What if?

January 28, 2004 | 47 comments
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Latter-day Saint worship services and chapels are rather plain and utilitarian. How much of that do we owe to early Latter-day Saint conversion patterns? What if those patterns had been different?

The vast majority of early Mormon converts came out of Protestantism, either from northern European backgrounds or from northern Europe itself. (There was a time in Utah when more of the population was European-born, and specifically English, than natively American.) The churches of northern Europe, in many cases, had been stripped of their “papist” ornamentation following the Reformation. (The Grossmünster in Zürich is a good example of this.) And, in England, most of our converts came from the “free churches” or “low churches,” where the emphasis was on preaching, hymn-singing, and Bible-reading; relatively few came out of the liturgical tradition of the Anglican communion.

How would contemporary Mormon architecture and culture be different if, instead, our first converts had come from, say, Italian Catholic backgrounds? How much of our culture and aesthetic tradition flows in any reasonably direct way from revelation, and how much comes from the human backgrounds of those who gave Mormon society and culture its early formation?

Our success in Wales, with its tradition of hymnody and choral singing, is arguably responsible for the existence of the Tabernacle Choir, the relative flourishing of choral music at BYU and beyond, and a number of our hymns. What if we had succeeded instead, or additionally, in Vienna?

If we had been more successful, in those early days, in Paris and Rome, would there be a stronger tradition of the visual arts in Mormondom? Would our churches be less plain and aniconic? Would that be desirable, or acceptable to the Lord?

Just thinking aloud. And perhaps, here and there, a bit wistfully.

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47 Responses to What if?

  1. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 8:53 am

    We did have a time when our chapels, if not exactly Chartres, did have more aesthetic appeal. We have older buildings with stain glass, murals, and paintings. Alas, we began regressing when construction was all centralized. This allows a redistribution of wealth and probably means chapels in places where we wouldn’t have them, but I agree that there is a sense of loss.

  2. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 9:20 am

    Wouldn’t it be great if President Hinckley started calling members of the Building Dept. to go on “architecture missions” to Paris, Strassburg, Hamburg, Marburg, Prague, Vienna, Milan?

    It does seem as though there was more aesthetic aspiration early on, but at some point we must have decided to make a virtue of necessity. Now we’re downright proud of our ugly buildings and cheap organs. Nate, anyone, is this part of 60s correlation? Earlier?

    (Dan, if you can be only “a bit” wistful, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. Lots of Sundays, the opening wheeze of the first hymn makes me want to run screaming from the chapel in the direction of the nearest Episcopal church with a good choir ;))

  3. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 9:26 am

    Man, one of these days I’m going to start reading through before I hit “post.”

    Once more, with a little nuance:

    Dan points to an interesting historical accident in the preponderance of “low church” converts in the early days. However, while that push toward plainness was always there, in the early Utah days, at least, there seems to have been more aesthetic aspiration, with people being called on missions to study art and architecture in Europe. This tension seems to have been resolved in favor of a decidedly utilitarian aesthetic, but when? After Brigham Young’s death, the completion of the Salt Lake Temple? Or later, as part of the move toward correlation and streamlining mid-twentieth century?

  4. lyle on January 28, 2004 at 9:43 am

    Well…if they start architectural missions, let’s get ‘legal missions’ back also! Maybe we could get Nate shipped off to the Middle East or China to study contracts over there and how the Church could best ‘acquire’ and ‘retain’ property, etc.

  5. sid on January 28, 2004 at 10:51 am

    I for one, like the austerity of our current LDS Church buildings. Also the uniformity. I can go to any Church anywhere and feel right at home. Plus the austerity lends a sense of what is really important – The Gospel, and Heavenly Father’s teachings, and not distracted by the superficial baubles. Now, the music, however, i will h ave to agree with kristine – I think we need to do more to enhance the quality of the music – a good massed choir can do wonders to set a spiritual tone to the Sacrament Meeting and other meetings.

  6. Matt Evans on January 28, 2004 at 10:52 am

    My sympathies run in the opposite direction of Dan, Nate and Kristine. In my opinion the church is still too concerned with style — I think some of the slick missionary brochures and attractive people in the church magazines detracts from the message and hinders our missionary work.

    In a style-obsessed world, people are yearning for substance. All of America’s thriving churches are heavily focused on substance, while those with elaborate liturgies and high style-quotients have been in decline for decades. We’d attract more converts and retain more members if we better heeded Mormon’s warning:

    “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” Mormon 8:37

    But I agree that most of our hymns and singing music are fitting for a yawn festival. Speaking of which, our Young Women are looking for a fund raiser . . . our congregation sings three hymns a week . . .the market for insomnia remedies is booming . . .

  7. Kaimi on January 28, 2004 at 11:10 am

    A while ago Slate had an interesting piece about the design of LDS temples. Some fun excerpts:

    “I wouldn’t know a Baptist church from a Lutheran one if they were standing side by side, but like most people I can spot a Mormon temple a good three or four miles away.”

    “”With the painful experience of Nauvoo still fresh in their minds,” the LDS Web site reports, “Church leaders determined that the Salt Lake Temple would be almost fortress-like in its design and construction.” That quality has been passed along from temple to temple over the years.

    See http://slate.msn.com/id/2061977

  8. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 11:27 am

    The move to utilitarian buildings was mainly about money. More attractive buildings were built in the old days. These buildings were funded by the local congregations, not by tithing money. The result is that you had wide variation in the quality of buildings based on the socio-economic status of the ward. Furthermore, it meant that poorer areas had great difficulty getting buildings. The church made two decisions, beginning as near as I can tell in the 1950s. First, they decided that they wanted to expand aggressively into poorer areas. Second, they decided that they wanted to divert funds that wards were essentially spending on themselves and put them to work on church projects. However, the church continued to be financially strapped. They could afford to both expand and build the Paris, Idaho tabranacle (a gorgeous buildng) everywhere. They chose to expand.

    That said, I think that the buildings were unnecessarily ugly and I think this is largely a result of not especially imaginative architects. Also, the emphasis on equality of facilities for congregations seems to have been a bit misplaced. Perhaps it is not really necessary to built a Utah style stake center in the rural Phillipines or sub-Saharan Africa.

    BTW, the church has sent both law and architecture missionaries out in the past. The Salt Lake Temple was designed by Truman Angel, who was sent by BY to study architecture in England and Europe. I actually think that his exposure to English church achitecture is a better explanation for the crenelations on the Salt Lake Temple than is some story about the Mormon fortress mentality. Also, in the 1880s and 1890s, church authorities did instruct some young men to study law to remedy what was seen as a lack of Mormon lawyers. My great-great grandfather was called by Wilford Woodruff to study law at Cornell. He returned to Utah and eventually became a judge in Brigham City.

  9. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Oops:

    They could NOT afford to both expand and build the Paris, Idaho tabranacle (a gorgeous buildng) everywhere. They chose to expand.

  10. lyle on January 28, 2004 at 11:32 am

    Nate, I think you have an excellent point re: facilities in the “3rd world.” In some areas, they may be “too much,” while in others are lacking and need to take more account of socio-political and geographical differences; i.e.
    most chapels in the dominican republic should be dug with wells/cisterns, etc. sometimes we couldn’t baptize for lack of water [no jokes re: the ocean, ok?]. however, i don’t think the size, style, etc. should be sig. different. I think it is fabulous that you can go to church anywhere in the world and find the same ‘type’ of chapel. Maybe the 3rd world congregations could get by with smaller churches, etc. but…I think the Goethe quote re: treating ‘wards’ as they are and will become, i.e. full and just like ’1st world’ wards, is great.

    p.s. are you still hoping to do a byu studies piece on legal missions?

  11. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 11:33 am

    Matt, I think good music, good art, polished liturgy are not matters of “style,” but can actually be substantive expressions of faith and devotion to God, and to “the highest in us.”

    I would argue that, in fact, the “thriving” popular churches, the big Protestant mega-churches in my hometown, Nashville, for instance, are ALL about style and not about substance. There’s lots of flashy music, cheap emotionalism masquerading as the Spirit, and glitzy, stylized preaching.

    I think that our uniformly ugly chapels are exactly an outgrowth of the glossy, correlated kind of PR you say you dislike. It IS style–it’s “branding”. It’s making the church recognizable and comfortable all over the world. And it’s no less expensive than building simple, beautiful buildings–we spend tons of money to ship carpets from somebody’s uncle’s wife’s cousin’s factory in St. George around the world, instead of just buying carpet locally, for instance. There might be economies of scale in making matching cheez-wiz buildings all over Utah, but those are quickly lost in the process of geographical expansion.

    (I don’t feel strongly about this at all, as you can tell from my measured tone.)

  12. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 11:36 am

    Sid, a minor quibble. There’s no such thing as a “good, massed choir.” Massed choirs are by definition slow, unwieldy and usually out of tune. There’s no reason (except for singing outdoors or in a building with really bad acoustics or performing Mahler or Berlioz) to have a choir of more than 90 or 100.

    Harumph.

  13. Bob Caswell on January 28, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Matt: I’m surprised I’m the first to comment on your comment. You said, “I think some of the slick missionary brochures and attractive people in the church magazines detracts from the message and hinders our missionary work.”

    Could you expound on how exactly the Church could do better here? More fat people pictures? Less modelish people? People losing their teeth? Is there too much color? I have this picture of a non-glossy black and white National Geographic.

    Let’s just say, I think the Church could do a lot worse on that front.

  14. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Kristine: there is probably some truth to your branding theory, but I think that you under estimate the economies of scale issue. I also think that the economic logic of carrying the gospel to the poor is a much more powerful determinate than is some PR decision.

    That said I think that some the arcitectural decisions made by the Church have been ghastly, like the renovation (read: gutting and desecration) of the Logan temple. That travesty was presided over by a guy named Emil Fetzer, who was in charge of the standardization of the church building program as well. Fetzer was a second rate achitect with absolutely no sense of style or beauty at all. He gleefully destroyed hand made pioneer woodwork and replaced it with glittery plaster because he honestly thought the plaster looked better!

    When the evil that Fetzer had wrought was actually seen, some of the Brethren — especially Elders Hinkley and Packard — were appalled. One happy result is that Fetzer’s control over the Manti temple renovation was sharply limited, and Manti survived. (Perhaps he could have spraypainted over the Minerva Tiechart murals. Very distracting.) This is called progress.

  15. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Um, Emil Fetzer’s my uncle. Just kidding–but one of his nephews is married to my aunt. Most of the family would agree with your assessment anyway. His company did make really beautiful cabinets–it’s too bad they didn’t stick to their area of expertise.

    I think our current chapels stick out like sore thumbs in poor areas, anyway, and still mark the church as a rich entity from elsewhere. We should either build beautiful buildings or build what is appropriate for the areas where we are growing. As it is, we do neither.

    And, btw, I don’t think the “branding” is a conscious motive–it’s an outgrowth of the whole modernizing, streamlining, correlating mentality that dominated the church’s thinking (maybe necessarily so) in the 50s and 60s, when most members of the current leadership were starting their church service. Some of those ideas have become ossified and are now hindrances (in my totally unqualified, if not correspondingly humble, opinion, that is).

  16. lyle on January 28, 2004 at 12:25 pm

    Kristine, is it “beautiful or appropriate” then?
    I’m a fan the feminist both/and approach. yet what is beauty? and what is appropriate? esp. re: appropriate…maybe having a ‘large’ chapel in a poor area makes it seem unaproachable or not for the common people…but how would the church function on an appropriate basis? i.e. if we built 4 small chapels and eskewed parking lots/lawns/land around them…perhaps they could each serve 1 ward/branch each and would be ‘smaller’ and look more like what the common people think a church is, i.e. just like the one next door. is this the idea? alt. i remember my MTC branch president suggesting that when we go into china, we’ll just stop building churches, cuz we won’t be able to afford it. lol.

  17. Scott on January 28, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    To those who say our chapels are ugly, I would ask, What should be our model? Whose churches should we emulate? Please be specific. (If you can link to photos, that would be great.) Why would those buildings be preferable? How would they enhance our worship? Would they adequately provide for the peculiar space needs of an LDS meetinghouse (e.g., numerous individual class rooms, office areas, conference room, kitchen, recreational area, stage, etc.)? How would their cost (both to build and maintain) compare with that of our current building program? If they would be more expensive, how would we pay for them? (Raise tithing? Cut other Church programs?)

    Scott

  18. lyle on January 28, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    alright…scott. great questions! so…what about basketball courts? do we really need them? Shouldn’t they be football fields instead in s. america/africa? what about stages? really…when was the last time that the stage in your church was used…besides for overflow during stake conference…

  19. Randy on January 28, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    On the issue of “branding,” I think it is interesting that this tendency applies not only to buildings that the church builds from the ground up but those that it acquires from other faiths. In Nashville, for example, the downtown ward looked for years to try and find an affordable piece of property next to Vanderbilt to build a church. They never could find one. So instead they bought a beautiful, large old church with beautiful windows, pews, and high valuted ceilings. (For those of you, like Kristen, who might of lived in Nashville before, the church is in Green Hills on Hillsboro Road, though I can’t remember the denomination of the church.) While the building is beautiful, and actually has more than enough classrooms and other space (albeit no basketball court), the building did need some substantial renovations ($1 to 2 MM). Instead of renovating the building, the church has decided to demolish it and replace it with a new building (at an even greater cost). I can’t help but think that the tendency of the church’s building department to standardize ward buildings played a significant role in this decision.

  20. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    The LDS chapels in Arlingon, VA, Cambridge, MA, Yale Ave, SLC, Hollywood, CA, and the old DC buildings are all beautiful buildings that serve LDS congregations quite well. Nothing like them has been built in a while, however. Sorry. No pictures.

  21. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Add to Nate’s list the LDS chapel in Alexandria, VA, which was extensively remodeled when we lived there in the late-90s, but which is still a very classy building. Indeed, the saints in all the DC metro area are blessed with better than usual architecture.

    Oh, and speaking of Hinckley’s direct involvement in stopping certain artistice travesties–it was President Hinckely who gave the go ahead to turning the old Vernal, UT tabernacle into a temple. Otherwise, the building was going to be torn down, and Hinckley didn’t want to see it go. It was the first time a temple had been built in a remodeled, existing building.

  22. clark goble on January 28, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    Regarding 19th century architecture, I think we forget the rather masonic designs in a lot of archetecture. There also was a lot more variation in design. (I rather like the almost Lutheran like church design that looks like a crusader castle up near the Scera – it has a plaque on it so I guess it is a historic building)

    I don’t want to play up the masonic or related designs too much. I tend to think they get far too much emphasis. But I do miss all seeing eyes, the handshakes, trees of life, and especially the beehive. (A great symbol although I’m not convinced that the masonic symbolism was ever really significant in Utah)

    I’d also disagree with those who desparage current archetecture. I think the archetecture of the last 15 years has been quite good even if utilitarian. Contrast it to the monstrosities of the 60′s through the early 80′s. Yeah there were some stupidities in rennovatons. (How many old chapels lost wood floors for carpet?) However overall I think the church has improved after a particularly ugly period.

    Now if we could just get them to pain the *bottom* half of the Provo temple to match the newly painted upper half.

  23. Matt J on January 28, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    Nate, you need to get your father to comment on this thread. He might have a thing or two to say about church art and architecture…

    If I were to build chapels just for me, I think I would err on the spartan side. I don’t really feel less spiritual going to church in an ugly building with a brick steeple sticking out of the front lawn. That’s probably because I don’t know any better.

    However, people connect to the gospel through different means. The spirit should be the teacher, but a physical catalyst is frequently used to get the spirit moving — our ears listen to sermons and music and our eyes examine art and architecture. A perfect chord or a beautiful arch shouldn’t really have anything to do with the gospel, but they seem to have an effect when encountered in the right setting. I admit feeling a sense of loss hearing about all the symbolism in the earliest temples and the attempts at expressing messages through sculpture or stain glass or intricate mouldings. If we went to churches that looked more like cathedrals there’d certainly be a lot more things to keep our minds busy, and our childrens’ minds. I’d probably appreciate the visual arts in church more if we had a greater tradition.

    In order to figure out how to pay for more interesting buildings, however, we’d need better access to the church’s budget.

  24. Dan Peterson on January 28, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    There was a time in the seventies when the thought occurred to me — not entirely seriously, I confess — of bumping Brother Fetzer off. True, I knew I would go to Hell. But I reasoned that the benefits to the Kingdom of my sacrifice might outweigh the cost.

    For what it’s worth, I had a very long conversation with the Church’s architect a year or a year and a half ago, regarding design ideas for the temple in Manhattan. (He wanted iconographic ideas from ancient Judaism, the Near East, etc. What came of that, if anything, I’ll only learn when I see the interior of the new building.) If I recall correctly, he said that President Kimball had wanted temples stripped down, simple, functional, and utilitarian, since the essential thing is the ordinances. President Kimball was interested in taking more temples to more people, and had to cut costs. President Hinckley, however, has decreed that temples be more aesthetically pleasing, and that, when renovations are made, aesthetic improvements are to be included along with improvements in plumbing and wiring. I hope that’s true. The interiors of the new temples in Preston (with original paintings of English landscapes by Frank Magleby, who was called on an art mission to the UK in preparation for that building), in Nauvoo, in Snowflake, and in Ghana (the murals in the ordinance room that I’ve seen there, and the African hardwoods, are really quite beautiful) give me some grounds for optimism.

  25. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    Randy: My brother is the new bishop of that Nashville ward. In fact, the decision to tear the building down has mostly to do with an entirely different kind of stupidity on the part of the Utah folks who did the site search. They weren’t able to appropriately judge the effects of water on the building (since that’s not an issue in Utah) and so bought a building with so much rot and termite damage that it just can’t be salvaged. (Had they brought along any of the dozen or so people in the stake with substantial real estate/construction expertise when they did the inspection, they might well have passed on the building or been able to get it condemned and have paid for just the lot). What pains me about the demolition/reconstruction is that they won’t make any efforts to save the incredibly beautiful mouldings, windows, doors, etc. They will throw away gorgeous, solid wood pews to install the standard pressboard-with-veneer-and-carpet-scraps monstrosities. Saving what can be saved of the old building would probably be more expensive than installing a standard chapel, but it would also be the right thing to do from the standpoint of stewardship over the earth and the resources we have.

    I would add to Nate’s list the new Cambridge 2nd ward building. It’s an old boiler factory, and has a really industrial look, with exposed ductwork, high beamed ceilings, etc. I haven’t been there during church services, but it looks as though it has been configured in a way that serves a typical Mormon congregation pretty well. (Well, an almost typical congregation–they have 51 kids in the nursery, which is pretty outlandish, at least outside of Provo). I don’t think they spent as much money on it as they would have had to spend to acquire land and build a standard chapel (even if there were any buildable land in Cambridge), and I love the way the use of the building suggests the transformative power of the gospel. Why shouldn’t hymns echo from the accoutrements of industry? It strikes me as beautifully and uniquely Mormon.

    Here in Massachusetts, the Belmont chapel is also especially nice and very carefully built to fit in with the natural setting of its lot (unlike its new neighbor, the temple, which was built at the cost of significant violence to the natural landscape). It also has a sweet little pipe organ.

    However, I don’t know if it makes sense to make a list of good models and try to pattern after them. Good design will necessarily be ad hoc and locally conditioned. The one thing that most of the buildings people listed have in common is that they are modeled on, or designed to fit in with, the natural and cultural landscape that surrounds them. While centralization may have served us well in the initial stages of growth, I think we will soon reach (if we haven’t already) a new stage, where the costs of central planning are greater than is justified by construction savings. Really good design by people familiar with local conditions can save money in the long run, and also keep us from fighting expensive court battles (like we did over the Nashville and Boston temples–Boston may have been necessary, Nashville definitely was not).

  26. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 3:14 pm

    One more thing, and then I promise I’ll stop. I don’t think “plain” and “beautiful” are exclusive terms. Very, very simple, even Spartan buildings can be lovely–very expensive buildings can be hideous. The equation of beauty with plushness and ornament is a relic of frontier deprivation, perhaps, but we could get over it by now, I think.

    As for music, I’ll reiterate my earlier suggestion that we should just dispense with the ghastly electronic organs altogether and reinvigorate a tradition of excellent congregational singing (which, incidentally, would be helped by designing buildings with decent acoustics…)

  27. clarkgoble on January 28, 2004 at 3:34 pm

    The best chapel without a doubt is the Berkeley single’s ward chapel. It was originally a home that Hearst bought for one of his mistresses. I think the church bought it as an investment and decided to use it. I still remember sitting on a nice sofa beside a fireplace for Priesthood when I visited that ward.

  28. Nate Oman on January 28, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    Kristine: I wished that I was as optimistic as you about the economics of local chapel building. I am not, but I hope that I am wrong…

  29. Adam Greenwood on January 28, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Kristine,
    I’d hope that you’re right, but like Nate I am a skeptic. I wonder if your desire for better churches isn’t influencing your evaluation of the economics.

    On the other hand, I have to wonder if the value of beautiful, local chapels isn’t worth the extra cost.

    Sometimes I wonder why the church doesn’t go back to a more local system. We could have the same contribution from the church as now, but local members would be allowed to contribute time and resources to augment the thing. I understand that that would result in inequities, since rich congregations would have more money and talented congregations would have more valuable contributions in-kind, but those inequities will exist anyway. The rich are richer no matter where they go to church. The talented are still talented whether we make them hide their talents or no. Too often these arguments for equity seem to rest on a kind of ‘split the baby because mine died’ kind of argument. People need to contribute where they’ll make a difference.

    I don’t know, maybe we can require matching contributions to the general building fund as part of private contributions to building a chapel, although that would be difficult for in-kind contributions.

    On the other hand, the extra costs don’t end with the construction. Individualized buildings are more expensive to maintain and upkeep. They’re also harder to get rid of as church demographics change. Our current utilitarian buildings sell easier on the market. They are also less likely to recieve the sort of historic designation that hinders any future change of use.

    I also wonder how increased mobility influences all this. On the one hand, it seems to decrease the element of inequity, since people are less likely to be stuck in a less desirable chapel all their lives. On the other hand, it necessarily lessens the connection to one chapel that is a big part of the reason for localizing them in the first place.

  30. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Nate, you’re probably not wrong, but there’s no way to know, unless you know somebody who knows somebody with access to budget info. And not all costs are immediately measurable–it may be hopelessly romantic, but I think there are huge costs to throwing beautiful wooden pews and leaded glass windows into a landfill, even if the bottom line on the building with the vinyl windows and pressboard pews is smaller. (I like to think that shortsighted building committee lackeys will find their mansions in heaven built on the cheap as well ;>) )

  31. Scott on January 28, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Kristine,

    You write, “While centralization may have served us well in the initial stages of growth, I think we will soon reach (if we haven’t already) a new stage, where the costs of central planning are greater than is justified by construction savings.”

    What costs do you have in mind? Are you aware of any organization that develops properties all over the world (or even all over the US) without central management of the process?

    What would the alternative to “centralization” be? Allowing/requiring that congregations finance, design, and manage the construction of their own facilities without the involvement of the Church? If so, who (at the local level) would oversee it? I’m not sure what you have in mind, exactly.

    Scott

  32. Kristine on January 28, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Again, given the opacity of church finances, it’s impossible to argue very well about the economics. But, Adam, I’m not convinced by the maintenance argument either–in Philadelphia, we met in a building built on the “Sage Plan,” which was designed in Arizona, I think. It had a heating/AC system that probably worked fine in AZ, with a compressor unit outside and all the ductwork in the ceilings. In Philly, where it gets cold as well as hot, that design meant replacing the compressor about every other year and a constantly uncomfortable building. That kind of stupidity is expensive, too.

  33. Aaron Brown on January 30, 2004 at 10:36 pm

    I attend church in the Wilshire ward in the old L.A. Stake Center in Los Angeles (presumably the building Nate was referring to when he mentioned Hollywood). Built in the 1920s by the (then) wealthy congregation that inhabited the neighborhood, the building is often described as the most beautiful non-temple edifice in the Church (I don’t know if that’s really true) and the Church just finished renovating it within the last year at a cost of around $7,000,000 (so I’m told). Attending there feels like visiting a Catholic cathedral (minus the Virgin, crosses, etc.) every week, and I dare say I think our attendance has improved markedly since we’ve moved back in (O.K. – it probably also has something to do with the new air conditioning).

    Whatever else you want to say about the bland, boring architecture throughout the rest of the Church, one thing is certain: My ward benefits enormously by comparison. When any out-of-towners visit L.A., and they only spend one Sunday in town, they often attend our ward, just to see the building. President Hinkley came for the re-dedication, and we’ve had at least one other General Authority attend recently, presumably just to visit the building.

    So I’m (selfishly) in favor of our simple, utilitarian architecture. It makes my ward look so good!

    Ha! :>

    Aaron B

  34. Matt Evans on January 31, 2004 at 1:40 am

    Kristine, you ridiculed the “cheap emotionalism” of the churches in Nashville, but I don’t see why the “expensive emotionalism” of stained glass windows is a better pretense for the spirit. The spirit people feel from Michael McLean is the same one from Handel’s Messiah. Either they’re both emotion-based or their both legitimate Spirit.

    Nate & Kristine, the chapels you admire that I’m familiar with are all impractical. The Belmont, Cambridge and Yale chapels are all rear-entry, rather than side-entry. This means there is no overflow space, a real problem for conferences, farewells and funerals. I’ve been to meetings at all three of them where dozens of people were stuck outside the meeting because the chapels are so small. And these buildings’ only foyer is unfailingly packed like a sardine can. They also have balconies, intimate woodwork, stained glass, hardwood floors and stairs.

    It’s clear to me why the church went away from this style of meetinghouse. It’s not clear to me why we should go back, or what elements of these buildings should be incorporated into the new buildings.

    I’m also interested in hearing how those who wish for more attractive chapels interpret Moroni’s condemnation of those who spend money for the “adorning of your churches”. Doesn’t everyone who adorns their church claimed it was to glorify God?

  35. Matt J on January 31, 2004 at 4:42 am

    I find Moroni’s rebuke of adorning churches very powerful. It’s nice to hear someone apply it (and the other warnings in that chapter) to our own church rather than assuming it just means other churches. Here are a couple of related thoughts.

    D&C 124:25-27 talks about the temple in Nauvoo and all the craftmanship and precious things that should be used to build it. There are other instances where the saints are commanded to make a *nice* building (usually a temple). I’ve personally had a hard time reconciling Moroni’s strong warning against adornment with these commands to the contrary. Do we interpret these as being specific to those buildings or just to temples generally? If we’ve gone away from the meeting houses of yesterday for our betterment, did we slide backward by putting so many resources into the conference center and publicizing its technological and architectural marvels?

    In olden times we were supposed to give the best 10% of our assets to the Lord. This could also apply to building up His places of worship. If we gave our best materials and best craftmanship and best ideas to the Lord’s houses they would probably be built differently than they are now. Of course, we need to draw a line somewhere so that enough buildings can be built. Where should that line be drawn?

  36. Kristine on January 31, 2004 at 9:30 am

    I think I’ve said this already, but I’ll say it again: churches do not have to be “adorned” or expensive to be beautiful. Nor do inexpensive buildings have to be as ugly as ours are. Stained glass is wonderful, but ordinary windows would be just fine–instead, we build airless, lightless barns and expect people to be uplifted in them. It’s certainly possible to worship in a barn, but why make it so hard?

    Matt, I don’t think it’s the same spirit that moves people in Michael McLean and in Handel. There are lots of technical musical reasons why this is so–certain intervals in Western music have a quite predictable emotional tug, and sappy lyrics give quick and easy acess to something which is also more emotional than spiritual. Handel requires more intellectual work to appreciate, and I think real spiritual experiences generally involve mind as well as heart. It may be that the same Spirit is accessible through both kinds of music (though I’m personally inclined to think that the Holy Ghost leaves the room immediately at the first notes of McLean & co.), but even so, the human experience of that Spirit is fuller when more of the human capacity is engaged.

    Matt J’s questions might bring us back to Dan’s original question which is more interesting than just church architecture: if we had drawn more Anglican and Catholic converts, would we privilege passages like D&C 124 over Moroni’s warning? (which, by the way, is not necessarily a condemnation of beautiful buildings, only of beautiful buildings becoming a priority–the old “not money, but the love of money” distinction, admittedly weak)

  37. Matt Evans on January 31, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    Kristine, my claim about The Messiah and Michael McLean was that they either both invite the capital-S “Spirit” (Holy Ghost) or they both invite a faux, emotion-based, lower-case “spirit.” The Spirit leads people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, emotional spirits don’t.

    People visiting the Tetons or the Grand Canyon are “moved” and “inspired”. The “spirit” that moves and inspires them, however, does not compel them to submit their lives to Christ. I’ve known lots of people who are so inspired by our national parks that they have spent enormous amounts of time there. Because the infusion of this “spirit” has not led them to Christ, I have to assume that it is not the Holy Ghost.

    The Spirit that changes peoples’ hearts and leads the sinner to Christ is not dependent on a Grand Canyon, a stained glass window, beautiful music or an attractive building. It permeates hovels and mangers and humble hearts. It goeth where it listeth.

    It’s important that we not confuse the “spirits” and the “Spirit”. There are a thousand ways we can forget the distinction, and unfortunately many people in the Church Office Building forget the distinction. The idea that the true savior had “no beauty that we should desire him” is anathema to them. That’s why they only commission paintings that portray Christ how they wish he had been, rather than how we know he was. They can’t fathom that the world’s only perfect person wasn’t beautiful.

    It seems to me that complaints about the appearance of our meetinghouses suffer from the same misunderstanding of the gospel.

  38. Matt Evans on January 31, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    Following up on my last comment, it would be interesting to see the reaction in Sunday School or Seminary to this statement on the chalk board: “Jesus Christ, who was perfect in every possible way, had no beauty that we should desire him.”

    Lots of squirming and “Yea, but…” comments, I’m sure. To most people the juxtaposition is impossible to reconcile. (No doubt he looks like a super model now that he’s resurrected.)

  39. Grasshopper on February 1, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Matt wrote: “People visiting the Tetons or the Grand Canyon are ‘moved’ and ‘inspired’. The ‘spirit’ that moves and inspires them, however, does not compel them to submit their lives to Christ. I’ve known lots of people who are so inspired by our national parks that they have spent enormous amounts of time there. Because the infusion of this “spirit” has not led them to Christ, I have to assume that it is not the Holy Ghost.”

    I’m not sure this is a good assumption. I prefer Alma’s perspective: “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” The fact that some people do not recognize or accept this as a witness of the Holy Ghost does not mean that it is not a witness from the Holy Ghost.

    I agree that the Spirit does not depend on the Grand Canyon or a stained glass window, but this certainly does not preclude them from being a vehicle for the Spirit — a vehicle which may, for some, be more effective than an “unadorned” spiritual prompting.

  40. Kristine on February 1, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Matt, leaving aside the slightly insulting notion that people who disagree with your ideas about church architecture suffer from a “misunderstanding of the gospel,” I want to push you on your claim of a theological warrant for ugly buildings. If the person of Christ and his lack of beauty is in fact such a justification, how do you explain the historical development of LDS chapels discussed above, and also the continued adornment of temples?

    Also, maybe you could briefly gloss Christ’s valorization of the woman who annointed him with costly ointment and his rebuke of his disciples’ charitably motivated bean-counting (Matthew 26:7-13).

  41. Matt Evans on February 1, 2004 at 7:11 pm

    Hi Grasshopper,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ve always loved that testimony of Alma’s. To me the teleological argument — that by looking things we can deduce their purpose and thereby know that there is a creator, like a watchmaker — is compelling. And maybe you’re right that it’s the Holy Ghost that makes the teleological argument compelling.

    But my friends who have spent a lot of time in nature do not see God’s hands. They’ve been taught to perceive nature differently and to deconstruct the teleological argument.

    People who immerse themselves in great literature, art, music or nature don’t seem to be disproportionately likely to accept the restored gospel. In fact, they are seem disproportionately likely to *reject* the gospel. Because I think people regularly moved by the Holy Ghost would be at least as likely to accept the gospel as those who aren’t regularly moved by the Holy Ghost, I see no other explanation than that the spirit animating nature and high art is not the Holy Ghost.

    As for your final point, I think that guilding the lily obscures the beauty of the lily for more people than are drawn to lilies because of the guilding. (I tried re-working that sentence but can’t find a better way to formulate it — sorry!)

  42. Matt Evans on February 1, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    Hi Kristine,

    Sorry for coming across as condescending. My point was to challenge the pervasive belief that worldly beauty and eternal beauty are parallel or positively correlated. Because I think this idea is false and is largely responsible for Mormon-woman-stress-syndrome and other ailments, I squelch it wherever I can.

    As for the costly ointment, the context in which it happens makes it hard to draw a general principle against the disciples’ complaint.

    Showing costly compassion to Christ just hours before he bows in agony before the will of the father, bleeds from every pore while assuming the sins of all mankind, and performs the central act of love and grace in human history, doesn’t seem outrageous. That Christ justified the expense by noting they would not always have him, is especially pertinent on his last day with them. The disciples would not have complained had they realized what was coming.

    To draw a general principle from this account seems to overlook the unique circumstances and context in which it occurred.

  43. Kristine on February 1, 2004 at 8:05 pm

    Matt, how is drawing a general principle from my example more strained that from yours? Showing costly compassion to Christ *in remembrance of* his bowing in agony before the will of the father, bleeding from every pore while assuming the sins of all humankind, and performing the central act of love and grace in human history seems perfectly appropriate to me. Since the sacrament itself is a re-creation of an event in the last hours of his life, it seems natural to look for other ideas about proper worship in that context.

    I’m intrigued by your assertion that appreciation of art might be related to Mormon-woman-stress syndrome. Do elaborate.

  44. Matt Evans on February 2, 2004 at 12:02 am

    Christ’s sentence that we would always have the poor, but not always have him, was pertinent only because he needed to justify the exception to the general rule. Moroni’s condemning comments about adorning churches also points to the general rule: God doesn’t want us to praise him with stuff; he wants us to show our devotion by our behavior, especially toward others.

    As for beauty and Mormon-woman-stress-syndrome (MWSS), it’s not an appreciation of art that contributes to MWSS, it’s the tension between style and substance. A particular LDS woman I know very, very well would rather leave for church 15 minutes late, ensuring that her kids look cute, than leave for church on time to ensure she and her kids participated in the sacrament.

    If the Relief Society were to discuss this woman and her priorities, I’m sure many women would think the mom’s problem isn’t her skewed perspective on the importance of looking cute versus the sacrament, it’s her failure to plan ahead. Get that mom a schedule and an alarm clock! What they fail to see is that time spent preoccupied with things that don’t matter necessarily compete with important things for our time and attention. The preoccupation with appearance conflicts with significant matters every day, in many ways, and causes stress.

    The principle cause of MWSS is the lie that it’s possible to serve God and mammon. It is possible to do it all — to win on God’s and the world’s terms. Women think it’s possible because they see women who look like they’re doing it all. What they don’t realize is that’s the extent of it — they *look* like they do it all. In reality, every minute spent on ephemeral matters comes at the expense of something that matters, every dollar spent coordinating their outfit was denied someone who needed it worse, every minute spent doing their hair a minute less they can offer those with feeble knees.

    The only non-condemnatory mention of appearance is in Alma 1:30, where the Nephites are commended for not wearing costly apparel yet being “neat and comely.” I think we would be much more righteous, and have better mental health, if we adopted that low-threshold standard more broadly.

  45. Clark Goble on February 2, 2004 at 2:30 am

    Matt – you are conflating two issues. One is whether something is spiritual or a spiritual experience and the other the *judgement* of such spiritual experiences.

    The fact that your friends don’t recognize such things as signifying the divine is not to say that the spirit wasn’t there and wasn’t attempting to communicate. I have been in circumstances where there were huge spiritual outpourings and some present didn’t notice a thing.

    I think in our own history you can see this. Consider the spiritual manifestations at Kirtland. Yet some present thought only that the leading authorities were drunk.

    It is dangerous to say that the natural world isn’t a huge manifestation of the spirit merely because we don’t discern it. As many have noted, it takes practice and humility to discern the spirit and more importantly what the spirit is trying to convey.

  46. Matt Evans on February 2, 2004 at 10:39 am

    Clark, my premise is that communing with the Holy Ghost affects a person, like fluoride in the water makes kids’ teeth strong, even if they don’t know the names are Holy Ghost or Fluoride.

  47. Richard on February 3, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    I have been following this discussion from the sidelines. Just a couple of observations about the significance of beauty… How legit is the creation of beauty? When the Lord created the world he specifically mentions beauty and variety. (Interestingly, there was not much mention of such “practical matters” as as oil or iron ore.) Second, what are the emtional rewards of creating? After each step in the creation, the Lord looks at his work and pronouces it “good.” It is hard not to see some emotional satisfaction going on there.
    Why does creating matter? The Lord is also the Creator. And we are commanded to become like Him. We talk much about love, service, sacrifice, etc. as being traits that we absolutely must internalize if we are to move down the path of the Plan of Salvation. But how often do we say things like, “I’m just not creative”? Can we really pick and choose which traits of the Lord we choose to emulate and which ones we do not? Would we feel justified in saying, “I’m just not loving”? When we look at the higher goals of the Plan of Salvation, such as creating worlds, it would seem that being creative would be a fairly crucial skill and attitude to develope. While all have come short of the Glory of God, yet still we must try to at least go down the path here on earth. Creating “beauty and variety” that is “good” is one such path.

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