Tuesday, June 12, 2007
As I have watched recent building projects in my area, I have noticed that architecture is finally moving away from the sterility of the 50's, 60's and 70's. What I mean is, that from my perspective, there is a move to incorporate texture and beauty back into the structure, as opposed to the boxy 'industrial' look of so much the the modern building in the last few decades. It is almost a kind of "retro" approach, reaching back to another era for inspiration. Look at the downtown projects in some cities, for example. Notice the arcane lamp posts and cobblestone sidewalks.
All of this then brings me to thinking about church architecture. In some ways it seems like a reversal. Instead of incorporating more art, there is a pragmatic move to make it as functional as possible. Looking at my church here in the country I am amazed at the rich historic appearance and the attention to art in service of the Gospel. It was built in the early 1950's in the middle of farm country, making one think that the pragmatic approach of much church budgeting would have resulted in a simpler structure. Yet the sanctuary windows are all traditional stained glass, with a beautiful "rose" style window at the back of the sanctuary in honor of the Trinity. A statue of the ascending Christ adorns the sturdy stone altar. The font, as well, is an eight-sided solid Indiana limestone structure. The exterior is done entirely in tan brick, with an imposing bell tower to its side with medieval castle-like crenelation.
I have often said that if this church were being built today it would not appear as it does. The cost would be prohibitive for most church-goers, who would see such details as excessive and unnecessary.
Admittedly I am not a great fan of modern church architecture, owing to my rather traditional bent. However, whether contemporary or traditional, the structure of a church is unique, at least if you are from a liturgically-minded church body - and it should reflect the sacramental life within. Our American forefathers contented themselves in Puritan fashion with "meeting houses." They were simply places to come together and pray and hear the Word, nothing more. The church growth movement of the last few decades has been a kind of 'throw-back' to this time, crafting huge theaters with massive stages and gargantuan jumbo tron screens. They are simply the old meeting houses on steroids. Rich art in the form of stained glass, statuary, painting, and relief work is sacrificed for PowerPoint and slide presentations that change every week based on the preacher's theme.
The medieval cathedrals of long ago were carefully crafted icons of the Gospel intended for a largely illiterate public. Yet they were also enduring monuments of the central themes of the Scripture's story, taking the worshiper to Christ and reminding them of the story of salvation. People today may think this unduly repetitive, since the story of salvation has often given way to practical concerns of daily living. And that is unfortunate. Our people are impoverished for this lack of beauty in service of the Gospel.
Yet this is a different time. Crosses are hindrances to reaching the unchurched, so we are told, so we remove them to keep from offending. Instead of entering a different world where we worship with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven - and where we should be pointed to heave and the kingdom yet to come - we sit down in folding theater seats in our shorts and sandals for a show, hardly noticing at all that we left the world from which we came.
I hope that this era passes quickly and we can learn from business that there is still a need for beauty. Even more, the Gospel, being the greatest treasure of all, should be appropriately adorned that the believer is compelled to give glory to God. For now I guess I'll stay in my arcane little edifice and wait for the tide to turn.....
[P. S. Although not the best photograph, the first picture is my church, St. Peter Lutheran in Polar, Wisconsin.]