Sacred and Secular?
Well, I hope this post makes some sense. It is about a topic that came up in a meeting I was at today. Something I thought I was settled on, but after processing it I’m not so sure. I’d love interaction to help point me in the right direction!
The issue is the separation made between the secular and sacred. I have long believed this is a false distinction that fosters the Christian subculture that has led to mediocrity in many areas, especially the arts, and a false separation between what is “Christian” and what is not. I still believe this is true depending on how you look at the issue. Certainly God is present in all places and in that sense we might call all places sacred. Equally true is the fact that a piece of art is not sacred if it has a Bible verse on it but secular if it is abstract and calls forth interpretation. Neither is a song sacred if it says the name of Jesus but secular if it doesn’t.
However, what has me thinking about this is an apparent contradiction that arose in the meeting I was at. It was a session in the Incarnational Church Series at Confluence Ministries focused on the arts, faith, and the church. On the one hand, the above view was expressed–any differentiation between secular and sacred is wrong. At the same time, significant time was given to bashing churches that would meet in a strip mall or not have art on their walls for the sake of beauty. At one point having a space used for worship that was not creatively beautiful was called heretical (we say we serve a creative God but deny it with our building). To me this communicated a contradiction, or at least a difficulty. How do we on the one hand say there is no such thing as secular and sacred and then say that we should create spaces that are sacred–or at least more clearly communicate the sacred?
I think one of the problems here is that we’re throwing around the words sacred and secular and then debating if they are valid around different issues. The first is whether God has any place in the world outside the church. The answer to this of course is that is a completely wrong way to view the issue! The church is the people of God, not the building where they gather. So wherever the people of God go they should be embodying the presence of God in that place–or even better, as Rob Bell says, pointing out the presence and work of God since he is already there! So in the sense of whether or not Christian should work and interact out of their faith in the world, the answer must be yes! Christians should not seek to make a false distinction between sacred and secular in this sense and thus create a Christian cultural ghetto.
The second sense of the use of secular and sacred though, is whether or not it applies well to spaces within the culture (this is what I’m wrestling with). In the OT God told the people to build a tabernacle and then a temple, which were both sacred spaces. Before that Moses had to take off his sandals because he stood on holy (sacred?) ground (and yes, I am well aware it was in the middle of a desert not in a building). In the NT we don’t see these places as clearly identified as the presence of God in the Holy Spirit dwells in and among the people who have put their faith in Jesus. Here we see a call for the people to be holy, not to create holy places. But then the church in later times sought to reflect the glory of God through art, music, and architecture. In some sense they created sacred spaces (cathedrals, monasteries, retreats, etc.) which were devoted to expressing the beauty and truth of God. Is it a way of expressing a need for a break between the secular and sacred to say that it is wrong (and heretical!) to have the places where we come to explicitly worship together not be artistically beautiful? So then the plain is secular and the beautiful is sacred?
Two things I’m thinking–at least today. 1) I think the arts in all their forms are important for the church–both the communal gatherings and the church defined as the people who comprise it. They can convey God, mystery, beauty, and truth, in ways words often fail to do. 2) Artistic expression as an essential without which the expression of the gospel is heretical seems to come more from the development of the church after NT times or the OT than the ministry of Jesus.