Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Faith Works 3-13

Faith Works 3-13-10

Jeff Gill


An Object of Infinite Value



This past week I went to a program over on OSU's Columbus campus, at the Wexner Center. I sighed as I wandered through the relentlessly off-putting architecture, found a friendly face at the front desk (Hi, Dawn!), and went on down to hear a talk in their theatre on "Do Museums Still Need Object?"


If you're at all curious, there's an answer provided by Steven Conn, a professor of public history at OSU and author of a book by the same title. It's "yes, but they don't play the same role they did a hundred years ago."


This program, moderated by the always marvelous Fred Andrle, included Dr. Conn and the directors of the four largest museums in Columbus, the heads of COSI, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center itself, and the Ohio Historical Center represented by the new chief of the Ohio Historical Society. I thought they missed a bit of an opportunity by not rounding out the panel with the director of the Columbus Zoo, but it was a crowded ninety minutes as it was.


Everyone agreed that objects still had an important place in modern museum or science center visitor experience, but that the idea of coming to see a Hope Diamond or Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" or even King Tut's funerary mask doesn't quite occupy the same place in the imagination of a museumgoer today.


What had me thinking that there is a tie to our interests here on the "Your Faith" page is the role of special, or sacred objects. The unspoken theme in the presentations, as each panelist spoke, had a resonance in my mind of the "loss of the sacred" that some call a mark of the modern era.


Yes, I know, it's supposed to be all about the post-modern these days, but I think post-modernism is so yesterday that modernity is back in style again. Or at least we're back to a point where maybe we can try to figure out what "the modern era" stands for, since we seem to have jumped right across the World Wars into post-modernism without finishing up the questions posed by modern-ness (if that's a word, and it is now).


In the pre-modern world, there was such a thing as sacred space in worship buildings, and even the bar in the courtroom had a near mystical aura to its perimeter. Families had the good silver and the good china, and at church, the communion set in the most low church of Protestant congregations was silver and wrapped in purple velvet, rubbed and buffed in hushed tones.


My family was pretty solidly out of that tradition, with a fair amount of nervous skepticism in the air when matters Catholic came up as to confession or communion or priests, but it was a clearly understood matter that the Bible was never, NEVER to be placed on the floor, or have anything put on top of it – not another book, even a hymnal, let alone a coffee cup.


And I will confess as to having quietly and inobtrusively moved other people's cups off of Bibles out of sheer atavistic necessity. My grandmother is a quarter century gone from this life, but I can see her steely gaze out of the shadows when a mug sits down even on someone else's study Bible.


This is not the world we live in today, whatever you call it. Bibles are often paperback, underlined, and piled in corners even in churches with a very high view of Scripture; the title "the Reverend," not a professional designation like doctor (Dr.) or even esquire (Esq.), describes attributes to the relative sacredness of the person involved, bestowed through the act of ordination . . . but even in traditions that view ordination that way, the title is largely by the wayside.


So is it much of a surprise that, in a culture where even those who believe something is sacred believe that not much is, we don't hold much sacred? What would it mean to cry out "Is nothing sacred?" Or would you just get a quiet "Uh, no, not really" from most of the room?


In our churches, what is sacred? Where do we see the sacred, the set-apartness of God's intention, breaking through into our space, among our everyday items? Sacred objects shouldn't just be the good furniture in the parlor (keep those darn kids off of it), but what else is there? Some days, though, I think there is nothing much more sacred than a welcoming smile; certainly nothing more priceless.


Just don't put your coffee cup on my Bible. Nothing personal, it's just who I am. (And what does that say, anyhow?)


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he'd love to talk about where your sacred spots are around Licking County – tell him at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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