Recently I was in a meeting on the top floor of one of Nashville’s tallest buildings. The view was marvelous and, honestly, quite a distraction from the day’s agenda. As the landscape rolled toward the suburbs, I became struck by how many steeples I could see poking out like white onion grass through the wintry grey canopy of trees. There were, it seemed, hundreds of them.
As I drove through town that evening, I passed the campus of Vanderbilt University, which stands opposite the beautiful Parthenon in Centennial Park. The West End is filled with beautiful churches and temples, and the busy road creeps along toward the toney Belle Meade area. The steeples on some of the churches are marvelous. One in particular always catches my eye: Vine Street Christian Church. The spire is enormous, towering over the area before ending in a beautifully delicate cross. Not too far away is the Woodmont Christian Church with its impossibly thin uprising that reaches marvelous heights.
As I continued driving, I was struck by the beauty and craftsmanship of so many of these structures. Almost all of them were capped by a cross, even the ones that are attached to congregations that many evangelicals would barely recognize as being theologically faithful to traditional Christianity. Indeed, many of the crosses have likely entered into the realm of visual “white noise” (is that possible?) that goes un-noticed by inured passersby. Who has time to look at a steeple, after all, when there are texts to send while sitting at a red light? Who has time to look up when our eyes are so busy focusing on what is just in front of us?
My favorite steeple is in Port Gibson, Mississippi, at the First Presbyterian Church. It ends not in a cross but in beefy gold-leafed hand that points the way to God. It’s not a cross, but it’s a testimony at least.
Because I serve in higher education, I hear frequently about the controversies related to the removal of crosses from campus chapels at secular universities. “Too Christian,” we hear. “Too divisive.” Even “too hurtful.” We evangelicals in particular are pretty good at pointing out these cultural markers.
As my drive across Nashville reached the more generic outskirts of town, I was struck at how the newer church buildings lacked steeples. “Too expensive,” I’m sure the architects noted as they offered up their pre-fabricated blueprints. “Too much unused space.” “You don’t want to provide a barrier to anyone who might be coming in; you need to embrace a utilitarian mindset for your building.”
And so the steeple is dying out, as is the visual testimony of the cross that typically sits atop it. And a church building looks like a warehouse looks like an office supply building looks like an accountancy firm looks like denuded, secularized campus “spiritual space.”
Amazing how worked up we can become over the secularists’ intentional removal of crosses when we ourselves have forgotten about it. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an allegory at work here. Or at least a scripture passage.