Providence College Professor Anthony Esolen is, in my view, being uncharitable in some of the criticisms he recently offered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “Free Our Churches From the Ugly and Stupid,” but in comparing the Church to an old building he’s renovating in Nova Scotia, he utilizes a truly excellent metaphor:
We found in most of the rooms oak and maple floors, with three-inch-wide strips laid in handsome patterns, squares enclosing diagonals, and a large diamond set in the center of the original parlor. The craftsmanship was impressive, the execution precise. Other floors had large planks of seasoned hemlock, which absorbs moisture from the air and grows tougher from it. The hemlock is as old as the home’s foundation.
This kind of plywood covers beauty everywhere in today’s churches. You are not only walking on it. You are looking at plywood on the walls, hearing plywood from the pulpit, and singing plywood instead of hymns.
As a carpenter in Newport, I saw enough intricate detail in even less-than-opulent old buildings to form a theory: In the time before electric saws, pneumatic nail guns, and mass-manufactured materials, the work was labor-intensive, slow, and expensive enough that the additional margin for conspicuous craftsmanship was smaller. When the crew starts with a pile of logs that will be cut, onsite, into both framing lumber and finished trim — when even a straight cut is a matter of high skill — doing things with a little more flair doesn’t make all that much difference to the budget or schedule.
Similarly, anyone who lambastes plywood should consider the labor involved in covering every joist with 8-inch boards rather than 4 x 8-foot sheets. Likewise with the sheathing on exterior walls and roofs.
A world of difficult, tedious, and expensive construction may engender craftsmanship and create beauty, but it’s also, well, it’s also difficult, tedious, and expensive. That is to say that the conditions that foster intricacy can also create a good deal of suffering.
Pendulums swing, of course, and we’re learning that too much expedience can create a spiritual suffering that (a Catholic may argue) is ultimately worse and more destructive. On the whole, I second Esolen’s exhortations, but as with his renovation project, so with the Church: Doing the work of bringing beauty back proves the point better than telling people that they ought to appreciate it.