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Light in the Dark Ages

March 31, 2016

NASHVILLE. Many Christians look at our modern world of brutal terrorists, corrupt politicians, crumbling economies, decaying morals, compromising churches, and broken families and conclude that a new Dark Age is upon us.

Maybe they’re right and we’re living in the dawn of a modern Dark Age.

But maybe a new Dark Age is not as bad as it sounds. After all, people in the original Dark Age (roughly 500-1500 AD) were completely obsessed with light.

If you have ever visited a Gothic cathedral, you know what I am talking about. Gothic architecture had two foundational design elements: height and light. And every corner of the cathedral is a stand-alone art museum.

Beginning in the eleventh century, 600 years into the Dark Ages, hundreds of massive Gothic cathedrals were constructed all across Europe — from Scandinavia in the north to the tip of the Iberian Peninsula in the south, from Wales in the West to modern Poland in the East. In addition to the great cathedrals, thousands of huge abbey churches and tens of thousands of smaller parish churches were also constructed during this time. While not as grand in scale as the famous cathedrals, these abbey and parish churches were equally obsessed with light.

Because of the church building surge during the Dark Ages, by 1300, France and England had one church for every 200 people. In contrast, today in the Philippines, we have approximately one evangelical church for every 1,000 people, and many of those churches don’t meet in a church building. So, a return to the Dark Ages might be an upgrade.

I mentioned that the people in the original Dark Ages (a.k.a. Middle Ages or Medieval Period) had three obsessions that manifested in Gothic architecture: light, height, and art.

Light. Because of the heat and humidity of Mediterranean Europe, churches in the Roman Empire were typically built with tiny windows and thick walls constructed of stone. This was their attempt at ancient air conditioning. In contrast, Northern European cathedrals built during the Dark Ages included huge windows. These windows allowed Gothic architects to accomplish more with angles, shadows, stained glass, and sunlight than modern sound and light specialists can do with the latest high-tech million-dollar light rigs. Dark Age architects were not only obsessed with natural sun light, they were masters of light, shadows, and color.

Height. Try walking into a Gothic cathedral and looking down. I bet you can’t do it, at least not for long. Eventually, you’ll look up. No matter if you’re a worshiper or a tourist, the stained glass, pointed arches, carved vaults, flying buttresses, and beautiful art force the eye upward. The idea is to help worshipers get their eyes off of temporal earthly things and to focus, at least for a moment, on the eternity and majesty of heaven. Today’s church “architecture” forces the modern worshiper to focus on fallen finite fallible humans — singers, musicians, and preachers — on a stage.

Art. The third ubiquitous design element of Dark Age Gothic cathedrals was art. And art was everywhere in these cathedrals. Paintings, sculptures, mosaics, stained glass, and wood carvings adorned every Gothic cathedral built during the Dark Ages. In fact, when we talk about a Gothic cathedral, the whole building should be considered a work of art.

Some of the most amazing medieval cathedral art was recently discovered during renovation work on Salisbury Cathedral, an 800-year-old Gothic cathedral located 137 kilometers west of London. While doing renovation and restoration work, stonemasons discovered beautiful art hidden in parts of the cathedral that human eyes were never supposed to see. The top of the spires, the back of statues, the bottom of roof tiles, and inaccessible attic spaces all contained intricate carvings and detailed artwork that no one had seen in over eight centuries, since the original artists created it and hid it. In fact, some of the most stunning art in Salisbury Cathedral was designed and positioned so that it would never be seen my human eyes.

Why would these stonemasons, painters, woodcarvers, and sculptors spend time creating art then hiding it so no one would ever see it?

The answer to that question is profoundly simple. These people lived, worked, worshiped, and built buildings for God, not for man.

They saw work as worship, and they believed that worship was to honor God not to impress man. For us, worship means singing four songs before the sermon on Sunday morning. I think the Dark Age perspective of worship was closer to the biblical ideal than our modern Sunday morning mini-concerts.

I have nothing against the singing part of the modern church worship service. Singing those four songs on Sunday morning can be a powerful way to worship and experience God’s presence. But singing on Sunday is a small part of real worship.

Consider what Paul said about worship in Romans 12:1.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Paul taught that “spiritual worship” happens not only when we sing four songs on Sunday morning before the sermon, but when we “present our bodies” to God as a living sacrifice. This means that all of life can and should be worship to God.

If we live life as a sacrifice to God, then what we do at work on Monday through Friday is valid worship just as much as those twenty minutes of singing before the sermon.

I’m not suggesting that every carpenter and stonemason who worked on a Gothic cathedral 1,000 years ago was necessarily living Romans 12, but the overall cultural idea certainly leaned toward seeing all of life as worship to God. Why else would sculptors carve the back of huge statues? Why else would stonemasons carve intricate details on the tops of spires that no one but God would ever see?

They saw their work as worship. Do you?

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