Tonight is the annual Erasmus Lecture, this year delivered by Dr. Timothy George, a Baptist and dean of Beeson Divinity School. The subject is the men who shaped modern evangelicalism: Carl McIntire, Carl Henry, and W.A. Criswell, with a generous acknowledgment of Billy Graham. The Erasmus Lecture, held at the Union League Club in Manhattan, has been delivered over the years by, among others, Paul Johnson, Peter Berger, Mary Ann Glendon, George Weigel, Midge Decter, Clarence Thomas, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. As in the case of the last-named, delivering the Erasmus Lecture has sometimes been a step to higher things. Tomorrow, as is usual with the Erasmus Lecture, I will be chairing a conference of scholars who will explore with Dr. George the dynamics of the evangelical insurgency and what it portends for the future.
Evangelical “megachurches” make a point of not looking like what most people expect a church to look like. A church looks so, well, religious. That doesn’t work in an era when religion is out and spirituality (and entertainment) is in. Slate, the on-line magazine, asked Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Penn, to evaluate contemporary church designs. He included the new cathedral in Los Angeles in his survey and had this to say about it: “The bright interior of Our Lady of the Angels is a modern version of a traditional church. But the wooden ceiling is a poor substitute for a fan vault, just as the alabaster panels in the windows have none of the numinous quality of stained glass. The 100-foot-tall nave, which holds 2,600 people, feels squat rather than soaring. The artworks attached to the walls, presumably intended to humanize the architecture, feel makeshift, as if the large space were originally designed for some other function and had been converted into a sanctuary. This busy and confusing interior points to the peril of trying to "update" a traditional architectural idiom. It’s as hopeless as translating Shakespeare into hip-hop.” I have seen only photos and architectural sketches, but that seems about right. Others who been there are less gentle in their evaluation, although it should be noted that the cathedral also has received rave reviews from some architecture critics. Moreover, the “updating” of a classic idiom need not be an updating into hip-hop.
The November issue of FIRST THINGS includes the Gifford Lecture by John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St. Andrews in Scotland. The Gifford Lectures go back to a bequest of Adam Lord Gifford in 1887, and lecturers have included luminaries such as William James, Karl Barth, Michael Polanyi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Alfred North Whitehead. Prof. Haldane’s lecture is “What Philosophy Can Do.” It is a very important, although not undemanding, argument. I expect that we will receive, along with the notes of appreciation, the usual handful of complaints along the line of “It was too heavy-going for me.” My friend Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia tells about teaching a course titled “The Christian Intellectual Tradition.” After a couple of sessions, a student dropped out of the course, explaining, “I didn’t realize it was going to be such a head trip.” Each issue of FIRST THINGS contains many things, and some are lighter reading than others. Our editorial assumption is that subscribers are serious readers who want to engage serious questions. We like to think that assumption is vindicated by the gratifying growth in the number of subscribers. ( JB: Re the Haldane essay, aren’t you telling the readers to eat their spinach? RJN : No, I’m saying it’s really good, and it is.)
After I wrote the above, one of our bright young interns, Mary Angelita Ruiz, sent me the following:
Thought I’d drop you a note on Our Lady of the Angels, which I’ve been to many times as a resident of LA. The reason the interior feels “squat,” as Rybczynski notes, is the chandeliers. The ceiling is quite high, and the whole cathedral is constructed to flow to the altar: the rippling pattern of the long limestone tiles that make up the floor, the narrow beams of the ceiling, the rake of the nave, the tapestries depicting the communion of saints, each saint clasping his hands and gazing towards the altar. The chandeliers were not part of the original design. They look like giant metal claws hanging from the ceiling, hovering just a few feet over the pews and destroying all the lines of the cathedral, like crosshatching a woodcut with a welding torch.
There are, of course, other problems. Rybczynski is right about the makeshift feel of the artwork in that the Presbyterium looks lost among the grand architectural lines. The individual pieces are beautiful (altar, crucifix, and cathedra), but they’re too small for the space, and the plain little tapestry on the wall behind the altar is pathetic contrasted with the enormous alabaster cross made from the support beams of the even more enormous window above. And from the outside, no matter how hard you squint or apologize, the cathedral looks like a maximum-security prison. It ain’t Chartres. But a first, refreshing step would be to chuck those miserable chandeliers.