Style vs. content

I caught a sexagenarian (+!) Paul Simon on PBS the other evening.  He still had style, although his voice is “slip-slidin’ away.”  In the contemporary Christian/so-called “crossover” realm, Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant have always been long on style, and MWS, at least, often has content to match.  Billy Joel, another long-termer, has in my perception had as much content (albeit undesirable content at times) as style, but it’s a complete package.  Style is one thing, and content is another, and it’s excellent when they’re found together.

Contemporary styles are almost assumed to be normative in a great number of churches these days.  Lots of congregations exhibit contemporaneity, to some extent.

On the other hand, traditional styles can seem to garner almost as much support, even among contemporary advocates, albeit without the same depth of loyalty.  Stained glass and vestments, “baptismal fonts” and narthexes (nartheces?), blaring organs and staring icons are all hallmarks of traditional churches, and while some of these items things spook me a little, and most of them bother me at some level, a lot of younger folks find beauty (and meaning?) in them.

Whether we prefer old or new, and whether that preference is based on fact or fiction, I hope we can keep perspective.  Style sometimes takes too much of our attention; content is so much more important.

What’s represented by the “baptismal font” in, for instance, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches is contra-scripture; therefore, what many perceive as “beauty” in the style of the furniture is vacuumed out by a lack of bona fide content.  In other words, what is done substantively with the “font” is not of biblical substance; therefore, it is vacuous, if not devoid of meaning.  Such fonts should be seen as the ultimately meaningless pieces of furniture they are.

Next on the chopping block:  organs, which are of course very much in the traditional-style category.  Organs may distract and blare and lead poorly, but they may be seen as a necessity where there is no other musical leader.  Organs may tie up thousands or even millions of dollars.  (I know of one example of a 2-million-dollar organ restoration.)  When an organ’s style–its ornate cabinetry or its booming tones or the artifices of its timbres–become the centerpiece, the people in those pews are probably not being served with substantive content, nor are God’s purposes.  I acknowledge that an organ may seem to be a servant for some, when employed with perspective, and it may be an aid to worthy content.  These things should be brought into Kingdom perspective so that no organ (or any physical thing, for that matter) rules.

How about stained glass?  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it fourscore times:  “Oh, I just love the beautiful stained glass!”  “The stained glass in that church is so beautiful!”  Yeah, yeah.  There is a beauty when light streams through color, and I can appreciate that.  But for me, stained glass connotes the darkness of the Middle Ages (and earlier, and later), and since it does, it’s hard for me to separate it from false doctrine, popery, and oppressive, false religion.  This dislike of stained glass probably represents a failing of mine, but I confess it freely.

As long as styles are recognized as superficial, I might be able to acknowledge some value in them, even if they contradict my preferences.  But I feel a rising tension when mere styles are presumed to carry spiritual weight, and when fabricated words like “narthex” and “sacristy” are thrown around as though they mean something to everyone, and as though they have anything to do with the true faith of Jude 3 or, yea, with anything of well-founded, lasting meaning whatsoever.

Style sometimes takes too much of our attention; content is so much more important.  Whether it’s Paul Simon, Michael W. Smith, or stained glass, we should make the content the center of our thinking and experience.

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