Benjamin McNutt: The blueprint of the cross

Architecture tells the story of a place. With the mash-up of religious architecture at Beeson Divinity School’s Hodges Chapel, what story is it telling?

“Instead, [Beeson Divinity] would be an ecumenical seminary at a Baptist university, a place where Catholic architecture and Orthodox iconography are used to praise iconoclastic reformers and modern missionary heroes.”

           - Jason Byassee, “An argument in stone

Jason Byassee’s essay on Beeson Divinity School and its chapel has me thinking about the role of architecture in the life of institutions.

Architecture communicates. It tells the story of a place, or the story a place wants to tell about itself. We see this even in the choice of construction materials. Eco-fiber board: we’re earthy and care about sustainability. Stone: we’re old and aren’t going anywhere. And so on. I enjoy many types of college campus architecture -- red brick colonial, minimalist urban, seaside Spanish clay -- but find myself disappointed with the lack of signs on campus buildings, something I notice most often at elite universities. To the outsider the message is clear: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t belong here.”

What story is Hodges Chapel telling? My colleague sees the chapel as an example of traditioned innovation, one ecumenical seminary’s way of communicating its historic vision of catholicity. I agree but can’t help contrast its montage of Christian religiosity to the consumer spirituality David Bentley Hart laments of our present age:

“[Contemporary persons] are first and foremost, heroic and insatiable consumers…for us, it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good…This is especially obvious at modern Western religion’s pastel-tinged margins…where the gods of the boutique hold uncontested sway. Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of “spirituality” as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, a Nataraja figurine, a purse of tiles engraved with runes, a scattering of Pre-Raphelite prints drenched in Celtic twilight, an Andean flute, and so forth, until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography…reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior design.”

What makes traditioned innovation -- a theological mindset that holds in tension what God has done in the past and is doing today -- different from a culture of choice that allows us to pick out whatever tidbits of this and that Christian tradition we happen to fancy and then baptize as ecumenical?

I think there’s a difference. Pop-multiculturalism follows the logic of cool, pretending to praise religious diversity when it’s actually celebrating the autonomy of the individual to mix his own spiritual martini. In contrast, a christology roots the chapel’s architecture. It’s “an argument” about what it means to be the body of Christ, a body catholic that holds difference in communion through one baptism, one loaf, one cup. Hodges Chapel neither says, “everything (and everyone) must be the same,” nor does it say, “we’re too different to be together.” Christ bound himself in flesh so we might be bound to each other. Unlike the campus architecture that says, “You don’t belong here,” Hodges Chapel says, “We may be different but we belong together.”

That’s the potential of Christian architecture -- to shape places where new possibilities for communing occur because they’re built from the blueprint of the cross. This is the same potential of Christian institutions. Institutions may have the capacity to marginalize voices but they also hold the promise of bringing together people who, left to their own choice, would never commune with each other. Without Christian institutions faith diminishes into a “religion of me.”

Someone with an eye for religious architecture might look at Hodges Chapel and say, “gosh, that’s muddled,” or “that really is a redneck Vatican.” I look and think, “that’s the body of Christ.”

Benjamin McNutt is the editor of Call & Response.