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I will set out by way of you to Spain,
and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
Romans 15:28-29

 

Last month, I was on vacation in southern Spain, Andalusia—Malaga, Cordoba, Ronda, and Granada.

Andalusia

Hercules, shown here in the city of Ronda, was the first settler in Andalusia. Today, he and his two lion pals are the region’s emblem.

Go toward the light. I’d like to suggest that this beautiful word be used as a name for future new church planting opportunities. I’d love to go to a church called Andalusia. Besides, don’t we have enough Bridges and Boatyards and Rivers, Elevates and Higher Grounds? It doesn’t really matter that the etymology of Andalusia is debated and could possibly be from “Vandals,” the barbarians who settled there. A church named for vandals might have a certain niche appeal.

If you can’t yet tell, most of my expertise about this area comes from cursory readings of small fliers distributed free on site. All you medievalists, Islam scholars, and art historians, don’t hesitate to jump in, add your wisdom to mine, correct me, when needed.

Religion

Many of the historic sites we visited have gone from being Christian to Muslim, and back to Christian. Now, some are state-run museums. All very interesting. Please, discuss among yourselves in small groups.

What I noticed, however, is that some of the sites were actually pagan Roman worship sites prior to becoming Christian. I’ve seen this elsewhere in Europe too. It speaks, I suppose, to Christianity’s syncretistic ability to absorb from the surrounding culture.

“Religion,” has a bad connotation for many Christians. Hate to admit it, but some of that may be due to the writings of Karl Barth, someone who has blessed me prodigiously and with whom I agree about 94.6 percent of the time. Today we see this anti-religion impulse in the “spiritual but not religious” crowd or those who prefer the label “Christ-follower” to Christian.

At its best, this “anti-religion” push by Christians isn’t a marketing ploy, but recognition that the Church of Jesus Christ—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—is not simply a human creation or a sociological domain.

Nonetheless, when I recall that many ancient churches were built upon worship sites of previous cultures, I’m reminded that Christianity is a religion. There is nothing we can really do about that. For both better and worse, Christianity shapes societies. It binds its followers. It builds, appropriates, and relinquishes buildings—and much more. It is simply who we are and at least part of what we are about.

Arabesque

We visited the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazaba in Malaga. A few years ago, we were at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. All are filled with incredibly complex and elaborate geometric designs, as well as ornate Arabic calligraphy. They are awe-inspiring.

I wish I had been introduced to the fascinating geometric designs earlier, back in my note-taking days of college and grad school. I was an incorrigible doodler in the margins. Although sports logos were my favorite subject matter, interlocking shapes and twisted cords were another favorite. If only I had been familiar with these Muslim designs, how much more I could have learned.

I’m writing primarily to teachers and preachers now. My point is that I did not appear to be a “good listener.” I did not make eye contact or nod my head at the professor. If my teachers or preachers were looking to draw energy from the crowd, a smiling face to hearten them, it wasn’t me. My head was down and my hand was doodling. But I was listening—acutely. Remember that the next time you see someone apparently not tracking with your sermon or lecture.

More importantly, this Arabesque caused me to do a lot of thinking about the sort of God that is expressed by intricate patterns and flowing letters, the intense iconoclasm of Islam (and Judaism, too, I suppose). This God is vast, complex, mystical, overwhelming, and magnificent. There is no unraveling it. No knowing it. No having command of the subject matter.

Here I risk sounding like the ugly American or maybe the churlish Christian, the one who complains that the hamburgers in Hamburg aren’t as good as McDonalds.

But I must say—perhaps out of ignorance, somewhat reluctantly—that I was a bit unmoved, left cold. By the end in the Alhambra, I was feeling almost crushed and small, eager to escape. Maybe those aren’t bad things to feel in the presence of the divine. Or maybe I was simply weary after a long day of touring (and a World Cup final in 30 minutes).

Had to slip in a picture of the French team celebrating their World Cup victory!

I wasn’t sure if I would innately love such a God. As we were leaving, I told Sophie, my wife, “I think I need a mother and child, or a figure dying on a cross. Something human…”

A High Calling

In this hot and dry land, all of the palaces we visited had trickling channels of water flowing through courtyards, into and out of fountains and pools, as well as lush landscaping, shady overhangs, and wondrous color. How much more phenomenal, almost other-worldly, these places must have seemed back in a time when for most people, life was nasty, brutish, and short.

I blurted out to Sophie, “You had to have an incredibly high sense of ‘calling’ to live like this when you knew that just outside these walls people were parched and very poor, living in squalor.” That part of me that hankers after “Ni dieu, ni roi” was feeling especially vigorous. Sophie lived up to her name and replied, “Well, don’t you think polytheists and atheists have been just as callous and self-important as monotheists and their ‘sense of call’ through the centuries?” Again—please discuss among yourselves.

Statues and Silverware

If I thought I needed a pieta or crucifix after all the geometry and calligraphy of Granada, then the mezquita-catedral in Cordoba may have been the fix for me. This mosque-reclaimed-as-cathedral is so full of images, statues, and relics, I wondered if the Catholics weren’t attempting to taunt Moorish sensibilities. Often in cathedrals, I appreciate the little chapels that line the walls. But here they seemed packed with gruesome images and “life-like” statues of saints. One room was so filled with silverware—chalices, candlesticks and more—I expected to find the Stanley Cup. “What sort of God is being worshipped here?” I wondered, again.

What do our worship spaces and their accoutrements suggest about the God being worshipped in them? What aesthetic best conveys the holy? I’m not entirely sure, but I think of Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s well-known phrase, “I know it when I see it.”

It’s still summer, so do something frivolous and carefree today. Listen to at least one of these three songs “about Spain.”



Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Much appreciated.

  • Dean Koopman says:

    I heartily approve of your call to holiday in Spain. Thanks to my two daughters’ study abroad semesters I have made more than one trip in the last three years and would return in a heartbeat. I would say that you have only seen a small portion and would be amazed at Madrid, Barcelona and Northern or “Green Spain”.

    • JoAnne Wagner says:

      “This God is vast, complex, mystical, overwhelming, and magnificent. There is no unraveling it. No knowing it. No having command of the subject matter.”
      This is meaningful to me. Especially in the face of Christians who claim to know what God is thinking and doing in all circumstances. We don’t know, really, and it is good for the soul to admit it. Humbling and opening at the same time.

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    When I visited the Alhambra, there were both Christian and Muslim guides escorting groups around. I was surprised by their competition with one another, while interpreting the surroundings. One would try to outshout the other in explanations. We need an interfaith center there!

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    A delightful read … thanks for the insights and the humor … and on a more serious note, in such places, teeming with history, one learns to take one’s self, or one’s faith, not so seriously … or perhaps seriously enough to see the mystery of it all, and the presence of the Presence in every time and place.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Steve, is that your own photo of the Escorial?

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Friends, thank you for your feedback and comments. A couple specific replies–Joanne, I hear you. Saying “I don’t know” is a good thing. Christians with too many answers aren’t a good thing. Of course, God is vast and magnificent and beyond us. At the same, we believe this God wants to be known and in relationship with us, and that in Jesus, God has done that, and especially what we see and experience in Jesus is God “all the way through.” The parts of God that are beyond us are not different or in conflict with what we know from Jesus. Tom, I was touched by your comments. You say more clearly and succinctly what I often feel in old churches. Not just how brief and limited our exposure and understanding is, but how we stand within something huge and wonderful. In Hagia Sophia, the stone steps going up to the “balcony” have worn indentations from millions of people over centuries going to worship. That inspires me. Daniel, all images are “borrowed.” Thanks again, dear readers.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Late to this reading and admiring party. Apart from all that is worthy of deep thought (no, I really mean that!), this piece is so delightfully you, Steve. Your dry humor and the theological depth beneath it is a gift on a summer evening. Thank you!

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Enjoyed this, Steve. I hope your next post will be about the 5.4%.

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