Religion in America is in steep decline, and I know why. Simply gaze upon any church built after 1950, and you will know why too. Modern churches are ugly as sin, and so too is modern religion.
In an age before modern church architecture, every Sunday morning my parents dutifully herded their eleven children into a towering Romanesque church. For the next hour we were expected to pretend to understand a priest chanted Latin in a space bigger and more beautiful than heaven itself. So big it made everyone small, even our parents, our nuns and the gym teachers, who was the biggest guy we knew.
We always arrived early to take our place among a sea of dark wooden pews. Waiting for mass, there was nothing to do but gaze piously aloft at shafts of sunlight radiating through glass stained in colors so rich, they were not of this earth. And all around us, filling a near empty church, boomed an organ in a tone so deep, so loud, it moved clouds around the sky.
Once the service started, we still had nothing to do. The mass was in Latin and after the sixth time you saw the show, there was nothing to get excited about. So we stared around, at the soaring white arches built upon larger arches, and those built on still larger arches.
Between each arch, patrolled a saint. Each saint stood like a grenadier in an arched guard house, and each saint had their own section of the congregation to keep an eye on.
We knew not to mess with these saints. We knew to kneel when everyone knelt, sit when everyone sat and stand when everyone stood. And more importantly we also knew not to whine no matter how hard we had to pee.
If our parents were in a buoyant mood, they settled us in the back beneath the lenient saints. These were the lady saints, mostly moms, who were more understanding of colicky babies and bratty two year old sisters.
If our parents were angry with us, they positioned us in front among the frescoes, corbels, gargoyles and blind galleries. This is where the martyr saints stood guard, the real tough ones.
In short, you had to work your saints. You had to be up on the religion, and if you were up on religion -- you knew enough not fool around anyway.
This was hard-ball faith.
Since the mass was held in Latin, no one gave a damn whether you understood it or not. In fact, the less you understood, the better. The world was deeply religious in those days, so it didn't have to be relevant. It only had to there - so each person could draw from it what they needed.
It is only when Christianity stumbled into the modern search for meaning that faith became meaningless to so many, and church architecture took a turn for the worse.
The church I get dragged to these days looks like a suburban bank with an exceptionally large parking lot. Take down the industrial girder steeple and the I-beam cross and put up a red and yellow neon sign and you got a Wells-Fargo.
Inside it's worse, the pews swirl in a semi-circle around the altar like seating around a camp-fire. And just like a campfire, the music is the same insipidly cheerful guitar strumming we all learned to hate as children.
It is an ugly church but not exceptionally ugly. Out there squatting aside the inter-state are truly hideous structures. Out there in the burbs stand churches architected by people lacking even the requisite aesthetics to design forms for the DMV.
These barns testify to the idiocy of big ideas. Take the universal concept that the sacred should uplift -- that it should soar toward heaven. Now give that idea to a church committee of used-car hucksters and fast-food managers and what do you get? A student project consisting of a 200 foot skate board ramp with a cut out square hole, partially plugged by a stainless steel cross.
They say church architecture should reflect a modern sense of community. All too often it does precisely that.
If I want community I go to a bar. My bars reflect my community. There, you can talk to the guy on the next stool during the sports ceremony. You can show him photos of your kids. You can complain about your spouse. There people are friendly and listen to each other. You get to see their kids, and hear about what a troubling nag their spouse is.
I have seen scary bars. I've seen run-down bars. I've seen pretentious bars, but I've never seen a bar as ugly as an ugly church. I guess this goes to the difference between church and bar people. It goes to the difference between being good and having a good time, but it also goes to the difference between something forced and something real.
Our ancestors founded religion to smooth the edges of a harsh world, to deal with things beyond our powers, like the death and suffering of those we love. They designed great cathedrals and modest country chapels to point toward something beyond ourselves. They built structures to mark the path toward hope. The decline in Christianity came with the contemporary search for relevance, when religion looked to a modern earth rather than an ancient heaven for answers; a mistake that is reflected in the architecture of its churches.
© Greg Schiller, 2007
Author: Greg Schiller
Feel free to rummage around my collection of essays and stories at Greg's Garage