Theology in Bronze

T.S. Elliot wrote that at the end of all our journeying we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. For me, it took moving to Calvin College, in the heart of Dutch Calvinist West Michigan, to see the richness of the Lutheran landscape where I spent the formative years of my academic career. For 15 years, I trudged uphill to the bluff-top campus of Gustavus Adolphus College, my sights fixed on the soaring 187-foot high steeple atop Christ Chapel. For 15 years, I taught 9 a.m. geography classes in Nobel Hall 105. As I stood at the front of that classroom, my view was dominated by Christ Chapel, squatting proudly at the center of the cruciform campus. When class ended, I would cross the mall for morning chapel. Sometimes I attended chapel out of habit, sometimes to socialize, sometimes to avoid unopened emails and sometimes out of spiritual longing. Whatever the reason, upon entering, I would cross myself and slide into the faculty pew. As the organist started the processional hymn, we would rise in unison and a rag-tag group of student sacristans would make their way down the center aisle, pulling on their woolly white albs and holding high the cross, candle and Bible. Monday through Friday, week after week, I found refreshment in the rhythms of lectionary readings, prayers, liturgies and short, painless homilies delivered by believers and skeptics alike.

I was floored as I pulled open the west door to Christ Chapel.

And no matter the weather, it was always beautiful inside the hallowed space of Christ Chapel. To me, modern architecture can be sterile and pretentious. But Christ Chapel is a midcentury jewel, its ribbon of clear windows affording views of the forested river valley to the east and open horizons to the west. Sunlight pouring through the soaring stained-glass windows turns the interior into a sparkling geode, while the sounds of falling water in the baptismal font carry across the concrete floors. Built in a perfect diamond, with doors at the vertices, the building herded chapelgoers to enter and depart from the various corners of campus. My door was the west door, but the door through which I passed was not something I ever noticed.

It was not until I had spent several years immersed in the Reformed higher-education project at Calvin that I began to see what had been there all along in Christ Chapel. New faculty at Gustavus were released from teaching responsibilities during their first January interim. My first interim was a chance to catch my breath and find a balance between teaching and scholarship. But at Calvin, all new faculty spend their first January interim in a three-week academic seminar on Reformed theology. New faculty immerse themselves in daily readings from John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Upon returning to Gustavus Adolphus for a visit one summer, I was floored as I pulled open the west door to Christ Chapel – the door I had used perhaps a thousand times before. There, in bronze, was a sculptural exposition of the theology of creation, fall, redemption and consummation that I had been reading in Calvin’s faculty seminar. Like someone discovering a lost treasure, I excitedly ran around to the other doors, where I found the theological symbolism grew even richer. Now habituated to the simple, unadorned Calvin campus, I was overwhelmed by the symbolic richness of the Gustavus Adolphus landscape. For, while the maroon steel doors to Christ Chapel function as the gateways between the intellectual and spiritual realms of campus, they also act a canvas upon which sculptor Paul Granlund expressed the central narrative of Christian theology. Granlund, a Gustavus Adolphus graduate, spent 25 years as sculptor-in-residence at his alma mater. The son of a Swedish-American Lutheran minister, he was a bit of a rebel from the church, or so his biographer suggests. But working in bronze, Granlund expressed the theological motifs of the Christian worldview every bit as clearly as did Mouw or Plantinga.


The west entrance.

The west entrance is adorned with a sculptural composition that narrates the biblical arc from Eden through the fall to the promise of future hope. At the base is an inverted tree with broad, barren branches and its roots exposed as if to cradle an unborn child in the womb of the earth. To the right and left of the child are its parents, a man and a woman, both covering their faces and twisting in pain, shame and anguish. At the top, there is a second tree, this time twisted into the form of a crucifix. The narrative moves upward from the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to the tree-turned-cross, which will ultimately become the tree of new life. The palpable alienation depicted in the tension between the man and woman and the two barren trees suggests the pervasiveness of the fall. Thus the Christian narrative begins on the western door to Christ Chapel with the story of creation, the tragedy of the fall and a foreshadowing of redemption through the Christ child.


The east entrance

On the east door of Christ Chapel, the New Testament Door, the theology grows richer. Here, sprouting forth from a central trunk is the human family tree. Christ, crucified and yet looking down with compassion, forms the central branch. Emerging from the branches are five human figures: a man and a woman on each side and a young child in its mother’s embrace. Unlike the barren trees on the west door, the vine on the east door is verdant and bearing fruit. In contrast to the writhing human figures on the west door, these figures are dancing joyfully. The human community has found its rhythm because it is connected to the vine and abiding in the divine community. Creation and redemption come together. The human family tree remains connected to the wider tree of life. And the tree of life forms the cross upon which the world’s creator and savior is crucified for the redemption of all.


The south entrance

The south entrance is rarely used but is essential to the symmetry of the structure. Behind the door, the maintenance staff store the floor polisher and choir risers. But emblazoned on this set of double doors, the Hope Doors, is another theological treatise in bronze. At the center is a Christ figure, risen and glorified. To the left and right, human figures are gracefully drawn upward to encircle the risen Christ, united in praise and wonder. Below, isolated human figures have returned to a block of stone. Two plants form a halo around the Christ figure, whose outstretched arms have now been transformed from a posture of suffering to one of welcoming and blessing. The Christ figure, however, has grown wings, and his head has been transformed into a rose. What Granlund was imagining here is less clear than on the east and west doors. In other sculptural works, Granlund explored the luna moth as a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. Is this a hint of panentheism or an allusion to the resurrection or dual nature of Christ? Only Granlund knows.


The north entrance.

The north door to Christ Chapel, the formal, processional entrance, completes the sculptural quadrangle. Here on the Christ Door, Granlund’s bronze composition stretches across a set of double doors, forming the handles for each door. One must literally grab hold of the biblical narrative as one enters Christ Chapel. The north door follows the form of the Apostle’s Creed, telling the story of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign in glory. We see depicted here in the life of Christ the cycle of human life being redeemed and released from the cycle of death and decay. Again the human figures are framed by a towering tree. This tree is bare and dormant on its left side, where Christ undergoes agony and crucifixion. And on the right side, where Christ undergoes resurrection and glorification, the tree emerges in bloom, producing leaves that are for the healing of the nations and symbolizing new life in Christ and the redemption of all things.


The landscape is our unwitting biography, writes geographer Peirce Lewis. At Calvin College, the chapel is an unassuming structure at the periphery of the campus, while the college’s Christian mission remains central. This is not a contradiction, for within the Reformed worldview, every square inch of creation belongs to God and one can worship as readily in a lecture hall or laboratory as in a sanctuary. There is no division between the academic and spiritual realms on campus. And there is no need for symbolic adornments in the Calvin College chapel, for what matters is the “logos” (the word). Yet, upon returning to Gustavus Adolphus, I recognized what I found missing in the Reformed landscape: What the Calvinists had articulated in volumes of systematic theology, the Lutheran Paul Granlund elegantly summarized in bronze. While I needed the Reformed emphasis on the “logos” in order to see and comprehend what Granlund was communicating, the “imago” (the image) brought those words to life and helped me make them my own. The word and the image are partners, and Granlund’s doors to Christ Chapel are a beautiful reminder that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Mark Bjelland teaches geography and environmental science at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo of Christ Chapel: Williamborg at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons