Monday, March 20, 2017

The stupid and the ugly. . .

I watched a PBS program on 10 homes that shaped America and, sure enough, at least some of them were so ugly and bare that I had to wince.  Who could find the warmth of a home in a building that screamed cold, bare, and, well, ugly?  The joke was on architect Philip Johnson apparently had laughed outright at the declining fortune of Frank Lloyd Wright -- at least until Falling Water.  Johnson had thought that Americans had left behind ornament and style for concrete, glass, and steel in great slabs of nothingness.  Form follows function -- right?  American churches certainly thought so.  They bought into the utilitarian style of bland, stark, modern architecture and gladly left behind the Steamboat Gothic churches of their past and the stone spires they thought would become mere relics of a forgotten era.  And look what it has done to us and for us!

In the midst of all of this, I read an article by Anthony Esolen (always a good read) -- something similar he had written on before in Out of the Ashes.  It was a profound indictment of the exchange of art and beauty for functionality (when did that become a word, anyway).  If you have a WSJ subscription, you can read it here.  If not, you may have to be content with a few quotes below.

On the choices made by churches in the 1960s with regard to liturgy, hymnody, art, music, and architecture:
The great iconoclasm of the 1960s buried much of Christianity’s best art and music.
I have seen, in Catholic churches, minimalist Stations of the Cross that hardly can be recognized as depictions of the Passion. I have seen crosses that look as if a modernist Jesus were flying with wings outspread, like a theological pterodactyl. I have seen the Eucharist relegated to what looks like a broom closet. I have seen a baptismal font that bubbles. I have seen beautifully tiled floors, with intricate cruciform patterns, covered over with plush red carpet.
I have heard for decades effeminate “hymns” with the structure and melody of off-Broadway show tunes. I have read hymn texts altered so as to obliterate references to God with the personal pronoun “He.” This music would not be acceptable for a jingle to sell jelly doughnuts on television.
I have seen and heard enough. We must get rid of everything ugly and stupid from our churches, most of it visited upon them since the great iconoclasm of the 1960s. What’s needed is genuine art that stirs the imagination and pleases the eye, that entices the soul with beauty before a single word of a sermon is uttered.

Let me use an analogy. I am involved in the restoration of an old home that for more than 100 years served as the rectory of a Catholic parish in Nova Scotia. One of the first things we did was to tear out carpeting that had gotten dingy and moldy. Beneath lay plywood and linoleum. And underneath that?
We found in most of the rooms oak and maple floors, with three-inch-wide strips laid in handsome patterns, squares enclosing diagonals, and a large diamond set in the center of the original parlor. The craftsmanship was impressive, the execution precise. Other floors had large planks of seasoned hemlock, which absorbs moisture from the air and grows tougher from it. The hemlock is as old as the home’s foundation.
This kind of plywood covers beauty everywhere in today’s churches. You are not only walking on it. You are looking at plywood on the walls, hearing plywood from the pulpit, and singing plywood instead of hymns.
The first thing we can do to return beauty to our churches is to swallow chronological snobbery and find out what our ancestors, even those who could not read or write, achieved. I am speaking about more than the fine craftsmanship of well-turned balusters and newels, though we should desire that too. […]
Today, the word of God is proclaimed in translations that have all the charm and wonder of a corporate memorandum. Must ordinary people be fed the drab and insipid? The politically correct—another thing thrust upon people by their ecclesiastical betters—is always ugly. Get rid of it, period, no excuses, no exceptions. What Christ hath spoken well, let man not paraphrase. Let grace in the word be one humble way in which we show our desire and our gratitude for the grace of God.
Esolen is spot on.  Some churches have become glorified TV studios to promote the promoter whose empire of print and influence uses worship as a director might use a sound stage.  Other churches have sacrificed beauty on the altar of cheap -- solidly echoing their vote for Judas when Jesus was anointed with expensive oil and the apostle lamented that it was wasted on Jesus and could have been used for something useful.  Other churches have chosen creature comforts over every aesthetic goal and created large living rooms with comfortable seating, drink holders, and lines of sight to make sure nobody misses anything of the show.  Other churches have turned worship itself into an entertainment mecca in which every activity can be found to scratch the itch of people and the building showcases the best talent to fit everyone's taste.  I could go on.  You know it.  I wish I didn't.

The end result has been a lost of the sacred, a God who is buddy more than Majesty, a church which appeals to the fragility of feelings, whims, and desires, a Biblical illiteracy which virtually insures there is no heresy anymore, and a people who have been dumbed down by the dumb stuff that passes for the things of God.  We have become a stupid and ugly and vapid Christianity presuming to know better than God what is worship, better than God what is true, and better than God what is the church's mission.  The devil has had his way with us simply by allowing us to pursue unabated the deity of our feelings and the god of our desires.  He did not need to do much more.  In the end it is Christianity which must wear the stain of our ugly, stupid, and vapid ideas and ideals.  God does not need to rescue us from the Tempter but from ourselves.

4 comments:

Kirk Skeptic said...

well said, but do you really think that investing large sums of meoney in art and architecture is more important than funding missions and paying pastors living wages? Is there no beauty in simplicity? Oh, and btw, what Bible translation does your congregation use and why?

PS: I trust you folks use the 1941 hymnal.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Excellent observations about culture and some contemporary Christian churches. However, I have been in enough good churches to remain an optimist. The LCMS church my wife and I attend here in upstate NY is about 100 years old, and it retains the dignity of earlier times. The Liturgy and hymns are still spoken and sang as in older days. We worshipped at a Lutheran church of the LCMS in Tucson, Arizona, while we lived in that state, and except for the use of a modern sound system and overhead screen in the front of the church, it was really quite conservative. They offered a traditional service and a more modern one, but the hymns were selected carefully and in the contemporary music area....very uplifting. I found no fault with some utilitarian aspects of modernity, however, there are still many modern churches today which set up sound stages and appear too entertainment oriented. As for Bible translations, I am still with the NKJV and KJV, although the LCMS prefers the Revised English version. I guess it is more about the heart and soul of the people and the pastor than the architecture, and the need to find balance.

Pastor Peters said...

No, we do not use TLH but that is because it was not here when I came and the LWs here when I came wore out completely (from use). LOL

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really believe that ugliness is cheaper than good design?