I always wince when I hear people say (or see them write), ‘The church is not brick and mortar, the church is people.’ (I’ve written from a slightly different perspective about this elsewhere). It is not a surprising sentiment since we (non-Indigenous Westerners) live in a time and with a people who have lost connection with place. But place, and therefore building, has more meaning than we are prone to assign it. The truth, as is often the case, is in the nuance. It is possible, for example, to design buildings in such a way as to work against place. Randy Woodley, in his book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, warns:

One obvious example of Christianity’s embrace of modernity, with incredible theological consequences, is the design of church buildings. Christian churches have adopted the practice of shutting creation out of their worship services rather than incorporating architectural designs that allow creation—God’s first discourse of inspiration, wisdom, and beauty—to catch worshipers’ attention and inspire them to recognize the Creator through the creation. Church sanctuaries are enclosed, often without windows; or if they have windows, people color them with stained glass as if our human works of art could be greater than God’s natural artistry.⁠1

I love stained glass and think it can serve a beautiful purpose, but Woodley is right to critique the building which serves

“The artificial reality created by modernity [which] places us in a world where human achievement is heralded as the pinnacle of beauty, wisdom, and inspiration.”⁠2

With this critique acknowledged, the arguments I hear about the church not being a building are usually not about furthering our connection with creation, but rather a doubling down on the notion of place not being important, only people. But place holds memory, and memory is critical to our faith.

This past week I was reading Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, in which Basso, writing on the importance of “place-making,” asks the reader to consider Niels Bohr’s remarks in 1924 when he was speaking at the Kronberg Castle located in Denmark:

Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a different language.⁠3

Basso continues by exploring how the above elicits a certain response:

Thus, by one insightful account, does the country of the past transform and supplant the country of the present…That certain localities prompt such transformations, evoking as they do entire worlds of meaning, is not, as Niels Bohr recognized, a small or uninteresting truth. Neither is the fact, which he also appreciated, that this type of retrospective world-building—let us call it place-making—does not require special sensibilities or cultivated skills. It is a common response to common curiosities—what happened here? who was involved? what was it like? why should it matter?—and anyone can be a place-maker who has the inclination.⁠4

Buildings can be used to block out the world around us; to encase us. But that is not their only possibility. They can, as Basso recognized, lead us to ask question regarding our communal memory: “what happened here? who was involved? what was it like? why should it matter?” These questions of memory are inextricably linked with imagination which is perhaps the primary way we hold faith in our heart/mind (Hebrew lēb). As Ellen Davis, drawing from Garret Green suggests,

“in contemporary idiom, ‘imagination’ may be the single best concept by which to express all that the Hebrew word lēb implies.”⁠5

Memory and imagination are interwoven. Basso notes the connection between them when he writes,

“a modest body of evidence suggests that place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining which inform each other in complex ways…It is clear, however, that remembering often provides a basis for imagining.⁠6

Places, including buildings, are important because they hold our memories, and our memories are important because they stir our imaginations and in order to ask not only “what happened here?” but “how does what happened here impact how we live in the present?” Sometimes we remember history in order to not repeat it. In these cases, sometimes it is a faithful act to keep a building, even in its disarray, to remind us of the past we dare not repeat. But history, held in the memory of place, also tells the story of God’s faithfulness in the past which can stir our hopeful waiting and action in the present. As Maurice Friedman, drawing on the work of Abraham Heschel writes,

“History is not the dead past but the ever-renewed present—the burning bush in which each instant vanishes to open the way to the next one; yet history itself is not consumed.”⁠7

When I was reading Basso’s reflections on Bohr, I thought almost immediately of one of my favorite passages in Wendell Berry’s stunning novel, Jayber Crow, where memory, imagination, and place come together. Crow, at this point in the novel, ruminates on his time as the church janitor and confesses, “I liked the church when it was empty.”⁠8 He liked it when it was empty, it would seem, precisely because it was not empty. It was filled with a history in which he was swept up. I will simply end this post with this moving passage which captures well the convergence of memory and place and which stirs me because I have experienced something of the glory in place of which Berry writes:

One day when I went up there to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any further) while Aunt Cordi sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mother and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted – I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears.⁠9


1 Randy S. Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 51-52.

2 ibid., 51.

3 Jerome Bruner, Actual Worlds, Possible Worlds(Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986), 45. Quoted in Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits In Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 4.

4 Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 5.

5 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 16.

6 Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 5.

7 Maurice S. Friedman, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Philosopher of Wonder Our Thirty-Year Friendship and Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 50-51.

8 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), 163.

9 ibid., 164-165.