(Owen Strachan is a new contributor to the Gospel Alliance blog. See our interview
with him here and welcome him to the team)
I eased back in my chair on the Acela train. Portland to Boston, the ticket said, in about two hours, thirty minutes. This sounded great. I had a whoopee pie, an Italian from Amato’s, and Brenda Wineapple’s spell-binding Hawthorne: A Life. What more could a boy from Maine ask for?
The trip did not disappoint. We traveled through woods, mostly, stopping a number of times in mostly idyllic small towns. The weekend had been busy, with preaching, much conversation, and time with family. I was exhausted, and a quiet train ride to myself was ideal.
The trip was not entirely quiet, however. My heart was stirred by the sights I saw. There is a familiar experience for many who drive or ride through New England towns. You’ve been traveling through forests on two-lane roads for miles, the landscape alternately rising and falling beside you. The road winds into settled country. An Edward Hopper painting comes to life. The village—as it often is—is solitary. A few gas stations, a small downtown, a soccer field sitting empty, alone and uncovered in the cold.
The sight that always catches my attention, though, are the churches, or rather the church buildings. They always draw my eye. They are invariably noble. Sheer white, usually. Two hundred years have passed, and still their spire is the highest point in the town. New England has changed a great deal. But the town fathers cannot bring themselves to discard the dictates of the past. The steeple is a symbol, signaling that the church, that God, has the preeminence. There is something about this statement, written into the architecture of the area, that vexes the modern skeptical mind. We can gut our doctrine and overhaul our liturgy. But the wood and stone and steeple—that is a different matter. Words are not sacred, but edifices are.
Elegant churches abound in New England. The book White on White, containing some of the finest ecclesiastical photography available, displays this in abundance. Many of these buildings are not used, or barely so. Some of these structures have been torn down; others, like a magnificent house of worship in Brunswick, my college town, have become houses of pizza. Yet many structures maintain a stubborn witness to their irreligious surroundings. If Flannery O’Connor saw the South as Christ-haunted, we might see New England as God-absent, or more provocatively, God-expectant.
Why this last descriptor? What about this famously and recently secular region speaks of spiritual expectation? The answer is straightforward: the architecture and the land. The buildings we have mentioned suggest not a situation of abandonment, in which the Lord has departed from the land. Perhaps New England is not Ichabod. Perhaps it is waiting. These plain yet beautiful church buildings are not doomed; they are groaning, with all creation, waiting to be redeemed. The landscape of this place is revered. It sent Thoreau and Emerson into raptures, after all. But they missed its essence, or rather denied it. The creational feast spread on the hills and coasts and twisting forests of New England is a gift from another realm. Like natural beauty everywhere, it is a cry from the heavens that God is real, and this earth is his own.
These realities suggest, paradoxically to modern ears, that the land of Mather and Williams and Edwards is not abandoned. It is expectant. And there is a third reason for spiritual hope. There is new wine in new vessels on this table-spread. Congregations of diverse backgrounds have cropped up in recent years, as Soong Chan-Rah has shown in his largely persuasive The Next Evangelicalism. Church planters associated with Acts29 and NETS and church revitalizers linked with the New England Center for Expository Preaching have come to the region. Conferences linked to the Gospel Alliance, NECEP, and The Gospel Coalition New England have sprung up. A revival on the midcoast of Maine was reported in no less a publication than Downeast magazine. Strange and mysterious things happen in God’s kingdom; strange and wonderful things are afoot in New England.
Where is this movement headed? The destination is less certain, far less certain, than one’s endpoint on the Acela train. It is undeniably true, however, that God is good, he is grand, and he loves to take devastation and make it a new creation. Time will only tell what is to come for New England. To sit back and travel through the region, though, is to be reminded by architecture, nature, and the rising voice of gospel preaching that God is not absent. His people are expectant, and his gospel is great.
He will accomplish his good will in this place. And he will safely take us all home, the days passing swiftly as a speeding train.