Thorncrown Chapel – laying down the gauntlet with a breathtaking revelation
Sometimes people get crazy ideas. And then other people realise that they’re not so crazy after all. This is the case with THORNCROWN CHAPEL, built in a forest in Northern Arkansas, USA as the result of the vision of one man – Jim Reed (read the story on the chapel’s website). I came across it only the other day, even though it was completed back in 1980 – and the photos blew me away. You can see more in their photo gallery. The place has become internationally renowned and won all kinds of architectural awards – and you can see why just from the shots included here.
‘Hot prots’ (of which, i suppose, i am one) don’t tend to get too excited about church buildings as a whole. As one famous spokesman for the constituency once said, church buildings are just ‘glorified rain-shelters’. And to a large extent, I do agree (e.g. see previous post)- especially having spent time in East African churches, where a church building could literally be a decrepit shed, if that, but where you could never fault the churches that used them (more often than not for protection against the sun rather than rain) on the vitality, vibrancy and passionate reality fronts. I would say that these churches truly are beautiful. (I had some involvement with this one (pictured) in Kampala for a while.) The same cannot always be said for many of the architectural jewels in the ecclesiastical crowns of the west.
But at the same time, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, surely – and even beautifully. We need rain-shelters (especially in England) – so why not make beautiful ones, buildings that actually say something at the same time? As long as we are always clear that the building is not the end but the means.
Thorncrown chapel seems to me to do just that. It is a stunning building in and of itself – made from local timbers, and ahead of its time in seeking to be environmentally sensitive in both its construction and setting (for an architect’s point of view, see inhabitat’s commentary). But it is more. It is an enclosed space that seems deliberately to conceal the fact. From the photos (I’ve never been there), it is as if one is sitting in an Edenic paradise. The observer’s gaze is irresistibly drawn far beyond the building walls into the forest – and then even beyond that, as the grandeur of creation demands the worship of its creator. For this is a building that glories in and immerses one in the created world. It is almost as if it is laying down the gauntlet, demanding a response from those who sit quietly, a response to a simple question: you can’t honestly believe that this is all a product of chance, can you? The effect is quite simply breathtaking. It doesn’t require images or power point presentations to do that – it simply has windows!
But even saying that doesn’t do justice to it. Because the Chapel’s name and construction point us beyond the building’s witness to the grandeur of creation; they draw us at the same time into the wonder of creation’s redeemer. THORNCROWN – that cruelly sarcastic, piercingly vindictive ‘gift’ from the redeemer’s armed guard. The criss-crossing latticework of the chapel’s roof beams, high up above, evoke that crown of thorns – reminding us that an Edenic paradise is not without its ugliness and pain – a ugliness which in the end was the very means to securing the most beautiful creation of them all – a new rescued people, rescued to worship the one who doubly deserves it: the Creator AND Redeemer; the one who provides the greatest shelter of them all – the Rock of ages, cleft for me.
As the Book of Revelation has it – and as this Chapel so beautifully evokes – the songs of heaven will rejoice in both wonders:
… You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. Rev 4:11
…Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise! Rev 5:11-12