Everything Old is…Old Again

Volume 49, Issue 2

We are a nostalgic people, in part because the past can be known, judged, and the “good parts” can be repeated. There is little risk in replicating from the past what today is deemed “traditional.” Tradition is comfortable. We can snuggle down in it. Tradition and comfort ask nothing of us but to be appreciated. We don’t even have to think…ahh…zzzzzz…where’s my blankie?

Stop right there. Wake up. An ideology grounded in nostalgia, which suggests that the “old way” is superior to anything new is an obstructionist stance intended to discourage the creative, often divinely inspired impulse.

One of the primary goals of sacred art and architecture is to challenge the faithful to enter into a deeper understanding of our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and all of creation. Should we shrug off progress and accept that everything we need to know has already been done, and there is no place for something new? (Isaiah 43:19)

In the prologue of her terrific book, Sanctifying Art: Inviting Conversations Between Artists, Theologians, and the Church (Cascade Books, 2013, published as part of its “Art for Faith’s Sake” series) author Deborah Sokolove reminds us: “Much of what can be known about the Church, as well as society at large, in earlier eras is available only through the medium of the arts.”

Indeed, the study of sacred art and architecture is a textbook of Church history. For example, over more than 2,000 years in Christianity, worship spaces progress from the simple house church to the basilica to the fortress, and tell the parallel tales of the elevation of Christ’s divinity and that of the hierarchy, and the subtle occlusion of Jesus’ humanity and the diminished role of the laity. In the same way that the inspired authors of sacred scripture addressed a particular group of believers who were living through a specific historical event, artists and architects of religious art and architecture have responded to the needs of believers, the Church, and that era’s particular view of the world.

There is a strong movement in some religious art circles to limit the creation of sacred art to replications of “traditional” work; this is the historical lens through which the present is viewed. But in truth, what is being replicated is only the appearance of historic architecture, not the craftsmanship—an inauthenticity that includes returning the laity to their pews, where some might say they belong. What took skilled craftspeople centuries to build and years to sculpt, paint, and weave cannot be replicated in vinyl, fiberglass, and artificial stone. What the Holy Spirit has ignited in the hearts of the lay faithful—their active role in the liturgy and life of the Church—cannot be doused or returned to the nave.

Returning to Sokolove’s quote, I wonder what this “traditionalist” movement, which copies what has already been done and effectively restricts the involvement of laity, says about us as a culture. Will historians conclude from our return to the past that we lacked faith in the future? Must contemporary architects and liturgical artists limit themselves to reproducing the art and thought of the classicists? Or can artists carry fresh interpretations of history forward in ways that inspire new, evolving, and expansive experiences of worship?

The author is the developer of artinthesanctuary.com, an online guide devoted to the promotion of liturgical art. She also writes weekly reflections on scripture and discipleship at thegooddisciple.me