Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's missing?

You remember those drawings in the newspaper, usually near the comics or crossword puzzle and Dear Abby. At first blush, they look identical, but the reader is instructed to find a handful of differences--the left picture has 3 coat buttons instead of four, the tree in the background is smaller on the right, and so forth. Read this excerpt (selectively edited, yes, to serve my own purposes) from a story from NPR's weekend edition: abandoned gas station along old Route 66 is the unlikely home for another kind of Sunday-morning service, and it's one that you won't find anywhere else.

Felix Wurman...didn't feel at home at church. ... He's trying to make it more than that: a community, a spiritual place, like a church for people who don't go to church.

On a typical Sunday morning, a crowd gathers at the Filling Station, an old gas station that's been converted into a theater. It's in one of Albuquerque's oldest neighborhoods, surrounded by small brown adobe houses, a few blocks from the hulking shell of the old Santa Fe rail yards.

Coffee is a major part of the liturgy here — good coffee. Two cheerful baristas serve everyone free espresso in brightly colored ceramic cups. Laura Motter and her husband Nathaniel, who rode to the church on their tandem bike, have been attending faithfully since last spring.

"The first time I came, I heard about it from a friend who was reading poetry here, and we were just kind of blown away by what you can hear in a gas station in Albuquerque," Motter says.

Wurman says he doesn't want the church ... to grow into a megachurch, because that would destroy the intimacy that makes it meaningful.
That sounds like a great church! A cool, artist-friendly, community-centered, postmodern-grounded fellowship. It looks a lot like many of the new generation of congregations sprouting up around the U.S., right? Except this is the Church of Beethoven:

"Really, the idea is to find spirituality through culture, through the cultural gifts that so many people have suffered for and created over so many
generations," Wurman says.
The new (post-modern? emerging? ancient-future? pick-your-term) Christian churches emphasize creativity, community, and usually try to serve good coffee. They aren't often mega-churches, because megachurches work against the intimacy that makes their community meaningful. Is Wurman's church missing anything?

I've just started reading Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, in which she suggests that true art is Christian art, and conversely, art that is not true isn't Christian no matter how many much it pictures or mentions Jesus. "Whenever we taste the truth," St. Augustine writes, "God is there." L'engle's reflections on art make me suspect that she would agree that spirituality can be found in culture, that God is indeed present in Wurman's church because God is present whenever art elevates our vision and stirs our soul.

But she might also suggest that great art--including Beethoven's music--enfleshes a reality beyond itself. The artist does not serve himself or his audience, but the work that calls to him to create it. But that work is not created out of itself; L'engle, quoting Leonard Bernstein, says art creates Cosmos out of Chaos. Or put another way, art is the window to that Cosmos, not the Cosmos in itself.

What's missing, of course, is Jesus. Yes, we want to love our neighbors, to create meaningful works of art, to enter into deep and meaningful relationships. But we are the followers of Jesus, who says, "I am the truth." That is not very palatable at times, and it's easy to snicker at the overblown sanctimony of, say, religious broadcasters who seem to name-drop Jesus like a politician trying to ride another's coattails into office. God knows I roll my eyes at it.

I do think the congregants of the Church of Beethoven are experiencing God in their community and their music. Heck, I'd love to go to what Wurman envisions as a future sister Church of Berstein. ("Beethoven? Hello, the 1800s called and want their composer back.")

But beyond good coffee, authentic community, and great art, this is what we witness to : we know and experience God, and his name is Jesus.

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