Beauty and Worship

Dear Reader,

I have been reading through Charlotte Mason’s homeschooling series. I am in volume three in which she talks about the kingdom of Mansoul and all its officials and servants. I love how she talks about bringing our imagination and sense of beauty into play when engaging in intellectual pursuits.

But then I read this post by Nancy at Sage Parnassus. She talks about our sense of beauty in worship. I was particularly struck by this quote from the book Great Art and Children’s Worship by Jean Louise Smith:

“There is a very close relationship between appreciating beauty and worshiping.  In fact, it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.  As long as appreciation of beauty is not substituted  for worship, we need not worry, for beauty will enhance and add to the worship.  The two experiences need not be separated.”

Now, on one hand, I can see how the beauty of creation produces in us a desire to praise our Creator.  On the other hand, I attend a church with a very simple worship service. The congregation I am in now rents space from an Episcopal church so there are stained glass windows. But if we could have our ideal building it would be much plainer. I grew up in the Catholic church with its fancy vestments and incense and the like. But my current church has none of these things. Truthfully, the only sense one needs to appreciate our services is the sense of hearing. Taste is engaged at communion I suppose though like most communions it is pretty small and basic (and in my opinion not too tasty). There is nothing for the sense of smell and little visually, just a pastor at a plain wooden pulpit. There is a lot for the ears: God’s Word, the prayers of His people, and of course the psalms. When I tell people we sing psalms a capella, I think they usually imagine something quite weak and thin, but the truth is they are beautifully sung in our church (no thanks to me personally, I am afraid).

So I guess my question is: should we be doing more to engage the senses and our sense of beauty? Are we missing out on something good God has given us? I am not sure what conclusion to reach but here are some thoughts:

— I have to draw the line at certain works of art. I don’t think I am as strict on this as some in my denomination (we do have a children’s Bible with pictures of Christ in it), but painted or sculpted images of God are, in my opinion, not in line with the second commandment (Exod. 20:4-6).

— There is a fine line between aiding in worship and distracting from our real focus. This is part of the reason I am glad we don’t use instruments. They tend to get louder over time and overwhelm the praise of the actual congregation. And they and the people playing them tend to become the focus, rather than our own worship.  And, as my husband says, they become a crutch for the congregation and the music overall becomes weaker. People don’t learn to really sing. (I think when I tell people we sing a cappella, they imagine something quite thin and weak, but we RPs do tend to have a lot of good singers in our churches; again, present company accepted).

— Related to the above point, one person’s aid may be another’s distraction. So who’s to decide?

— Sometimes when we add “beauty”, we miss the real beauty. We get so wrapped up in the emotional responses that our surroundings produce in us that we are no longer appreciate what is really going on around us. The amazing thing in our worship should not be that the pictures are beautiful or that the incense smells nice but that God Himself comes to meet with us every week. That He speaks to us, through His word and through the Lord’s Supper.

So I guess as I work through this, I am a proper RP girl after all. I feel about this a little like I feel about miraculous gifts. They are fine as long as they serve their purpose–pointing to the Lord. But when we focus on the gifts in their own right, we miss what they are pointing to–the much greater miracle that God became man and died and rose to save us from our sins. With all these possible elements of beauty in worship, we run the same temptation, losing sight of the most beautiful thing that God has done for us.


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