oftentimes, I wonder if people will visit the latest megachurch building 100 years down the road. My guess is, probably not. There isn’t really too much to see. The cathedrals in Rome are admired for their art and architecture. They are studied in classes. I am not for certain that many evangelical megachurches will be studied in classes.

Beauty needs to be reclaimed in the evangelical movement. We are so focused on being modern and contemporary that we have forgotten beauty. Popes would hire the best artists, architects, and musicians of their day to create works that would stand the test of time. If heaven is not a beautiful cathedral with incredible art, ornate ceilings, and a stunning choir singing in perfect harmony, then I’m not sure what it will be like. IMG_4186

Hire artists.

Why? Because they create things that stand the test of time. Their works give us a taste of what is to come. While visiting San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome, I was able to hear a choir perform and watch mass. I didn’t understand a single word that was said or sung. But I didn’t have to to know that what was taking place was beauty. The liturgy compelled me to listen and participate. It drew me in. This is the thing about beauty. We might not understand it or even follow it, but we are compelled to it. Why else does the church still sing some ancient hymns and yet they do not sing many of the praise choruses that were created in the 80s (well, some churches still insist on singing “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” over and over again)? There’s a difference between timeless beauty and modern creations. Timeless beauty can still be created but it may not appear to be modern at the time.IMG_4538

I believe that one of the most compelling thing the evangelical church needs to do is to reclaim beauty. Craft songs that have depth in both lyrics and melody. Hire artists to sculpt and paint. Seek out architects that see in the past. Perhaps I am sounding old-fashioned in my age. I will admit that early 20 year-old Caleb would scoff at what I have evolved into.

We are so careful to create environments that are welcoming that we neglect to have beauty. I think we overanalyze the environment and it causes us to miss important points. People won’t be scared of high ceilings, beautiful sculptures, and divine liturgy. It compels us to enter and participate.

We can do both/and. We can be charitable and beautiful. We have done it in the past and we can do it in the future. Life was not meant to be bland and boring. Church wasn’t either. Let me tell you, there was nothing bland or boring about the aroma, music, art, and structure of the cathedrals in Rome. In fact, to me, that was what church was always meant to be: a little taste of God’s coming Kingdom.

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Vulgar Worship

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It’s been a few years since the whole “sloppy wet kiss” debate began happening. Most churches have safely landed on the phrase “unforeseen kiss” as opposed to the original “sloppy wet kiss.” To them, “unforeseen kiss” seems less vulgar (even though by using the phrase “unforeseen kiss,” I get the image of a surprise and I don’t like surprises). Churches want to sing “How He Loves” without the image of messiness as portrayed in the original version of the song.

This piece is not meant to bring up the whole debate again. There’s no use beating a dead horse. I use it as a reference because it shows a greater truth about modern worship music in the evangelical church: we don’t like vulgar worship.

The word vulgar was originally used to describe the language of common people. Today, it is generally used to describe something lacking good taste or referring to coarse and rude language. When I use the word, I’m talking about the language of common people.

Modern worship seems plagued by “Stepford Wife” theology. We say to people that even in the darkest of moments, they should still praise God. To, basically, put on a mask and sing words to God that you don’t mean. In doing this, we have robbed songs and hearts of authenticity. In the evangelical church, songs are sung each week that deal with God’s love, Christ’s love, God’s power and strength, grace, etc. Anytime we deal with dark themes, the song will inevitably redeem that darkness. It is uncomfortable for us to sing songs that do not resolve. But the Psalms seem to paint a completely different picture. For instance:

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the lord while in a pagan land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. “Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!” O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks! – Psalm 137

I love this psalm. It portrays such depth and anguish. Even when they talk about rejoicing, we shudder at the thought of babies being smashed against rocks.
Psalm 22 is another psalm that is dark and yet still manages to worship God. It aptly describes the feelings of the author:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
And then is able to worship God in those feelings:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
I am not advocating that our songs become morbid and depressing. I am advocating, however, that songs begin to echo the feelings of the common people. This is one of the things that I love about the Episcopal church. It is able to capture all of these emotions in one service through liturgy. There is nothing more humbling and beautiful than to say “Lord, have mercy” over and over.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s grace because I feel like I have abused it and have lost the privilege to sing those words.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s strength because I do not see it in the atrocities happening around me.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing at all. I just want to sit in silence and repeat, “Lord, have mercy.”
Evangelical services carry with them a component of happiness. We want people leaving feeling energized and ready to take on the world. But as I have been rereading the Psalms, I see something different being sung.
I understand that worship isn’t about me and that it is about God. But you cannot say that all of these forced songs of happiness are about God. They are about us feeling better. They are about us escaping troubles. They are about us trying to assimilate the people into thinking/feeling the same way about God.
If worship is truly about God, then one will understand that there are several different words that need to be said. Not just words that point to happiness and satisfaction. Words that point to discord, words that point to anger, words that point to sin, words that point to abandonment, etc. These words need to be said because they are all part of the human experience with God.
Through these vulgar words, we will discover the greatness of God.