As director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I get to do a lot of guest preaching around the country. I wind up in churches and chapels in areas as diverse as Tampa Bay, Fla., and Kittaning, Pa. In all of these settings, I find myself fascinated by the theology of the buildings.
That’s right. Church buildings have theology.
The theology of the building conveys itself in different ways, but it’s always there. I’ve found two tools that are invaluable in deciphering the theology of any given church building. Naturally the first is my MDiv degree, but the second is more unexpected. The second tool is my knowledge of superheroes.
Comic books teach us how to spot the theology in church buildings. They’re especially helpful when that theology is represented through art. For example, here are some of the kinds of things I’ve seen in stained glass, sculpture, or paintings:
- A winged lion
- A glowing bird
- A golden staff with an X and a P
These strange images seem out-of-place in churches. That may be because they represent a technique that we actually expect in comic books. To understand what I mean, imagine finding the following images in a comic book:
- A big red S against a yellow background
- A searchlight in the shape of a bat
- A black spider on red background surrounded by blue.
They make sense; we know what those images signify. The S is Superman. The searchlight is Batman. The spider is Spider-Man. We expect superheroes to have insignias, symbols, or attributes that point to a wider story. The same is true in the church.
That strange winged lion? It comes from passages in Ezekiel and Revelation. It has come to represent the Gospel according to Mark because Mark begins with a voice in the wilderness like a roaring lion.
The glowing bird? It’s usually a dove, and is a symbol of the Holy Spirit reminiscent of Mark 1:9-11.
The golden staff with the X and P? It’s often called the Labarum, and represents a turning point in the history of Christianity and the conversion of Constantine.
These images use the same technique as Superman’s S, the Bat Signal, or Spider-Man’s costume. They point us to people and stories. Of course, you have to know your scripture and church history to catch them, but it also helps to know your superheroes.
The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05/’17 is a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program and Master of Sacred Theology (ThM), between which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Derek also participated the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute. He serves as a preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.