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The Treasures of the Church

  • November 29, -0001
A brief report in The Economist (September 12th) raises a question about who should preserve the treasures of the Church. What treasures? Not monetary, to be sure; cultural, primarily, but also, foundational. Should Christians over the world be troubled by the fact that so many of the cultural and spiritual contributions of our forebears are in the care of people whose worldview is inimical to the mission of the City of God?

The Economist reports on excavations being done on Skellig Michael, an abandoned medieval monastery perched atop a desolate island off the west coast of Ireland. We know almost nothing about the people who inhabited this bit of real estate during the Middle Ages, but they have left buildings and other artifacts that witness to the austerity and rigor the Christian life demands of its adherents. At present, Ireland's Office of Public Works oversees the efforts of island caretaker Grellan Rourke, but questions are being raised about the care and quality of digging presently underway there. UNESCO, which has declared the island a "World Heritage Site" (which world? what heritage?) is getting involved, just to make sure that everything is done decently and in order. Hopefully, they'll do just that.

But what guarantees do we have that they won't come in and recommend building a theme park there? Or sell off the island to some wealthy eccentric looking for a remote retirement home for his pup? The point is, having such treasures in the hands of national governments, private institutions, and international service agencies may not suit the needs of the Church in an age that is becoming increasingly hostile to the things of Christ. All the rarest manuscripts of the Old and New Testament are scattered about in museums from Russia to England and other places. The great paintings and sculptures of the Church are the possession of museums in almost every developed country. I recall an exhibition at the Walters Museum in Baltimore some years ago in which the captions accompanying beautiful medieval illustrated manuscripts treated the faith of Christ like it was a relic from a bygone era. The Library at Yale University proudly holds the original manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards, and the same is true elsewhere for most of the great thinkers and writers of the Christian past.

Church treasures are resting in the hands of those who value them primarily as relics recording the evolution of human beings and their culture. Should they decide to squrrel these away - or worse - from the public eye and the reach of Christian scholars, what do we stand to lose? Sadly, for most contemporary believers, we wouldn't lose much, because most Christians have almost no idea that there is anything like a treasury of the Church, bearing witness to Christ as King and Savior, in the form of liturgical artifacts, manuscripts, paintings and sculptures, original musical compositions, and much more, the vast majority of them in the keeping of people who do not understand and therefore cannot appreciate their real value.

I don't think anything can be done about this, except to plead with God to keep His common grace flowing to benighted curators and caretakers, that they will not in any way seek to erase, obscure, or abscond with the greatest cultural heritage of the human race, the treasures of the Church. Something to add to your prayers every now and then.

T. M. Moore

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