Thinking Inside The Box
- Adventists and Architecture - Part Two
“Yet a concern for architecture has never been free from a degree of suspicion...A thought-provoking number of the world’s most intelligent people have disdained any interest in decoration and design, equating contentment with discarnate and invisible matters instead.”
- Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, p. 11 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006)
Architecture, imagination and theology
But underlying all of the above may be a certain failure of the imagination, a dangerous one at that. Does the way in which the architect uses space influence the type of worship which will take place in it? Alain de Botton argues that ‘Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is the architect’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.’ (The Architecture of Happiness, p 13). That is not a question which troubles too many Adventist building committees. But it reminds me of the words of a song by Pete Seeger, a radical 1960s songwriter and singer. His warning in his song ‘Little Boxes’ is that people who live in these little boxes come to lead lives ‘made out of ticky-tacky’ and that ‘we all look just the same’. When
you worship in a box is it less likely that you will ‘think outside the box’ liturgically or theologically? Is a low ceiling likely to produce a domesticated view of God? Aesthetic considerations - concealed lighting, oblique angles, elegant lines, the creation of shadow or simple colour schemes – are minimized.
Very few Adventist students study architecture. Only a few Adventist universities – and there are many with good reputations - offer degrees in architecture. You are more likely to find schools of medicine or business. These offer good career prospects and serve the physical needs of men and women.
Architecture of time
But in a way all of this misses the mark. For Adventists are more interested in the architecture of time than the architecture of space. We have elaborate chronologies of sacred history which show every detail of a divine symmetry that is in place in the affairs of men. We believe that the flying buttresses of history are all exerting their countermanding weights. Adventists have an over-arching story about the kingdom of God which integrates the great movements of empire as well as the lesser details of autobiography. And of course the Sabbath is the basic building block of our community. For Adventists, time is sacred in a way that space is not.
When all is said and done, churches are nothing if they are not about the formation of communities of faith, communities of common purpose, communities of safety, communities committed to the view that if life is worth living it must stretch beyond our own narrowly domestic concerns. Judged by that criterion, Adventists often build rather well. These church boxes usually hold together communities established to promote the common good.
A last word about the boxes outside which we are often exhorted to think. Boxes hold things together, keep things safe – strong boxes, gift boxes, post boxes. But the most important thing about boxes is that they have to be opened for us to examine what is inside. Otherwise they are dead space. And as Adventists we may be afraid that if we do open them Pandora’s problem will become ours.