Why Do We ‘Tame’ the Gospel Message?

Some years ago a girl from our church was on a missions trip to Spain where she had an opportunity to visit the great Cathedral of Barcelona, La Seu. It is a triumph of medieval Gothic architecture that still inspires worshippers and visitors today. 

Gothic architecture, with its soaring arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and enormous stained-glass windows, was designed to evoke an awareness of the transcendent and an overwhelming sense of awe in the worshipper. It was an architectural attempt to connect heaven and earth. 

After the completion of La Seu 5.5 centuries earlier, a young American girl from an evangelical background had her first encounter with a great European Gothic cathedral. She described it to me like this:

“The ornate arcs caused my eyes to lift up, as if into heaven. The soft afternoon sunlight poured in through the stained glass. Dust particles floated timelessly through the hazy light. The depiction of Christ crucified came into focus. 

“I felt as though my soul had transcended the earth. I wanted nothing more than to fall on my knees and worship in this ancient, beautiful and holy place. Hot tears fell down my face.”

This American teenager was so overwhelmed by an encounter with sacred beauty that she was moved to tears. Why? She was astonished. Having grown up in the soulless strip-mall, plastic culture of American suburbia and its ubiquitous pragmatism, she suddenly had a devastating encounter with what we have lost—holy mystery and sacred beauty. 

In the Barcelona cathedral, this young evangelical recognized—perhaps as a metaphor—that we have lost something we cannot really live without. We’ve lost mystery and beauty and the power they have to produce the kind of astonishment that naturally leads to worship. 

My point is not the obvious fact that a Gothic cathedral has a different effect upon our souls than a sterile big-box store. I’m not really talking about architecture; I’m using it as a metaphor. What we need is the kind of Christianity that can produce in people the kind of astonishment that the cathedral produced in the American teenager. 

What we need in our faith, theology and witness is to build a cathedral of astonishment. Or more accurately, we need to rediscover and preserve the cathedral of astonishment that is authentic Christianity when it’s imbued with mystery and beauty.

Consider: We confess a Trinity, one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the mystery of the Incarnation—that the Word became flesh through a virgin birth. We proclaim that somehow God saves the world through the execution of a particular Jew outside the city of Jerusalem in the early first century. We preach that this crucified man—Jesus of Nazareth—has been raised from the dead. 

Furthermore, we confess He ascended to the right hand of the Father and now rules the nations as King of kings and Lord of lords. We believe He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. We believe that through Him will come the resurrection of the dead and all things made new. 

Every bit of this is astonishing! These are our soaring arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and stained-glass windows. They are not practical; they are mysterious and beautiful!

Nothing about the essential creeds and central confessions of orthodox Christianity readily lend themselves to pragmatic self-improvement programs. Asking, “How do I apply the Trinity to my life so as to make it practical?” is asking the wrong kind of question. It would be like asking the custodians of the Barcelona cathedral, “How do I apply this to my life?” They wouldn’t even understand the question.

Christianity is not something you “add to your life.” It is something you enter. (It is a cathedral!) And you enter on its terms, not yours. Christ is the door that leads to this astonishing cathedral called salvation. To enter into authentic Christianity is to leave the shrunken world of staid moralism and sterile pragmatism. It is to enter a kind of cathedral that is so big, so beautiful, so astonishing that worship is the only acceptable response. 

What I’m trying to say is that Christianity with its sacred mysteries is a grand and gorgeous cathedral. It is something much bigger and more beautiful than what we have become accustomed to in a stripped-down pragmatized Christianity sold on the cheap at the local God-Mart.

As Christians we are the heirs of a faith that has been entrusted to us—the faith that was “once for all” entrusted to the saints (Jude 1:3). We are not the architects of the faith; we are the trustees. And we have been reckless with the received faith. In our reckless attempt to make Christianity popular by making it “practical,” we invariably vandalize it by stripping it of its inherent beauty and mystery. 

So in North America we have a Christianity that is relatively popular but damaged. It is thin, shallow and trite. We make it practical by adapting it to the assumed values of the wider culture. We figure out what people want, and then offer them a Christianized version of it. We do it in the name of church growth, but it is really the betrayal of a sacred trust. 

It would be like turning St. Paul’s Cathedral into a shopping mall to increase traffic. But in the long run, when we sacrifice beauty and mystery for the sake of practicality, we paradoxically end up making it impractical. Think of all the abandoned strip malls that we no longer have any use for. That is the lesson: When we sacrifice the beautiful for the useful, we eventually end up with something entirely useless!

In preaching the gospel, we are not hawking cheap wares; we are inviting people into a cathedral of astonishment. Great Gothic cathedrals can have a beautiful exterior, but their true beauty is found in the interior. These cathedrals are designed for the worshipper who enters the sanctuary, not for the casual passerby who only observes from outside—which is to say, it cannot be explained; it can only be experienced. 

This is just the way it is with Christianity. There is no explanation of it that can adequately represent the experience of it. We can witness to the astonishing beauty of Christianity, but to fully appreciate it, it must be experienced for one’s self. 

So we will tell people of what we have found in this cathedral of astonishment called Christianity, but eventually we can say no more than, “Come and see.” And having said it, let us make sure we take the seekers into the cathedral itself and not try to sell them a cheap replica.

Brian Zahnd is the founder and senior pastor of Word of Life Church, a congregation in St. Joseph, Mo. He and his wife, Peri, have three sons. Zahnd is the author of "Unconditional?" and his latest book, "Beauty Will Save the World," which released in January.

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