By: Stephen McAlpine
It was one of those serendipitous moments. There, advertised on the Facebook page of a friend from my old days at Fremantle Assemblies of God church in the mid 1980s, was the kitchen table and chair set we had been looking for.
My friend was married to another friend from my even older days at Attadale Baptist Church in the late 1970s. This just had to be!
The photos on FB showed off the table in all of its laminated veneer glory, surrounded by eight brown and mustard faux leather, slim legged chairs. A safari shot of a lioness surrounded by her cubs would have made me less breathless.
The set had belonged to John and Amy, the parents of my friend’s wife. Early 1970s. Exactly the retro table that we had been looking to complement the newer furniture we have in our house. And a steal at 150 bucks! Get it? Course I got it! The ad said “price negotiable”, but my only negotiation was about when I could pick it up.
That required some coordinating with my farmer brother, his 4WD and his trailers of varying lengths. But heck, at that price I could even afford to pay him fuel money for the trip, and have spare change for a sneaky Maccas breakfast on the way back home! The deal was done.
John and Amy had been friends of my parents, and as a family we had sat around that table on a number of occasions. With both her parents now dead some time ago, it was tasked to her to offload furniture, and the table and chairs had been one of the last things to go.
As my brother and I were loading it onto the trailer, she remarked that she and her sister were glad that it was going to someone the family knew, remarking:
“There were plenty of good times sat around that table.”
A Symbol of Life Through the Years
Plenty of good times. And plenty of grace said over a meal sat around that table over the years too. Praise to God for his faithfulness. No doubt some tears too as parents navigated life with three growing kids. Lots of meals with people from church. A couple of house moves. And then, ageing and moving again, the sorrow of one parent dying, then the other.
And now it sits in our house, with our furniture, most of which has a retro feel to it, but is, nevertheless, new. Jill and I are both fans of mid-century modernism, but we always want to avoid that theme park feel, so while we love the cool, clean uncluttered lines of modernism, the true look is a bit too stark for us: We want a bit of boho, some jewel colours and plenty of plants, and good strong artworks.
And something about that table and chairs just settles the rooms and avoids the “just out of the packet” feel that so many modern houses fall for in their attempt to create “the look”. The fact that it’s also fifty years old, and ties back to the actual period we like (the end of that period at least), rather than simply being a modern-day homage to it, makes it all the better, as of course does the friendship history behind it.
Because it’s nearly as old as me, it’s started to show it’s age, also like me! It’s a bit chipped here and there, the varnish on the chairs has been rubbed off or has bubbled in some spots, and you can see the darker shades on the timber where countless hands over many years have scraped those chairs in to or out from the table.
A Mix of Old And New
And now you’re waiting for the theological bit, right? it’s this: Just like our table and chairs, the theological furniture we have in worship life together as the people of God needs a mix of new and old to round it out well.
The idea that we should cultivate “relevant worship” in order to reach modern people, and fill our theological house with only what is new, while throwing out the old, seemed like a good idea for Boomers in the West who had grown up with pews and itchy pants on Sundays. Modern people just wanted to come to something that was familiar to them, right? Hello seeker sensitive!
But in throwing out the cultural ornaments, the mistake was made of throwing out much of the theological furniture that the cultural ornaments sat on; liturgies, creeds, historical depth, songs with gnarly words from an even gnarlier age. Links with the past had to go because, well because if the church has any future, it’s got to do what the rest of the culture is doing, and ditch the past. All of the furniture had to be new, and in the latest colours.
“Everything is a strip mall and everyone is a consumer. And Christians and their churches so often behave accordingly.”
But the link broken was not just the past: the future. Where else can we say as countless millions down the years have said before us in the Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Like my table and chairs, plenty of good times have been had with that creed, plenty of grace and plenty of tears too. And incidentally, it’s the use of the creed as an apologetic for secular modern people that makes Rory Shiner and Peter Orr’s new book The World Next Door: A short guide to the Christian faith so compelling. You can read my review of that book here.
Yet the drive to keep pace with modern thinking in so many of our churches failed to take account of the less-than-best-life-now, that no amount of post-Christian hopes can assuage. We live in a deeply anxious age, and an increasingly disconnected one. Everything is a strip mall and everyone is a consumer. And Christians and their churches so often behave accordingly.
What We Lose When We Abandon Tradition
We have lost the way of looking at ourselves as partakers in an eschatological reality that links us to Christians past, present and future, and I cannot help but feel that our neglect of our ancient forms and words, has exacerbated that. We have all tapped into the desire for the new, hoping to keep up with the secular Joneses who, alas, always seemed one purchase ahead of us.
And now, in times when so many secular young people feel rootless and have no connections with the past, it feels like the church in the West sold off the furniture too soon. We’re a bit like the parents whose thirty-something kids look at our old family photos and exclaim in horror: “What? You don’t have that kitchenette any more? You gave away that red and white formica table? What were you thinking?”
“Churches that would normally blush at the sound of a hymn suddenly come over all liturgical for a couple of weeks or so, before putting the old stuff in storage for another year.”
Yet there are vestiges still there, the odd kitchen cannister set or china cup set, so to speak. And we take it out on special occasions. Having just celebrated Easter, and thinking back to Christmas, there still exists a desire to be connected to our past. Churches that would normally blush at the sound of a hymn suddenly come over all liturgical for a couple of weeks or so, before putting the old stuff in storage for another year, and returning to the perceived relevance of the modern worship service. It’s as if they give their people a taste of the deep, rich traditions of the church, only to snatch them away again lest they get over-used.
But Remember, Theology Isn’t a Theme Park
The equal and opposite mistake, of course, is to assume that a return to the old forms will solve the problem of the hollowed out, cultural amnesia so many are experiencing. There is an evident drive by many evangelicals towards more liturgical and “olde worlde” expressions of worship, and an almost obscene sprint towards Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy among ex-evangelical Millennials.
The problem with this, however, is that it runs the risk of “theme park” theology, an ecclesiastical equivalent of buying a mid-century house and atrophying its style with only furniture from the 1950s. Theology must be old and deep and timeless, but it isn’t a museum. Choices have to be made. Old is not bad, but neither is something necessarily good because it is old. There must be a way to honour the old and accept the new, and build a structure of Christian worship that both complements old and new, and is true at the same time. Worship cannot be aesthetics alone.
“Worship cannot be aesthetics alone.”
And as a Reformed evangelical, I have to say that there is some furniture that has to be thrown out, because it is obsolete in the house, and that includes the altar. The book of Hebrews has a bit to say about furniture, but only a bit, because it makes the point that Jesus as the owner of God’s house gets to decide what furniture to keep and what to turf. The return to Rome – or Constantinople for that matter – is not the spiritual solution we need, at least not in terms of grounding ourselves in a historical faith that keeps ticking in the background like a metronome, shaping the rhythms of our play.
The solution is to lean into the old, taking from there what is good and true, and arranging it with the new furniture we have purchased. And, as with my table and chairs, allowing each piece to make sense of the other; growing a theological room that avoids the risk of irrelevance, as everything “relevant” surely does. By allowing the old pieces to give direction to the new pieces we neither run the risk of being faddish with our theology, or atrophying to the point where all we have is the theological equivalent of a museum.
Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine
About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.