The Poetic Theologian on the 102nd Floor: Or, Introducing W+S

Sermon illustrations (and for some reason this is especially true of published ones) are notorious for their nonsensical and soul-eating vacuity. Too often they strengthen the arms of skeptics digging for more ways to ridicule conventional Christianity. Yet one of the most stirring, stubbornly nourishing turns of phrase I've ever read is in a sermon illustration. A printed, published one, no less. And the turn of phrase to which I refer is really quite standard stuff, a familiar piece of furniture in the old edifice of orthodoxy. Yet the old can be strangely new.

It was published in McCall's magazine in 1931. In it, the preacher recalls the day he stood on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building in New York City. Stretched out before him was the vast expanse of roaring industrialization: the whistling trains sliding on their rails elevated over the bustling mass of humanity below. From his high, high perch, the preacher saw a city - Manhattan - bursting with the newly discovered energy and industry of modernity -  bursting, that is, with that species of human optimism that is optimism in humanity.

Yet in pondering this foment of fecundity from the thrilling heights of engineering achievement, he was also greatly troubled. He could not help but remember other buildings he had seen over the years. Majestic Gothic cathedrals on the Continent, those architectural embodiments of the reaching, grasping human soul longing for the divine, particularly came to mind. And with the thought of these, his soul plummeted while his body remained perched on the 102nd story. "The modern builders can uplift the body," he thought to himself. But the craftsmen of ages past, "the ancient builders, in an age of faith, could uplift the soul." And Babel's infamous Tower came to mind, reaching to heaven in human pride, reaching in precisely the opposite direction those Gothic cathedrals stretch: unlike their young, sprawling grandchildren, those ancients reached straight up and moved "on the wings of faith."

At this point in the illustration, the preacher confessed: "I am a medievalist," which he appropriately expanded along the following lines. "I rejoice in the marvelous widening of our knowledge of this mysterious universe; I delight in the technical achievements of our day. This is God's world, and neither its good things nor its wonders should be despised by those upon whom they have been bestowed." He went on to speak of his hope - his "vague yet glorious hope," nurtured and cherished in his soul, that man might become, instead of the "victim of his machines," the wielder of them unto "the expression of some wondrous thought. There may come a time when God will send to the world the fire of genius which he has taken from it in our time," he continued, in the fervor of poetic revelry; "a time when he will send something far greater - a humble heart finding in his worship the highest use of all knowledge and power." And from here, from this loftiest of heights both architectural and spiritual, the preacher brought his point safely and clearly home: "there will come a time," said he, "when men will wonder at their obsession with these material things," and will recognize that what they truly long for, what they hunger for, are the things yet unseen.

It's a moving, effective resolution to the story that began with the preacher perched way up high on the 102nd floor, but it is that middle sentence that stops me in my tracks: "This is God's world, and neither its good things nor its wonders should be despised by those upon whom they have been bestowed." What a thought this is, what  a notion worth our pondering, our meditation. It is a commendation of the thoughtful, attentive, and deeply grateful life, a life self-consciously lived in God's world gifted to man. In all the debates these days over the proper ways of configuring our relationship to the natural world of God's handiwork theologically, debates that are important and weighty, it seems to me we ought never to outgrow this simple and fulsome affirmation.

You want to know who the preacher is, and so I'll tell you, but you may be surprised. The preacher's name was J. Gresham Machen, a man known more in some quarters for his firm orthodoxy in theology than for his aesthetic impulse. The sermon illustration was published under the title "Skyscrapers and Cathedrals" in McCall's magazine in October 1931, and has recently been reprinted in a small collection of some of his writings. I have feared for some time that Machen the poetic theologian remains a man easily and often overlooked because of all the other and more prominent features of his biography. Yet I have found that a reading of his work on its own terms, in all its variety and verve, reveals a man far more akin in spirit and theological sensibility to Gerard Manley Hopkins than, say, the Terminator. (Yes, I just said that.) And since identifying at least in some way with Machen remains a desirable thing for many, I do not hesitate to add that this is part of his legacy worth scrambling to own for ourselves.

"This is God's world, and neither its good things nor its wonders should be despised by those upon whom they have been bestowed." In the spirit (or at least syntax) of Anselm, it would appear that no greater entrance into the world of Holy Scripture and its teaching - regarding this world and the world to come - can be conceived than this one - complete, of course, with the robust and lively wider theological context to which such an affirmation must belong. And with the name "Wince and Sing," itself pulled from a line in a Hopkins poem, I hope you find here just such an entrance. Welcome to Wince+Sing, a resource site for theology, exegesis, and cathedral-like spirituality in the tradition of Reformed catholicity.