Friday, February 7, 2014

The culture of church. . .

I had someone ask me about the decoration in an Orthodox church -- idolatry or simply excessive ornamentation?  In the course of the conversation, it appears that we often forget how our perspective has shifted from the visual arts of the church to words.  We forget that prior to the 1800s education was spotty and you could not depend upon people in the pew being literate (and before that even sometimes the clergy).  Church buildings were of necessity visible words teaching and reinforcing the faith as much through what was seen as what was heard.  Lutherans were not at all uncomfortable with this and expanded the arts particularly on the side of liturgical music and congregational song.

At some point this changed (at least for Lutherans and then particularly in America).  Lutheran church buildings were externally and internally indistinguishable from Roman Catholic buildings for a very long time in America as they still are in much of Europe.  That changed, however, and buildings which looked the same on the outside began to look different on the inside -- especially in the amount of ornamentation.  For most of Lutheran history the crucifix remained and paraments but the walls became somewhat plain -- even stark.  Where I grew up the Lutheran church building had a Thorvaldsen statue of Christ and a crucifix on the ornate wooden carved altar.  In the center of the altar, just below where the superfrontal fell (parament for the uninitiated), the altar had an elaborately carved lamb on a book with seven seals.  Look around the rest of the building, however, and the walls were completely blank and we also had no stained glass.

At some point in the 1930s when architecture began to introduce the stark appearance of the structure without ornamentation, this plain approach became more common.  It ended up being the norm in 1950s and 1960s (before the whole architectural thing exploded in the 1970s into strange shapes often unfriendly to the liturgy and singing).  In essence the vast majority of Lutherans grew up thinking that less is more, that words means images are not only unnecessary but a hindrance to the faith.  Lutherans (probably like their Protestant cousins) developed a hostility to images.

Growing up homes often mirrored this stark approach to ornamentation.  Except for family photos, it was not common for me to see artwork in people's homes in the 1950s and 1960s.  Now my daughter works at a home decor store which makes its living selling ornamentation to people no longer content with blank walls.  For whatever reason, art and beauty in the church are still greeted with some suspicion even though we have long ago overcome our aversion to art and ornamentation at home.

The culture of the church is not only for the ear but for the eye (I would include smell here but I would lose half my readers by bringing up incense -- oops!).  We do ourselves no favors by abandoning richly textured fabric, the flow of form, and visual images in the sanctuary.  It is not better left to the imagination.  As people we are as visual as ever yet our church buildings look like warehouses.  This is not helping us out.  Sadly, we have left ourselves so impoverished of original art, artists, and artisans that we resort to giant TV screens and temporary images instead.  We have also decided to build on the cheap with art being the first thing to go when we begin running out of money for construction.

Check out images from Our Savior in Houston -- a congregation where 10% of the construction budget (or more) was used for art in service to the Word.


ginnie said...

For anyone interested in a church that appreciates art:

jonathanpaulmayer said...

Regarding Houston: Interesting church design, and certainly beautiful. And while I prefer it hands-down to a warehouse, I object to how architects use central-plan designs for Lutheran churches (usually arguing that it is more practical and somehow theologically appropriate). Historically, central-plan churches were actually not places of worship, but served as tombs and pilgrimage sites. And octagonal buildings were never churches, but baptistries. Besides, you lose the directionality—and thus the symbolism of the pastor as mediator—when everyone faces the altar in a circle.

Why are there pews behind the ambo? Why are the choir, organ, and musicians in the front of the church? Where is the divide between the chancel and the nave? Do you have to walk through the chancel to get to the pews in the front? And finally, regarding acoustics, the parishioners who are seated under the balconies are guaranteed a different experience than those sitting in the open space. There are some good things going on here, but it's still an "experimental" space, and I fear the congregation will suffer some for it.

Anonymous said...

I am inclined to look at the lack of art and ornamentation much more charitably - there simply wasn't the money to buy or build extravagant churches for most of American history. And then from the '30's to the '50's, churches were governed by the depression-era folks who didn't spend money on anything else, either. There have never been church taxes here as in Europe to pay for things, either.

Christopher Porter said...

Anonymous, there are some significant exceptions to the schematic you provide:

Built in 1932.

Anonymous said...

But there is always enough money for parking lots, nice restrooms, expansive mall-like lobbies, padded pews, and HVAC systems to keep us comfortable. No money leftover to pay for art that endures the ages, teaching the faith to the eye and then to the heart... Hmmm guess that shows where our priorities are.

Anonymous said...

As noted by Mr. Porter, Historic Trinity Lutheran in Detroit is absolutely beautiful. Growing up in the LCMS, I had never seen an ornate Lutheran church. Most were plain with oak altars and little more. My personal opinion is that many Lutheran churches were stark because they didn't want to appear Roman Catholic. As Pastor Peters points out, this is contrary to early Lutheran architecture. St. Lorenz in Frankenmuth, MI is also beautiful (But why did they place large flat screens at the front of the church. They distract from the historic beauty.)

I love beauty in the church. My wife was raised Orthodox and we married in an Orthodox Church. You just can't beat most Orthodox Churches for beauty and craftsmanship. It's like entering another world.


Kevin said...

I'm a little late coming to this discussion but thought I could shed a little light on questions raised by Jonathan and others. I attend Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston and really appreciate the attention given to art and design. The building itself was modeled after the Mountain Church in the Saxon village of Seiffen. You can actually read, in meticulous detail, all about it in a document that's available on the church's website.

Now, I'm not an architect, historian, or pastor and I was not there during the church's construction but I can speak to the experience of worship there. The arguable loss of directionality is, in my opinion, actually a gain of centrality. Centrally featured (though not fully pictured) is the crucified Christ suspended from the ceiling. You can't help but see it front and center when you look from wherever you may be sitting. All eyes are on the sacrament on the table or on the ambo when the pastor is proclaiming the Word of God. The pews behind the ambo are actually not for congregants but are for the choir and musicians. Practically speaking (and not to address the theological implications) the choir and musicians are in front because in the back are the stairs and sound booth. There is a gap of approximately 10ft (though don't quote me on that) between the chancel and nave, enough space for people to gather at the communion rails and still have room behind them. I don't understand your next question but I can say I've never had to walk through the chancel. As for the acoustics, they are among the best I've ever heard (and I've done sound for several years in different churches). They are rich and full no matter where you sit, though for obvious reasons, they are not identical.

This "experimental" space, modeled after a 1779 building, maintains the focus of it's congregants on the word and sacrament delivered to God's people. It thoroughly engages the senses in ways that other "warehouse" style churches with stages and praise bands can not. Suffice it to say that my wife and I drive 20 miles to attend church here and pass plenty of other LCMS churches on the way but none of them match the traditional confessional worship at OSL.