Miscellany 37: Beauty, Mission, and Apologetics
I would argue that beauty is a form of mission and witness to the community.
Consider this encouraging example of how an abandoned Wal-Mart was turned into a public library. The town could have saved money by just using the space almost as-is… but it was objectively ugly. (Objectively, not subjectively: no one ever said “Wow, what a lovely Wal-Mart.”) The architects and designers transformed this space, making it more humanly proportioned, with colorful furniture and visually attractive signs. Interestingly: “Within the first month following the opening, new user registration increased by 23%.”
Beautiful sacred spaces might help us share the Gospel in our communities. For the people who say “I don’t believe any of that Christian nonsense, but I like to visit the church, for the art, you know, and because it’s a peaceful place to sit for a few minutes,” beauty can be a form of apologetics – sometimes the only form that will get past the ‘watchful dragons’ of jaded skepticism.
Following that thread a little further – what about story?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been collaborating with William O’Flaherty of EssentialCSLewis.com on an extended interview series with Michael Ward about the Chronicles of Narnia, in which he discusses his argument that CS Lewis used medieval planetary imagery to create a structure of meaning for the Chronicles. (A bold claim, but one that is extremely well-supported, and in my judgment is correct.) One episode is coming out per week: here are episodes one, two, three, and four. (I encourage you to keep up with the whole series; it is excellent.)
How does this relate to architecture?
One of the ideas that keeps coming up in this podcast series is the significance of Lewis’s imaginative structure. Ward is quite clear that this is far more than an interesting literary footnote: it gives us insight into the way Lewis created the works to show Christ to his readers. Lewis helps us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” by bringing us, as readers, into a story-space where we experience the reality of Christ.
This is a far more significant accomplishment than just retelling a few Bible stories in a fantasy world.
Like a well-designed building, the architecture of Lewis’s story takes into account that we are incarnational beings, and that therefore our response to Christ is not based solely on ideas that we have about him — but also comes from our encounter with him, in a particular place and time.
And that place might be a beautiful building – or a beautifully made story.