By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist
In the preface to The Pillars of the Earth, thriller-writer Ken Follett tells how he came to write a historically-based novel about the building of a grand Gothic cathedral.
In the midst of writing best-sellers, he’d toyed with the project for a long time, starting it, stopping it, almost dropping it. But, against his better judgment, he kept coming back to it.
“In the book business,” he writes, “when you have had a success the smart thing to do is to write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life. Clowns should not try to play Hamlet. Pop stars should not write symphonies.” It made no sense for him to try to write something “out of character” and “over-ambitious.”
Strange, he says, that he would focus his story on the building of a cathedral when he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t consider himself a “spiritual” person. (Whatever that is. “Spiritual” can be a squirrelly word whether it’s used by believers, unbelievers, or sort-of-believers.)
What’s more, his early religious upbringing argued against his ever writing a book centering on a cathedral. His family belonged to a “Puritan religious group called the Plymouth Brethren.” For them, “a church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches, so,” he writes, “I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.”
But he did write the book, which became his most successful, and he caught my attention on page 2.
I’d heard of the Brethren, “Plymouth” being one flavor. (Storyteller Garrison Keillor’s “Sanctified Brethren” sub-type is one he made up, but the real deal was obviously his model.)
The more I learn about the Brethren, the more I think the church I grew up in WAS them. We thought just like them. We distrusted color and mystery and crosses and preachers, loved law, were grace-challenged, etc. Yes, I learned to love the Lord there, but our distrust of anything much bigger than what we could control or do or figure out, was deeply damaging. It’s not difficult for me to understand those who refuse to believe in a God that stunted.
We hurt ourselves badly if we choose to stay behind the walls we build and think we have nothing to learn from others who love the Lord.
It’s okay to love cathedrals. Lots of folks who love the Lord deeply have worshiped him in cathedrals, and Puritan “shoeboxes,” and all sorts of edifices in between.
But anyone who thinks that God is locked up in their box, be it penny-pinching paltry or breathtakingly beautiful, is in for a surprise.