Story and glass art by Virginia Davidson, Submitted April 15, 2015

Author’s note: This article–“Stained Glass What?“–is the first chapter of a book I’m writing–“Adorn the Doctrine: An Artist’s Perspective on Teachings of the Bible.” Watch for it…oh, sometime in the next hundred years, or maybe even before Jesus comes. 🙂 Two other chapters–“The Great Spectrum” and “Love In Living Color”–have already been published in “Servant God,” published by Loma Linda University Press.  Virginia Davidson

Davidson grapes

Stained glass is exciting! The glories of the light shining through the colors makes it seem alive! But no stained glass window is made up of only glass, no matter how beautiful the colors and textures are. There must be lead to hold the pieces of glass in place. The lead came1 follows specified lines, forming the design and structure of the window. Those lead lines also prescribe the shape of each individual piece of glass.

Doctrine seems to me a lot like lead lines. The teachings of Scripture form the structure of our Christianity, becoming the framework into which other issues fit. What I believe makes a difference in how I work, how I treat others, how I take care of myself. Even as the lead lines tell me where to cut each piece of glass, so doctrine informs my character development.

But some people have a quarrel with doctrine. “Just love God and be a good person,” they say, “and be kind to everybody. Doctrine is divisive; we don’t need doctrine!” But who is God? And what is “good”? And how can I get that way? What is the remedy when I don’t want to be kind? It is doctrine that answers those questions, in addition to addressing issues like what happens when we die and how to worship God. Even as lead came is what holds the pieces of glass in place, doctrine is what keeps our Christianity accountable and sensible.

Lead as a metal, though, is very soft.  The lead came that I use comes rolled onto spools like a stiff rope and has to be stretched in order to straighten it enough to use. Stretching also hardens the lead so that it won’t relax and loosen under the weight of the glass, dropping out the pieces. Stretching the lead also adds length to it—I have been surprised, sometimes, at how much “extra” there was after stretching. So it seems that doctrine is not a static, firm entity. It grows, deepening and broadening under our continual study, becoming ever more meaningful as the Holy Spirit quickens our minds.

Even with all that stretching and hardening, lead is still too soft to hold its shape under pressure. It needs the rigidity of the glass to support it and provide stability. The two work together. Indeed, it is by living the truths of the Bible in our daily lives that we learn what they really mean. Intellectual understanding is important, but nothing takes the place of experiencing truth. So the glass itself, in all its beauty, can be compared to the glories of character development, even the “Fruit of the Spirit.”

A stained glass panel takes time to build, piece by piece by piece: A piece of lead, a piece of glass; another piece of glass, a corresponding piece of lead. Each new piece must fit into its specific place, which is formed by all the other pieces of glass and lead that surround it. The artisan must make sure it fits all the pieces that have gone before, and shape is only one factor. (Color is a totally different topic, more than can be addressed here.) It is a rare piece of glass that fits the first time, as it is gently eased into its slot. Usually it must be eased back out again—often several times—and re-shaped the tiniest bit on the diamond grinder until it fits well enough to leave in place.

Then a piece of lead is cut to the approximate length, bent to the shape of the glass, and trimmed to fit. In fact, all the lead pieces need to be touching or nearly touching another piece of lead—on each end—in order to make a tight framework when they are all soldered together. And no real lead line strays off into a piece of glass, stopping in the middle somewhere—the glass would crack. It has to connect to another lead line. Could that fact correspond to the need of doctrine to make sense, to the need for each point to work in harmony with every other point? It should be a unit of logical, coherent, intersecting ideas.

As we continue to build the stained glass panel, piece by tedious piece, it can be surprising that there is actually space for a little bit of inaccuracy in the fit. This is because the edges of the glass are hidden in the channel of the lead came. But each glass edge needs to fit as close as possible to the “heart” of the came, which is the vertical part in the center. Could that vertical center indicate the need for our doctrines to direct us vertically to God, to increase both our understanding of Him and our becoming like Him, not just our being “right”?

Even still, in spite of that tiny bit of slack, it is the fitting process itself that constitutes the most time-consuming and tedious part of building stained glass. Each individual piece of glass and lead is placed and re-placed and re-shaped and re-placed again until it works with the whole structure.

Many times I have thought, It would be so much easier just to skip the glass! It would be both easier and faster to build the design out of lead came, all by itself, just laying the bent strips on top of the pattern and holding them in place with horseshoe nails as usual, until they could be soldered. That method of construction would be virtually injury-free.

No glass cuts, no Band-Aids. Hurrah! But what would be the result? A pretty design, sure, but such a panel would offer no protection from wind and weather. There would be no glorious colors, no textures in the glass diffusing and painting and refracting the light. It would not be a stained glass window.

In fact, I did make a small “panel” out of lead, just for illustration. I had already built the same design out of lead and glass. It took about six hours to cut and fit the pieces for a panel measuring 7¼ x 8 inches, besides time for design and the selection of glass colors. For comparison, then, I created the same design out of lead came only—no glass at all. I wasn’t surprised to be finished in forty-five minutes. There was very little to fit. No glass to cut, no fingers cut. But it was also no stained glass.

Even more startling, because lead is still relatively soft even after all that stretching, it didn’t take much to twist and crumple that little piece of lead art in my bare hands. Could it be that if the teaching we promote is merely theoretical, if it has little or no application to life, when the pressures of reality war against our very souls, requiring difficult decisions, could it be that our theories will let us down? That they will not be able to hold their structure, their identity in our lives? But truth that is lived and loved will have power to shape our characters. It may not take very long to learn basic Bible teachings, but it takes a lifetime of living in order to transform those teachings into Christianity!

Of course, if we try to make our doctrine so flexible that it can encompass virtually any behavior, we need to beware lest the “glass” of character is broken in the process. In a stained glass panel, glass supports the lead in the lead lines, but it doesn’t create strength. Particularly in large panels or windows—in any piece with a perimeter of 12 feet or more, lead came must be reinforced or supplemented with a harder, more rigid metal. Came that is made out of brass and zinc can’t be cut with hand nippers; it needs a saw. Bending it to shape is much more tedious and requires more energy and skill—sometimes even a machine. But the resulting strength is worth all the effort.

Just so, there are major doctrines that shouldn’t vary much with time.2 They are solid. Other issues go and come, levels of understanding wax and wane. But these several lines remain firm.

However, it is possible to look at all ideas of truth as being in the same category—that is, unchanging, as though that comprises all there is or ever will be to truth.3 Our understanding thus becomes rigid and stale rather than dynamic, alive, and growing. In that state of mind, it is easy to consider any viewpoint that differs from ours as heresy. There is such a thing as knowing truth and being confident that we know it. At the same time, there is also the danger of becoming closed-minded and caustic. God help us! Real truth never leads us to deny the honor of God in the way we treat each other!

In considering a disproportionate emphasis on doctrine, it helps me to remember that lead is poisonous. And lead poisoning is serious. In the studio, to protect myself from the lead, I neither eat nor drink nor allow anything to come within those walls that will at any time be eaten or drunk by humans. And always, before leaving my work area, I wash my hands thoroughly—first with GoJo, which cuts the greasiness of lead, then with soap. I have to take lead seriously.

Doctrine also is serious business, and a wrong use of it has been known to cause “toxicity” of the soul. If it becomes the focus in itself or a club to browbeat people into changing their beliefs, what might have begun as truth could become warped and dangerous, poisonous to attitudes, relationships, and choices—for those around me and for myself. If doctrine hasn’t made me more like God, might it be that I don’t understand it right? Could it be a good idea to examine myself2 to make sure I really am in the faith? In this context, Paul’s instruction in Titus 2:10 has become particularly meaningful to me, that we “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.”

Doctrine is important; it is vital. But it isn’t enough. It can be pretty stark and cold by itself. Doctrine needs to be adorned—with life, with character! It needs to be lived in order to be understood. True theology is experiential, rather than purely theoretical. What we believe does make a difference in how we live, one way or another. It should make us more like Christ for having espoused it! If it hasn’t, wouldn’t it make sense to re-examine our belief system to make sure it is truth?

Yet, has anyone figured out all of truth, in every detail? I doubt it. Truth echoes the very being of God Himself, who is infinite. Yet I do believe we can know truth, even here and now.

So, come join me in a quest for what I have come to call “Stained Glass Christianity.” It is, if you will, a “philosophical marriage” of Biblical doctrine and character traits, including but not restricted to the list called “The Fruit of the Spirit.” Some of the questions I have asked are:

  • “What can I learn from the doctrine of Creation that helps me be a better person now, six thousand years later?”
  •  “How can the Bible-teaching about holy time help me deal with today—even if it’s Tuesday?”
  • “How does what happens when a person dies make a difference to me, in how I live this day?”

Sometimes I turn the question around and ask, “What doctrine helps me better to understand and live out the self-control that is listed last in the Fruit?” After all, not every stained glass project starts from the same point. Sometimes the client wants a specific pattern or a particular set of colors, while another trusts me to “make it look good” with the house. One lady had a favorite Scripture for a starting place. But after the design phase, there’s always the cutting!

When it comes to the Bible, I certainly don’t have all the answers! And very likely, someone with a different perspective could ask the same questions I do and arrange a totally different set of answers. So, rather than a definitive treatise, I like to think of this study as a jumping-off-place for further exploration. What I’m looking for is a system of truth where each doctrine and each character issue work together with all the others to form a logical, beautiful “window” for transmitting the glory of God to the world—in other words, “Stained Glass Christianity!”


1Came sounds just like you would think it should, rhyming with “tame” and “same” and that other “came,” the verb which is the past tense of “come.” “Came” applies not only to lead, but also in modern times to other metals which have been wrapped or folded to achieve the correct shape. Basic lead came can be bought in pre-cut, pre-stretched six-foot strips, or in a 25-pound length of extruded lead which is rolled onto a large spool.

It is the shape of the cross-section of came that makes it distinctive and provides its place in the stained glass craft. Visualize a capital H lying on its side, like so:


The upper and lower horizontal parts are called the “crown.” This is what we see as lead lines on each side of a finished stained glass window. The center vertical part is the “heart” and the spaces that the glass fits into, on either side of the “heart,” are “channels.”

2 “It is a fact that we have the truth, and we must hold with tenacity to the positions that cannot be shaken; but we must not look with suspicion upon any new light which God may send, and say, Really, we cannot see that we need any more light than the old truth which we have hitherto received, and in which we are settled.” “We must not think, ‘Well, we have all the truth, we understand the main pillars of our faith, and we may rest on this knowledge.’ The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light.”—Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 33.

3 “Many give the words of Scripture a meaning that suits their own opinions, and they mislead themselves and deceive others by their misinterpretations of God’s word.
“As we take up the study of God’s word, we should do so with humble hearts. All selfishness, all love of originality, should be laid aside. Long-cherished opinions must not be regarded as infallible. It was the unwillingness of the Jews to give up their long-established traditions that proved their ruin….
“We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”—Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 36, 37.

4 II Corinthians 13:5 “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.”


By Virginia Davidson

Kennewick, Washington

© 2007