At last! A glorious church (building) again!

Apse, Church of the TransfigurationThirty years ago, I wrote for The Boston Phoenix about a gargantuan labor of love by the city’s arts and feminist community to have brought to Boston and and to physically install for exhibition Judy Chicago’s massive homage to women’s achievement (and women’s anatomy), “The Dinner Party.” The work, 48 feet on a side and created by some 400 people under her guidance over six years, ended up being exhibited in a huge barn-like warehouse that required an enormous effort by local volunteers simply to clean it before the cases could be delivered, unpacked, and set up by still more volunteers. It represented dinner tables, arranged in a triangle on a porcelain floor, with places set for 39 great women from history.

Now, some 90 miles out Cape Cod, a team of volunteers and professionals have over some 10 years time created a very large homage to God, The Church of the Transfiguration near Orleans. It offers seating for 524 men, women, and children – whosoever might come. Like Judy Chicago’s tables, like Quaker meetings I’ve attended, like many theaters I’ve attended, the seats all face center. Everyone has a clear, direct and personal view of the speaker and the choir. There is no video screen, no potential for multimedia.

What there is is art: still images that tell the story of God starting in the garden. There are paintings, mosaics, stone carvings. The $11.5 million basilica (when in-kind donations of labor are counted in the cost) is the certainly the most ambitious single piece of religious art that has been created in my lifetime.

During each of the 10 years that the building’s art was being created, Americans spent more than 400 times that much on “Christian products.” That is to say, during 10 years while The Church of the Transfiguration was completed, we had spent 4,000 times the  building’s cost on framed reproductions of Thomas Kinkade with scripture verses on the mat; T-shirts with slogans like “God loves you and I’m really trying!” keychains, plaques, paperweights, Sunday school curricula, inspirational awards, journals, books, and Bibles.

And let’s talk about Bibles for just a minute, because this is, after all, the written Word of our God, on which we rely daily for guidance. You might not be in the habit of thinking about the Bible as not just God’s Word but as a book someone merchandises and sells that contains God’s Word. Did you ever wonder why it was that your Grandmother left you just a black leather King James … and now you have to choose among hundreds of Bibles if you want to buy one for a friend?

As of tonight, Christian Book Distributors has more than 4,200 listings under “Bible” including: The Breast Cancer Bible, The 100-Minute Bible, The Super Heroes Back Pack Bible, The Shiny Sequin Bible, The Waterproof Bible (maybe in case you forget and take it with you into the baptistry), KJV Baby’s First Bible (I admit, I had trouble understanding the King James at age 12 …), and The Marines Military Bible.

I have to ask myself: why? I understand why there is a Sharif Arabic translation of the Bible, why the Bible is available in French and Spanish and Chinese and Korean. But why is there a different cover with different study notes for every possible market? Why would you want your 6- to 9-year-old son to have a Super Heroes Bible he would outgrow? (Will he start to think the Bible is just for little kids?) How many years will your daughter carry her Shiny Sequin Bible?

So we’ve been making and using up all of these expendable church products. And near Orleans, some people decided to build the kind of church that is not expendable at all.

That’s not the way we’ve been doing church in the last couple of decades. Those of us in  traditional buildings tend to wish we had the freedom to move, grow, expand, reshape our space the way warehouse churches do. And warehouse churches are definitely less expensive. Earlier this year, the Athens, Georgia outgrowth of Andy Stanley’s North Point church sent out promotional information about its plans to spend $5 million renovating a former Walmart Supercenter into its new facility, which will be able to seat 1,200 adults at once. That means the Orleans church cost five times as much per adult attender. And it can’t grow. And it can’t use A/V technology to uplink with other facilities. It is what it is.

Beautiful. An homage to God.

Some critics are concerned that it is in fact a sacrilegious image of God. The church is not a building. We are the church, they say. Why would anyone spend that much money for a building?

I guess I’d ask the same question to every church that has a building. The church in Athens, Georgia will cost less, but it still will cost nearly $4,200 per adult attender to renovate and upfit. And the people who attend this church tend to be well off. Why not have small groups watch the weekly preaching in each others’ large homes, on their flat-screen television sets? Then each adult would have access to $4,200 for Christian service: not a huge sum, but something they could leverage.

I don’t mean to pick on North Point and its congregations, because my own church uses some of the excellent materials they’ve developed. I’m just making a point: buildings cost money. Whether you renovate a warehouse, maintain a 19th century downtown church, rent a school or theater, or build something new and glorious, you will spend money for your building. Unless you think you can break through the current suburban aversion to spending time in each others’ homes, you are not going to build a house church movement outside of the city.

There is one thing Americans do understand spending money for, and that’s advertising. And given the location of this church, and the visitors it can draw, the unique artistic creation could be justified simply as the congregation’s long-term budget for advertising Christ to people who otherwise wouldn’t find much reason to enter a church.

Orleans is located 30 miles from the tip of Cape Cod, amidst summer colonies of artists, writers, and professors. One friend who spends many weekends in nearby Truro heard the Gospel for the first time when we were in an old Episcopal church and she asked me to explain the stained glass windows. By the foresight of the church’s past members, 12 diptychs and the altar window allowed me to tell the entire story of God’s relationship with us, from Eden to His glorious return. The art in The Church of the Transfiguration has been designed with the same purpose in mind: to make the building itself a curriculum in Christianity just as church buildings were in the pre-literate world.

The Church of the Transfiguration can’t make a picture of the one true God. No one can. Still, even though it can only offer a suggestion “as through a glass darkly,” it has reminded us, for the first time in many decades of American church design and construction, that God is great, and that when we enter a church, we enter His glorious presence.

Halleluia. Amen.

Related articles:
The Art of Glory By David Neff, Christianity Today

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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