Lately I have been reading, with profit and enjoyment, Glenn W. Olsen’s masterly The Turn to Transcendence (CUA Press, 2010). With regard to modern styles of church architecture (pp. 292-3), the complaints of its critics, he says,
often resulted in an uncritical rejection of the new, but what the more serious critics of modernism targeted . . . was an architecture which had forgotten its purpose. The goal of much ‘modern’ ecclesiastical architecture seemed to be the reaction of an abstract space so denuded of iconic connections with the past that the church building evokes more a sense of puzzlement than of mystery.
He goes on to cite Sidney Callahan’s lament on “the sterility and lack of mystery and sacramentality of many contemporary (American) churches”:
In a real cathedral or church my spirit expands if there are dim corners where worshippers can pray privately before illuminated icons and banks of vigil lights . . . . Without this transcendent eschatological dimension of worship, fully embodied in art, music, beauty, ritual, and sacred space, Cromwell wins. . . . Habitual exposure to the stripped-down aesthetic of a school cafeteria or supermarket presents peculiar difficulties for the spirit.
Surely Christians interested in truth and beauty would be dismayed at a secularized aesthetic imposed on the places they meet for worship (all understanding that, faut de mieux, Christians can worship anywhere). And one can certainly sympathize with someone who, loving large iconic banquets, feels that the minimizing of Christian symbolism in churches is also the minimalization of their Christianity.
But what would he say of the New England meeting house with its bright, white clapboards, its place at the head of the green with surrounding oaks and maples, so glorious in the autumn, the Lord’s Table with the people and below the high pulpit for the declaration of the Word, with the light from its windows playing over woody sanctuary, reverberating with Psalms? Can one find the ghost of Cromwell here? And if so, is it a maleficent spirit? Have the altars indeed been stripped in accordance with the dictates of secularism or anti-religion–or have the objects of idolatry simply been removed so God can more readily be worshipped in spirit and truth?
We must take great care here not to divide from each other unnecessarily, in unreflective reaction to identify another form of beauty as ugliness in mere accordance with our tastes–without surrendering to the temptation to relinquish the judgment we are always called upon to make on what is good, true and beautiful, and so also necessarily on what is bad, false, and ugly.
Let us agree that beauty and truth may be given in complexity or simplicity, and let us also agree that there is no Christian worship apart from a full table of the symbols of our faith. Then we may go on to ask what is really happening in the worship. Might we also agree that every discrete set of tastes and tendencies has its own potential idolatries and sectarian (that is, heretical) temptations? In other places I have suggested that the “catholic” tendencies, as exemplified in the Callahan quotation above, are those of the jungle, and the “protestant” ones, for which he uses Cromwell as a symbol, those of the desert–one, the tendency to overproliferate and the other, in reaction, to denude.
This does not call for a via media as the Christian standard, but understanding and wisdom–not the study of art and artifice, or lack thereof, in and of themselves–but of what these are doing among the people. While secularity, simple or complex, is un-Christian, neither symbolic copiousness nor parsimony in or of themselves are indications of it.
The judgment that must be made is of a spiritual nature and is a pastoral responsibility. I believe it is possible that, despite frequent failures in our history in this regard (the iconoclastic controversy rages as fiercely as ever it has), it is possible, in the Spirit–given who He is–for credally united pastors to agree, and to say on such matters, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . . .”