Friday, July 23, 2010

"The banal, the sentimental and the saccharine"

Rod Dreyer, appalled by the design of a poster advertising Benedict's visit to Britain, wonders why so much of the modern ecclesiastical aesthetic is so very bad. From "The Devil Is In the Design", some of his reaction to contemporary church architecture:
Nothing ages faster or worse than ecclesial attempts at stylistic relevance. You drive by churches, Catholic and Protestant, that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and you just feel so bad for those buildings, as if they were poly-blend leisure suits left hanging on the rack, unloved. Why is it that so many churches built prior to the Second World War, no matter what their style, have a sort of timeless dignity? And so many built afterward do not? ....

I wonder if congregations that pour lots of money into building megachurches and suchlike today ever think about how the design will look in 30 to 50 years. We are all prisoners of our own eras, of course, and we can only guess about how the aesthetic choices we make today will wear in time. The problem with building churches is the same as with any building: when it looks old and tired and embarrassingly outdated, you can't donate it to a thrift store like you can a no-longer-fashionable suit. The problem is even worse with a church, because church architecture should convey a sense of the Eternal. There are a number of ways to do this. I have been equally moved by a bare Congregationalist parish in Vermont and a Baroque German Catholic parish in New Orleans. But somehow, after the Second World War, we forgot how to build beautiful churches, and ... we've lost a sense of the beautiful in church aesthetics, preferring instead the banal, the sentimental and the saccharine. ....

...Perhaps rather than simply complain about bad taste in church design, I should consider what contemporary church aesthetics (architecturally, liturgically, etc.) tell us about the kind of religion they embody. Maybe it's not so much the forms that I reject as it is the substantive qualities of the religion the forms embody. If that's so, what do contemporary church aesthetics and design tell us about contemporary religion? What kind of cult, and what kind of deity — I ask in the anthropological sense — has its priests conduct its rituals vested in beachwear? What is the message about God and the faith that aesthetic is supposed to convey to the faithful? What will it teach them about who God is, and who they are? Because it will teach them something; it can't not do that. .... [more]
I'm convinced that just as some people, although they can hear, are tone deaf, others, although sighted, can't see; just as some can't hear the beauty of Bach, others can't appreciate the symmetry and doctrinal symbolism of a sanctuary. So they tart it up to make it relevant - or build something that looks more like a school auditorium, appropriate for teaching or lecturing, but helping not at all with worship.

The Devil Is In the Design | Big Questions Online