Monday, November 25, 2002

Trading Spaces at church

I attended Mass this weekend in a small, 19th century church in southern Wisconsin. The church was still mostly beautiful, but clearly had undergone big changes in the last thirty or forty years. There were traces of the former high altar left, but most of it had been removed, and the area behind the main altar is now a blank wall decorated with wooden forms in the shape of Gothic arches. As I sat listening to the handbell choir, I had a thought for what has happened to churches in the last forty years: they have fallen victim to Trading Spaces.

Trading Spaces is a show on The Learning Channel where two couples trade houses and then redesign a room in the other couple's house, with the help of professional interior decorators. It is a very entertaining show, because the decorators have total freedom; the couple who owns the house is not allowed to determine what will happen or to see the work in progress. Sometimes (most of the time, to my taste) the decorators do good work and create interesting rooms. Sometimes they create monstrosities, such as the Tantric love temple with lewdly-posed Barbie and Ken dolls. The fun of the show is that the viewer doesn't know what will happen.

The show works because the decorators have no guidance, and so no one can tell what will happen. But isn't this in fact what we have done with our churches? We have 1900 years of tradition in church art and architecture, but we have tended to cut all of that off, making the design of a new church into a exercise in free-form design. Sometimes (not too often, for my taste) the results are stunning. Sometimes the results are stunningly bad. I am sure you have examples in mind; I am thinking of the Freddy Kreuger tabernacle at Holy Name in Chicago. If you divorce yourself from tradition, sometimes you will get great art, but most of the time you will get self-indulgent tripe. The best art grows out of a tradition, not spontaneously. In music, the best composers, from Mozart to Bach to Ellington, work within a tradition, taking over the forms that are current and understandable by their listeners, and transforming them through their genius. The tradition is a framework that makes sure that we will create sensibly and not randomly, and it makes the difference between Bach and Schoenberg, or between Ellington and Ornette Coleman. We should do the same with our churches.

P.S. Disputations' eminent writer sent me a note, pointing out that the Tantric love temple was from a different but related show, While You Were Out.

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