Some years ago I along with my family had the opportunity to spend a few days in Helsinki, Finland (a lovely city to visit, should you ever have the chance). Among the various sites we visited were two different churches that left two very different impressions on me.
First we went to a Russian Orthodox church, the Uspenski Cathedral. (The Russian tsar ruled over Finland for a number of years and left traces of Russian influence behind, such as this church.) While the outside of the church was not stunningly attractive, the inside really captured my attention. As with many other Orthodox churches I have since seen, every interior surface was covered with some type of artwork. These paintings (perhaps mosaics, I couldn't get close enough to see) depicted various scenes from the Bible as well as icons of different saints. While we were visiting (quietly in the background) some type of service was being enacted which involved chanting, incense, genuflection (kneeling) and other behaviors. The atmosphere drew all of my senses into this act of worship and even though I did not understand the event, I was entranced.
After leaving the Orthodox church, we walked a bit across the city to the central Lutheran church, the Helsinki Cathedral. This imposing building is entirely white and sits at the top of a broad set of steps on a central square, as seen in the picture. We entered this cathedral and encountered—emptiness. The interior space was very open and filled with light. But the walls and ceiling were all painted stark white. Not a trace of color anywhere. In the four corners at the center of the cross-shaped nave(?), where in Catholic churches one would find the four writers of the Gospels depicted, this church had statues of Luther, Melanchton and a couple others whom I do not remember. Aside from what I consider the inappropriate exaltation of ordinary men, I found the whole cathedral quite lifeless and uninspiring.
I understand the background that led the Protestants to reject the imagery and iconography of the Catholic and, by extension, Orthodox churches. However, my visits that day made me wonder if the Protestant churches didn't lose something valuable in rejecting the excesses of the period. We lost the recognition that worship is more than an intellectual exercise. Worship involves more than simply hearing the Word of God and an explication thereof. It even involves more than singing a few good songs (whether you prefer traditional or contemporary is irrelevant.) Should not worship draw us into a wholistic experience of God? What captivated me at the Orthodox church was the all of my senses were drawn into worship. You may object to the theology or specific practices of the Orthodox church (that would make for a good discussion in its own right) but I think they have retained something important. They recognize that art, that beauty, is part of what draws us into the divine.
I know that some churches and fellowships are beginning to recapture something of this lost aesthetic. I am acquainted with people who understand that beauty comes from God and our worship of him should include a celebration and exploration of beauty. But I think our Protestant baggage still hinders us from fully embracing this. After all, art, beauty, poetry, music and other forms of artistic expression are viewed in our Reformation-rooted culture as being frivilous, extravagant, non-productive and even distracting from the most important thing (although we have become quite confused as to what exactly the most important thing is.) I am only beginning myself to rediscover (or perhaps to truly discover) the fulness, the wonder of encountering God in various expressions of beauty. Does music have to explicitly mention God, Jesus or salvation to be worshipful? Does a novel have to include explict references to these, or have the characters making explicit (and lengthy) prayers to Jesus, to capture truth? One of my favorite novels, one that most powerfully depicts redemption, is Les Miserables, which is by no means a “Christian” novel.
I want to encounter God with my mind, but I want to encounter him with more than that. God didn't create us only as intellectual beings. Let's not impoverish our understanding and experience of him by limiting ourselves to a dry, colorless, lifeless worship.