Which London?

It seems there are as many images of London as there are minds.

The cultural-historical strata of London is deep and composite. The thoroughly British pageantry of the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies demonstrated this in technicolor splendor. The kaleidoscopic presentation of London turned through history, poetry, royalty, music, science, art, architecture, fashion, and sport. A personal catalog may include figures like Nelson, Dickens, Shakespeare, Elizabeth, Lennon, van Dyck, Boyle, Foster, and Beckham.

We have different reasons to travel. Alain de Botton identified two of these motives in his book, The Art of Travel -the exotic and curiosity.

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions… The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones.

A different London beckons to different people. Our curiosity reveals something deeper than we might have expected. If you find out what interests someone, you may be able to trace it back to bigger questions.

It’s appropriate then to ask someone who has recently been in London, “which London?

Which London?

I’ve been in London the last 9 days, and having studied architecture in school, a major priority when I travel always consists of seeking out various buildings.

I guess everyone has their own way of “relaxing” when traveling, but mine seems rather peculiar now that I’m thinking about it- trooping around town, navigating convoluted street passages, dealing with the pulses and contractions of the very entrails of the city, all to see a building.

Often they have just closed upon my arrival, like when I went to see the Robie house on the south side of Chicago (architecture books never tell you what kind of seedy neighborhoods you have to wade through to reach your destination). Often the cost of admission just doesn’t seem worth it, even after I’ve trekked half way across town to get there, so I end up just admiring the exterior or craning my neck in the lobby to see what I can. The Guggenheim Museum in New York ended up being this sort of building.

But there is something compelling about connecting a tangible structure with the idea in my head that I’ve constructed through reading and imagination.

Of course, disappointments are inevitable.

That steeple — which, because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff on which seeds were blown and sprouted, round which the sea-birds wheeled, I had always pictured to myself as receiving at its base the last drying foam of the uplifted waves — stood on a Square from which two lines of tramway diverged, opposite a Café which bore, written in letters of gold, the word ‘Billiards’; it stood out against a background of houses with the roofs of which no upstanding mast was blended. And the church — entering my mind with the Café, with the passing stranger of whom I had had to ask my way, with the station to which presently I should have to return — made part of the general whole, seemed an accident, a by-product of this summer afternoon…

-Marcel Proust

It’s at times like these that I feel the chain of curiosity being tugged from within by “blunt, large questions.”

Beyond the novelty and excitement of the Olympic venues decked in their vibrant pink banners, lay countless architectural wonders. Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Windsor Castle, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, the British Museum– all were within my reach. And although I sought them out, just as for Proust these seemed to me, “reduced”, “tainted”, “accidental.”

These building projects, although breathtaking, can’t compare with the building of God.

For he eagerly waited for the city which has the foundations, whose Architect and Builder is God.

-Hebrews 11:10

Most of my time in London was spent volunteering with a UK charity called Amana Trust to distribute free New Testament study Bibles. We distributed roughly 61,000 Bibles during the Olympics, with teams spread all throughout the city. Working with local Christian groups to build up the church definitely beats taking pictures of old buildings.

You can read a few of the other volunteers’ impressions in the posts below.

The last link is to the Baptist Press, which included a picture of the Amana Trust team handing out the New Testament.

15 thoughts on “Which London?

      • That’s a great topic. Basically, the Catholic Church controlled all European countries before the Reformation, so afterwards everyone was trying to get away from the Catholic Church. The different nations adopted the teachings of Luther, Calvin, or others and that started the state churches. From Luther’s teaching came the Lutheran Church. From Calvin’s teaching came the Reformed Church and Presbyterian Church. Nations adopted these religions as the national or state religion. So you have the teachings of Luther and Calvin being pushed and promoted by whole countries. The teachings of Luther and Calvin became part of national history. So in school everyone learns about these guys, because there teachings became involved in politics and national history.

        Now, consider the British Brethen, they were totally opposite of this. Number one, they purposely stayed away from publicity or any show of the self. They didn’t want their pictures taken, they thought giving your personal testimony was vain, and they didn’t even write full names in their letters, just using initials. They didn’t want to express themselves, just Christ. They came out of the state churches, so they didn’t want to have anything to do with politics, etc. They basically kept to themselves, so you didn’t know about them unless you happened to meet them in person or got a hold of a tract or something. Therefore, no one is learning about them in school, hardly any colleges are named after them, or churches. They were basically hidden. It was the truth they recovered that was of far greater impact than the Reformation. This is all brief, but I think it gives an impression.

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    • I was in a local shopping area some days and at the O2 arena others. Obviously I talked to a TON of people. A number of people thought we were selling the Bible and asked how much it was. When I told them we were giving it away, they asked incredulously, “FREE?” That was nice to see.

      One man was driving a truck and was stopped on the street near by. I could see him looking over at our sign. All of a sudden his gaze grew intense and he jumped out of his truck and game running over, very seriously, and got a Bible from me. After filling out the card and picking up his copy of the Bible, he kind of held it up, looked at me, and wagged it at me in appreciation. Then he ran back to his truck, hopped in, and drove off.

      Others on my team had lots of great stories too. I wish they could comment here!

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      • I wish I could go. It’s quite amazing how people in Europe are eager to grab a Bible. I think for a Bible distribution to be so successful in London, it has to be truly God’s work.

        All these times, I really thought Europe has been totally swallowed by the post-Christian mentality. So many men of God were raised up in Europe, yet throughout the centuries people there had grown cold toward God.

        But GOD, He has not given them up. It’s very touching that He brings in an inward revival in the hearts of the Europeans. May the Word continue to shine, grow, and multiply in them.

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        • While we were distributing Bibles at different venues I told a number of locals who wanted a Bible how many we had passed out at that point all over London (we were up to 50,000 by the second week). Most of them were shocked that that many of their fellow Londoners were responding so positively to the Bible. Of course I had a few people hiss at me or look really perturbed when they saw the book we were handing out was the Bible. But overall the response was very receptive.

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  1. It is amazing to be able to tour buildings and reflect upon the dreams, people, ideals, and breathtaking feats of architecture behind it all. And as Christians, what an even more amazing opportunity we have to be a part of God’s building! All other inanimate buildings pale in comparison with the church–a living, growing, and eternal building that is being perfected and engineered by and with God Himself!

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    • I agree Margret! To realize that the grandest building plans of Tudor kings don’t compare to what is happening in our own being, is amazing. Christ is making His home in our heart. A living, growing, personal, spiritual building is certainly more inspiring than a heavenly mansion. Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t the first proponent of organic architecture; God was.

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  2. Pingback: happy and glorious: my week in london | anothernicole

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