“Why do we people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourist on a packaged tour of the absolutes?” asked Annie Dillard. It’s a question that anyone who isn’t half-baked has asked about the shared company found in the hallowed halls and solemn sanctuary that make up a usually bricked building called, “the church.” I don’t mean the observation in a judgmental, condescending way, though I know it is. I mean it only in as much as we have no idea how stormy and feral the God of our breezy, housebroken meditations is. In an often-quoted passage Dillard writes, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake…”
I love this passage because it appears that even the greatest of writers can suffer the burden of a mixed metaphors. But more than that, of course, there’s the image of God as the submarining Kraken plunging to the depths and rising to the surface, feasting on unmoored ships and scantily clad Christians who confuse the whole armor of God with dry-cleaned Easter outfits. And then there’s the first image, the chemistry-gone-wrong God from a scientific experiment: The Hulk god transformed from Bruce Banner, a socially awkward weakling, into a green, muscle flexing giant unleashed and ready to rampage through church corridors. ARGHHH!
In this church, the commonplace peccadillos – paltry bickering, snide looks, hypocritical sermons, bemused gossip, weaponized guilt, taking privileges as rights, offerings kept in pockets, tenured and controlled policies, feigned integrity, feigned holiness, the unstudied bible, the comforting log in our eye – hightail it out the backdoor like scalded dogs. In this church God thunders through the pews ready to whip and beat, scoff and cajole, and anyone in God’s way is subjected to a public smiting. And by this I don’t mean, and I suspect Dillard doesn’t mean either, that God is angry or vengeful. God isn’t bitter or peeved. God doesn’t drape over our shoulders a hairshirt or inflict us with boils and blisters.
I mean just this: God is dangerous, an unknown power, something mysterious, a holy otherness not to be placated with candy-cane hymns or fruitcake sermons or sugar-cookie prayers. When we forget who God is, when we disregard who we are, when we confuse ourselves for God, when we sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus a little too mawkishly or drone on about having a personal relationship with God as though God were a kindergarten teacher waiting to wipe our noses: when we forget to wear our safety helmets and protective eyewear, the power of God, an eruption of being and transcendence, will strike us blind and mute.
It happened to Paul. It happened to Zechariah. We will say with Isaiah, “Woe is me.” And we will call God angry and vengeful because we will mistake again who God is with the confidence of our piddling anthropomorphic vocabulary.
Besides its basketball team, Duke University is best recognized by its towering, cathedral-like chapel. The chapel was constructed from locally quarried volcanic stone called Hillsborough bluestone, which can range in shades from rust orange to slate gray. With the large stone piers, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults, a traveler from Europe might think Duke University has an inferiority complex. As a two-time alumnus, I can assure you that the university teeters closer to megalomania than servility.
I managed a parking spot and walked the familiar steps to the chapel. I sat my camera bag on a bench and started taking photos. I don’t know what it is with my camera but whenever I pull it out I seem to draw unwanted attention. The angry man who didn’t want me taking pictures of his barn; the security guard who stood beside me at Tyron Palace to make sure I didn’t violate the photography policy; the custodian at the art museum who thought I was too close to a painting. When campus security approached me, I knew I was in trouble, again.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked.
“What for?” he asked.
“For taking pictures?”
“Why would that get you in trouble?” He folded his arms and stood professorial-like.
“Do you have a photography policy against it?” I asked.
“Why would we have that?” he asked. This was typical Duke. Even the security guard was using the Socratic method. He revealed his passion for photography and assured me that, even if there were a photography policy, I could do just about anything. Then he thought better of his blanket statement. “Well,” he said, “you can’t fly a drone. Some genius decided he would fly his drone around campus taking pictures. It never occurred to him that helicopters come and go here all the time. The medical center pitched fits.”
I assured him that I didn’t have a drone, we shook hands, and I went inside the chapel. I started to set up my tripod when a chapel attendant immediately approached. “I’m sorry but you can’t do that here.”
“Seriously?” I asked. It really wasn’t a surprise. What’s true outside is never true inside.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” she said, sticking a pencil in her hair. “But you can take all the handheld photographs you want.”
I thought about telling her that I had donated thousands and thousands of dollars, maybe as much as a hundred thousand dollars, in exchange for two lousy pieces of paper. Surely that would entitle me to the use of my tripod. But no. Now, I was just a tourist.
When the Hebrews built the tabernacle, there was such enthusiasm that Moses had to tell the people to stop giving to the construction project. They made curtains and frames and loops; they used fines yarns and woods and precious metals. They ornamented the inside of the tabernacle with glided tables and lampstands and an altar. Before Yankee Candle there was “the pure fragrant incense, blended as by the perfumer.” And, of course, there was the Ark of the Covenant.
The presence of God, delighted by fussy, Baroque-anticipating government housing, moved in.
Standing inside Duke Chapel it wasn’t hard to believe that God moved in the chapel as well. The long-rowed pews stretched the length of the nave like waves stacked across an ocean. One million pieces of glass made up the 77 chapel windows. Saints and apostles and patriarchs were carved from limewood and oak. A crypt rested the remains of university abettors. A pipe organ reverberated with such vigor only the cut-stone bricks had the strength to keep the chapel from quivering into a pile of rubble. Ostentatiousness lured God to the imagination and hearts of those milling around the chapel.
God is dangerous here because God is inside. God gouges through the stone spires and vaulted roof; God breaks into to the chapel by shattering the stain glass windows; God slits the mined floor like a bolt of lightning through a darkened sky. Rooted in the soil below the foundation, God climbs the pews and pulpit like a vine enveloping a trestle. Sit still long enough and God will wrap you up and hold you down and devour you like arrested prey.
Inside God snatches prayers out of the air and hurls back rebuttals at the devout. God grabs velveted lapels and starched collars, untucked shirts and sloppy ties, and breathes sweaty smoke in the faces of the groomed and disheveled alike. God ambushes wedding parties, with their gussied-up dresses and tuxedos, and crushes their folded hands until two people squeeze into one. God hears the practiced chorus and unleashes an improvised quartet of angels whose whispered voices dwarf Handel’s Messiah. God toys with priest and reverends and bishops like marionettes.
And what’s the price of initiation? Forget the donation box. Don’t look for the offering plate. Crawl into the baptismal font and let the wind from God sweep over your face and drowned you underneath the primordial waters that sloshed across the face of the earth before God said, “Let there be light.” God is out to kill you, to suffocate the burdened life right out of you, in order to remake you, again, in his perfected image.
The stacked stones brick revelation and inspiration like scaffolding, weaving between clouds, passing an ancient, ruined tower of ambition. God is here, on the ground floor. Not the interior castle of mystics. Not the intimate God of concealed piety. This is the in-human God; the holy, uncreated otherness who can no more be thought about or dreamed of or believed in than contained.
This inside God is austere, simple and sovereign, more immutable than imaginable. Outside the rules are different. God attenuates through creation without being weakened. But inside, where God’s name is invoked and intentionally approached, where God has summoned human devotion and reverie, God rages in the sprightly cage of worship.
The next day, the ground had been dusted over with snow. The trunk of the car, where I kept my camera gear, had turned into a freezer box. I drove across Durham to the Museum of Life and Science, paid twenty dollars, and went to see the butterflies in an artificially controlled tropical rainforest. I walked into the protected area with my three layers of clothes and my camera, which felt like an ice cube in my hand, and was stunned by the flash of hot, humid air. I managed to survive the shock but my camera was a different story. It drew steamy air like a funneled tide and started dripping with condensation. I retreated from the conservatory and waited outside in an ant exhibit. I patted my camera and rubbed away beaded water with the sleeve of my shirt. I asked my camera’s forgiveness. It was a dumb mistake. I should have known better. I won’t do it again. I’m sorry. If anyone passed by and saw me, surely, they thought I was a man with a hurt pet in a veterinary’s waiting room. Or they thought I was a crazy person. For me, though, it reinforced the same lesson – Outside rules don’t apply. Inside is dangerous.
The butterflies flurried around the conservatory like living snowflakes. They flittered in and out of sunbeams and weaved through sprayed, hot mist. They landed on leaves, on the ground, and on each other. Pairs toiled in the air like trapeze artist, orbiting at speeds that blurred human sight to smeared colors and shades. The artisan athletes kept moving, dancing, racing, and whisking around the steamy room. And the brief moments when they rested on a leaf or branch, they flexed their wings as though they were beefy-muscled brutes.
I zoomed in as close as possible. Their tiny bodies were flecked with tears and rips. Their wings were tattered and rippled with powdery scales that looked like chipped fingernails. These butterflies live anywhere from a few months to a few weeks and are replaced daily. They are living fragility
We are butterflies in church. When we worship appropriately, we shiver and quaver up and down the nave, behind the pulpit, lofted high in the chancel; we are suitably submissive and tremble from fear. The brevity of our existence, contrasted with the stability of stones and bricks, accelerates our presence to a mere fleeting appearance. We are apparitions. Ghost. We’ve already left as quickly as we’ve entered. We are replaced daily. But the presence of God remains.
And these temples, tabernacles, mosques, and synagogues, cathedrals and monasteries and churches: they will hold God as a willful prisoner. And we will stand outside, building up the courage to go in, knowing that our butterfly wings will be torn and ripped because the outside, beautiful nature loving God is an ill-mannered, cagy danger inside the church.
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