There is a large chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago that was paid for by the Rockefeller family. It was built in the 1920s in the Gothic style, and is an extraordinary structure inside and out. The Rockefeller Chapel is almost an embarrassment to the university now because it seems to address a component of campus life that the university no longer considers relevant: Christian faith.
Were the Rockefellers in a generous mood nearly a century later, the building they might endow would be much more likely to be an art museum rather than a chapel. More than any other building type, the art museum has become the place of greatest spiritual significance in the post-Christian West. This claim should be disturbing to Christians, who like to think of themselves as custodians of Western spirituality; the facts indicate otherwise.
Recently, university professor John Seed opined in the Huffington Post that art museums are places for meditative contemplation of the human condition, a role that church buildings have traditionally played. “More than a few visitors wanted to meditate on the paintings; to use their inspections of the art as a means to turn inward towards both the personal and the spiritual,” he said. Professor Seed views this development as largely positive, in the sense that people need places of contemplation, and art museums fill that role pretty well. They are large, cool, quiet buildings filled with art and, often, filled with people, who tend to be less boisterous than usual in the presence of works by Monet or Rothko. In many respects, museums are like the cathedrals they replaced.
The church held the position as custodian of transcendence for nearly two thousand years, but in the nineteenth century, Western culture decided it was time to move on. This development has a variety of sources, from Europe’s fatigue with a millennium and a half of religious-themed war to the utter brutality of America’s Civil War (with both sides claiming God on their side), to Darwin, Marx, and Freud, but whom or whatever you choose to blame, by the late 19th century the tide was turning. Art had become a category quite separate from religion, the church lost interest in it, and art, in turn, lost interest in the church. From Vienna to Paris to New York, a new day was dawning.
It is not entirely ironic when the black turtleneck-clad curators of museums and galleries are referred to as a priesthood. When modern art sprung from Impressionism, the artists involved were doing more than defining a new trend. They were articulating a new way of looking at life. Artists as diverse as Picasso and Camus, Kandinsky and Hemingway were busy redefining humanity in their own terms: humans as existential beings blindly making their way in a meaningless universe. Given the bleak implications of such a worldview, suicide was an unsurprising choice for many of them. Perhaps more surprising is how many (like Picasso), lived to a ripe old age. These artists, and their acolytes, the curators, interpreters, and critics, were able in a scant fifty years to implement an arts culture that was completely cut off from the religious traditions that permeated the arts for most of the last two millennia. Exceptions like Rouault only serve to underscore how complete the divorce had become.
Art is usually upstream from politics, and the church, which was preoccupied fighting off Modernism in theology, seems not to have noticed this new day dawning. I rather doubt that the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1871 (which rebuffed Monet) or the legendary Armory Show in New York in 1913 was much noticed in the annals of North American Protestantism. But the artists were making spiritual claims every bit as radical as the Higher Critics in the better seminaries. And, as it turns out, the artists’ claims were more important than those of the theologians. This divorce was not immediate, as the Rockefeller Chapel shows, but it was inevitable.
What the church failed to realize at the time was the degree to which art defines spirituality in human culture. While some branches of the church obsessed about doctrine, and others about social justice, the arts cut themselves adrift from the church and took most of the culture with them. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: Is the average dean of a university college more likely to identify intellectually with Charles Saatchi or Tim Keller?
What does this harangue about Western culture have to do with museums? When the arts split from the church, they not only took the college deans, but also most of the big donors. Consequently, the church is no longer the most important building in town. It has been replaced by the museum.
Some might argue that the stadium has outstripped both museum and church in civic importance. I will grant that stadiums are both big and expensive, but at least outside of Boston, they are accorded nowhere near the spiritual significance of the museum. Sure, the occasional billionaire helps to underwrite a Rose Garden (Portland) or a college stadium, but these are viewed more as rich boys’ toys than enduring legacies.
A silver lining, if there is one, to this handover is the realization articulated by Professor Seed in the Huffington Post: that people are spiritual beings, even in an age that is (or was) thought to be post-spiritual. The downside, of course, is that even as we recognize the West is not post-spiritual, we must admit that much of it is post-church.
Given the reality of this transfer of custody, what ought the church to make of it? My first suggestion is to acknowledge it. Many branches of the Protestant tree are still fighting the Modernist battles of the 1920s against liberal theology and/or the social gospel. To those still propounding a “just me and Jesus” theology, this whole essay is beside the point. I hope you see that not only is it not beside the point, in terms of how people view their world today—it kind of is the point.
Second, the church needs to re-engage with the arts in a profound way. This goes way beyond the hiring of talented musicians—the one stewardship that the church never really lost—to re-engaging with all the arts: dance, drama, painting, and sculpture included. But most especially with the visual arts—the kind of stuff that people go to see in museums. Re-engagement can take many forms, but as Andy Crouch has pointed out, critique as a form of engagement has limited value. More positive forms of engagement include patronage, participation, and performance. The church needs more of all three.
One area for engagement I would recommend (admittedly with a bias) is architecture. Except for some stalwart Catholics and a few Lutherans, the church in the West has been as indifferent to architecture as it has to all the other arts, save music. And the result is a hodgepodge of awful church buildings that are sometimes little more than tin sheds indistinguishable from tractor barns. We should have as our standard to design churches that are no worse than art museums, and preferably much better. And then fill them with art.
Third, I would point out that it took the better part of a century, roughly 1850 to 1950, to divorce the church from capital-c Culture; it will take at least that long to reunite them. We should not be daunted by the prospect of slow progress. This is the work of generations, not an election cycle.
The big question for the church in the West is this: Can its stewardship of transcendence be recovered? To answer this question requires predictive skills that I lack. However, I can predict with confidence that the attitudes of the church toward art of the last 150 years will only drive it further from the mainstream and from the centre of cultural influence. To move back toward the centre of culture will require that we befriend (and become) museum curators, art history professors, critics, journalists, and publishers. This will require a generation of wise, spiritually grounded and theologically nimble missionaries. I humbly suggest that this mission in the West is actually more important than the mission in the 20-40 Window or whatever the current focus of foreign missions is called. Because until the church reclaims its role as curator of the transcendent in our own culture, we have no basis to assert that role in any other.