November 30, 2020

The Church as Noah’s Ark

A Moment with Frederick Buechner
“The Church as Noah’s Ark”

The nave is the central part of the church from the main front to the chancel. It’s the part where the laity sit and in great Gothic churches is sometimes separated from the choir and clergy by a screen. It takes its name from the Latin navis, meaning ship, one reason being that the vaulted roof looks rather like an inverted keel. A more interesting reason is that the Church itself is thought of as a ship or Noah’s Ark. It’s a resemblance worth thinking about.

In one as in the other, just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese; some meek as lambs and others fire-breathing dragons. There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop. Most of them have no clear idea just where they’re supposed to be heading or how they’re supposed to get there or what they’ll find if and when they finally do, but they figure the people in charge must know and in the meanwhile sit back on their haunches and try to enjoy the ride.

It’s not all enjoyable. There’s backbiting just like everywhere else. There’s a pecking order. There’s jostling at the trough. There’s growling and grousing, bitching and whining. There are dogs in the manger and old goats and black widows. It’s a regular menagerie in there, and sometimes it smells to high Heaven like one.

But even at its worst, there’s at least one thing that makes it bearable within, and that is the storm without—the wild winds and terrible waves and in all the watery waste no help in sight.

And at its best there is, if never clear sailing, shelter from the blast, a sense of somehow heading in the right direction in spite of everything, a ship to keep afloat, and, like a beacon in the dark, the hope of finding safe harbor at last.

from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary
Frederick Buechner


  1. I love this image. Many early churches used the image of the ark, plus the cross, to adorn the tops of their churches.

    Have you ever wondered where the Muslim crescent came from? When they captured Christian churches, they cut off the cross and left the ark forming a crescent. The crescent symbol may have originated prior to this conquest, but it made remodeling convenient.

  2. Our sanctuary was intentionally designed to look like a ship (albeit upside down).

    Great imagery and symbolism (not the upside down part…well…maybe that too)

  3. Welsh Willie says

    This exact symbolism may be found in the hymns of St. Ephraim the Syrian.

  4. Indeed. There’s so much that reflects Christ in the story of the Ark. Peter brings out some of the shadows in both of his letters. The 8 souls “saved” in the Ark speaks of resurrection (8 is the number of new creation in Scripture). The dove only finding a resting place in the new creation when the old creation had fully passed away, etc. Love Buechner.

  5. Maybe I’m just carrying the image too far…but isn’t there a danger to seeing the church as an ark? We just want to go inside and shut the door and forget about anyone who is on the “outside”.

    • The door is still open untill the second coming, which makes the task of filling the ark more urgent.

  6. “But even at its worst, there’s at least one thing that makes it bearable within, and that is the storm without.”

    That is great imagery, but care is needed. That is one of the manipulations used to keep the faithful…well, faithful. People don’t leave abusive churches out of fear of being damned or lost if they leave. I know others who can’t leave abusive churches until the Holy Spirit “releases” them. Again, “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” comes to mind, where it is revealed that many of the patients are interned voluntarily, but can’t bring themselves to walk out the door because of the manipulative control of the head nurse.

    I struggle seeing the church as a life raft or ark. It can give the impression that church is where we go to hide from the world. But the original Latin word “massa” from which we get the word, “mass”, means “to depart” or “dismiss”. Abusive leaders should never have the power to keep people in a church, because our home is our neighborhood, not churchianity.

  7. You’d think Noah would have been excused for leaving off Black Widows, and mosquitoes for that matter.