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Grand Rapids, MI

The New Steeple

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

The New Steeple

Tom Elenbaas

In years past, churches had grand steeples reaching to the sky. The medieval architects who built some of the great cathedrals across the European landscape beginning around the 12th century were making strong aesthetic, theological, and even social-cultural statements. Here are a couple:

  • The tall architecture of the steeple was meant to enhance the dramatic transcendence that the cathedral was meant to represent. From the inside, the high ceilings would make a person feel small and "open up the heavens" through amazing frescoes and powerful, sweeping arches that seem to rise into eternity. Outside, the lines of the architecture are elongated vertically, drawing the entire building up into a grander physical space. The high, pointed lines of the steeple draw the onlookers eyes up to the heavens - to the transcendence of the God above.
  • In the 13th and 14th centuries, lights from the steeple would sometimes act as a type of lantern or "lighthouse" at the center of the city, illuminating the streets of the city below literally while the gospel it represents illuminated the hearts of the people.
  • The steeple was also meant to be seen from any area in the city. This provided a couple of purposes. First, it helped to provide orientation for a person from anywhere in the city, a kind of north star from which you could get your physical bearings. Secondly, it provided a cultural centering. In those days, the entire culture - education, government, and all social institutions found their centering in church theology - kind of north star from which you could get your social, spiritual, and moral bearings. Third, as a person entered the town, the high steeple topped with the Christian cross provided a kind of banner waving high above the city so that those who came into town knew the center around which this town found its bearings. It became a kind of witness to the center of all things.

One of the things I love about driving into Grand Rapids are the steeples you can see from different vantage points. When driving in from the west, on both sides of the road, these visual metaphors dominate the skyscape. To the north (on your left as you head in to GR from the west) is St. Adalbart's basilica, with its 3 cupolas rising to the sky, each adorned with a cross at the top. To the right (south) is St. Mary's Catholic Church and after you cross 131, Immanuel Lutheran sits tucked in between the rows of buildings on the Medical Mile.  Cathedral of St. Andrew towers in the midst of the city near Wealthy Street as you come from the south into the city. These landmarks (among many others) are architectural giants from a past generation that valued making powerful statements about the centering of the church in our physical, social, spiritual, cultural, and moral lives.

A few months ago, I was driving south on 131 from the Rockford area at night. It was a beautiful evening, and the sky was a crisp, clear black with pin-prick stars shining through the arched dome of the night. I was excited, honestly, to see the city arise in the background of the night. I love the city, and I love cityscapes. As the highway took a turn near 6 mile about a mile north of the ballpark, there it was, towering above the landscape and the first real visual icon as you enter the city of Grand Rapids from the North - the symbol now known by more people around the world than the cross - the towering icon of consumerism, one of the new landmarks around which we center our physical, social, spiritual, cultural, and moral lives, the McDonald's arches.


For some reason, for a moment in the midst of my expectancy entering the city and subconsciously awaiting the centering and iconic architecture of the cross, I was visually assaulted by the new north star of our modern day pilgrimage - the icon of consumerism. I began to wonder how, why, and when we replaced the cross as the centering aesthetic of our lives with the cult of consumerism. I was surprised suddenly at my own awareness of my own idolatry in the worship of the gods of Stuff and More and Convenient and Gluttony. I found myself in a strange moment of spiritual confession at 72 mph on an evening drive into the city. I'm not necessarily interested in revisiting or recreating models of medieval architecture for the modern city, but I do think there is a metaphor for the cultural drift of the cross from the center to the periphery to be replaced by many things, including the cult of consumerism. The question is, how do we move the cross back to the center? The reality is, we will never regain the city until those of us who profess Christ at least find that the cross rises high out of the center of the cathedrals of our heart.

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