Monday, November 9, 2009

Flags and the Sanctuary

After Matthew Milner posted this on his blog recently, I felt my former patrio-iconoclasm decay a little.

The issue of flags in the sanctuary begs some interesting questions about how design influences worship. Millner's point is valid, that, perhaps, in placing our flag on the "altar" of our respective church we are not worshiping the flag, but creating a visible reminder that if we love our neighbor we ought to pray for our country. This helps me come to terms with my church praying for the queen and singing the Canadian national anthem (once).

But surely there are times when the flag does become an object of idolatry. Where is the line? Why is a little flag next to the cross a helpful reminder while a large American flag in many evangelical churches seems so different?

Soon I think I will argue that this is an issue of ecclesiology as much as aesthetics, but this is enough for now.


John Paulling said...

I don't think Matthew Milliner can be sure this is why others place flags in their sanctuary. It is helpful for his argument to refer to what is just simply "the stage" in most churches as "the altar".
Secondly, being deemed an iconoclast is becoming about as bad as being deemed a fundamentalist these days, a catch-all term for anyone who doesn't approve of one-particular image being displayed in public worship spaces. This is frustrating to me. Would I be deemed an iconoclast for disapproving of the ridiculous, over-sized Christmas tree that shows up in our sanctuary ever year. "Maybe, the Christmas tree doesn't have anything to do with materialism, and greed, but has more to do with generosity, and goodwill towards men." Come on.

This is not to say we shouldn't be asking God to have mercy on our country privately and corporately, but this is simply not what is communicated by having an American flag up front at our churches. Rarely do we hear pastor's asking for forgiveness for this nation. In fact the only person that immediately comes to my mind is Jeremiah Wright. Of course, he must have gotten the charge of being anti-American as much as anyone last year. Anyway, I'm rambling...
Good post, Jon although I see it differently.

P.D. said...

I wonder the same, whether Milliner is correct in this. I think it is a semiotics issue. Maybe the appropriate display of the American flag would be to have it hang upside down in a church service? I'm trying to think of a parallel or another issue that we compromise on like this, but am always a little uneasy about flags in the place of worship, maybe that makes me an anabaptist.

Jon Furst said...

I don't know about hanging it upside down per se, that may still give nationalism too much credit, albeit in a backhanded way. In the same sense I don't see Paul cowing to nationalism, I also can't envision him gritting his teeth and flipping the bird whenever he passed the image of the emperor.

I have a suspicion that it comes down to the size of the flag and the national understanding of it. It seems that nationalism is much more restrained in Canada, and so to bring a flag into the sanctuary means something different than when the American flag is placed side by side with the "Christian Flag" (Yes, the one on the cover of that Carmen album that bears an uncanny resemblance to the American flag).

This connects with what you were saying John, in that it isn't the object's presence that is evil (i.e. Christmas tree), but the layers of meaning it has accumulated from a materialistic culture. The object is just a vehicle.

John Paulling said...

Good point. Canada probably is different.