My wife and I once walked into a mall in Kentucky only to discover that it was not a mall, but was actually a megachurch. The building looked in every way like a mall and there was, at the time, no religious paraphernalia on the exterior that would have disabused us of this notion. Once inside the structure, the only thing that gave away the game was a young woman in a neon green T-shirt handing out programs. We accepted one politely and promptly left as soon as she turned away.
I thought about that incident yesterday as I watched the Notre Dame Cathedral burn. Nobody would ever mistake Notre Dame for anything but a building constructed to worship and glorify God. To gaze upon it, even now after the fire, is to have a religious experience. Its beauty brings your mind almost unwittingly to higher things. It focuses your sights upward, both physically and spiritually. It is, in a word, beautiful.
Not every church can look like that ancient cathedral. Perhaps no church ever will. Even Notre Dame may never again look like Notre Dame. But churches are still being built and lots of money is spent on building them. They could be made beautiful — not Notre Dame Cathedral-level beautiful, but beautiful — yet they are not. It is not that we nowadays try to make beautiful churches and fail. Rather, we try very hard to make unbeautiful, bland, ugly, profane churches and we succeed. Our houses of worship look like shopping malls or prisons or basketball stadiums on purpose. Whereas Notre Dame stands out gloriously amid the Paris skyline, modern churches shrink away from your gaze and blend in with their surrounding environs like the shy kid at the homecoming dance.
Even the names of the churches are specifically devised to be as un-churchy as possible — “Crosspoint” or “New Horizons” or some such thing. Is it a church or a rehab center for wealthy drug offenders? I guess we are meant to remain in the dark — and the sermons offered at these places rarely clarify matters. The modern church experience is designed so that you might actually walk into the place, sit through a whole service, and never be quite sure that you attended church at all. It is similar to how modern art museums seem like they are trying to trick you into thinking that you’ve accidentally wandered into an abandoned warehouse where a homeless lunatic spends his days trying to communicate with space aliens.
The church I attended as a child was newly built and fascinating to behold because it seemed that every architectural choice was made in order to maximize its ugliness to the greatest degree. Old Catholic churches were designed so that everyone inside (including the priest) would at all times be facing the cross and the tabernacle. Lots of time and care was put into making this focal point as magnificent as possible. But the focal point of this new church was the chair in which the priest sat — and behind him were the humongous decorative organ pipes. The tabernacle was tucked safely off to the side, out of view. No stained glass. Few crosses. Little in the way of artwork. The architect tried at every turn to avoid beauty at all costs (and what a cost it was), and no one can deny that he completed his mission.
I have no problem with simple churches. I quite like the unassuming little old church houses that you find when you travel across Pennsylvania or New Hampshire or Virginia — the kind where invariably there will be no air conditioning, and no cushions on the pews, and no cry room for fussy babies, but always an unmistakable charm and feeling of connection to the past that you’ll never experience in the comfortable, temperature-controlled confines of a place like Elevation Church or one of its cousins.
Simple does not equate to ugly. Mountains are simple. Oak trees are simple. Infants are simple. Tiny colonial-era churches are simple. All are simple in different ways, yet are beautiful in different ways. Modern churches are not simple and they are not cheap. But all of the money and care and complexity is devoted to keeping the hearts and minds of the congregation pointed towards earthly things, and especially towards the guy up on the pulpit (or stage, I suppose) delivering his vaguely theological opinions. He wouldn’t want any pesky artwork distracting you from the solemn business of listening to him ramble.
That’s the worst part about the modern trend of intentionally making our churches ugly: It cloaks itself in the guise of self-abdicating humility, when really the situation is exactly the opposite. Michelangelo showed humility when he spent four years on his back painting the story of the Bible onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Modern churches show extraordinary self-conceit when they expend their energy building elaborate but hideous sets for the band and pastor to occupy.
There would be no weeping throngs taking to the streets if one of these modernist behemoths burned to the ground, so long as nobody was inside at the time. It would be a matter for the insurance companies to handle, and within a few weeks nobody would remember what the big dumb thing looked like. People wept over Notre Dame for the same reason that a patriotic American would weep if Fort McHenry — the fortress whose star-spangled banners inspired our national anthem during the War of 1812 — burned to the ground. We do not idolize the structures themselves, but we revere what they represent and what their presence and their history bring to mind. That is why the beauty of a church is so important, and why its ugliness is such a tragedy, and why I pray to God that the events of this week might inspire us to once again reach for the artistic heights our ancestors sought, and attained.