I am a materialist because God made me as an unique project, the intersection of the spiritual and material worlds. I am neither an angel nor a bucket of sand.
God not only made me out of materials, he entered the material world. He gave me the sacraments as spiritual signs, that is, spiritual realities with material forms: to eat and drink, annoint, marry, etc., each effecting what it signifies. But all of reality is sacramental. All of reality reveals the creative power of God.
When we build or renovate a church we should look closely at the materials we use and ask, are they worthy? Do they adequately express the awe-filled spiritual reality so interwoven with the material? Do we care enough about the materials we have chosen? If ideas and words express truth or falsehood, materials equally so. Authenticity in materials is difficult to describe; however we can quickly see, feel, smell, hear and taste it.
At one time, there was not a need to advocate for authentic materials in church architecture; all materials (except for “tromp d’oeill painting”) were authentic: stone, brick, wood, glass, gold, etc. The “domus dei” or house of God, was built to last. But because of cheap synthetic materials, we now have “the look” of marble, “the look” of wood. What is the problem with materials that “look like” stone, brick, wood, gold, etc., but are made of plastic or resin?
What’s Wrong with Plastic or Resin?
A plastic bucket on a beach in the sunlight, pretending to be nothing but a plastic bucket, preferably next to a small child who is filling it up with sand or water, is a lovely thing. However, the plastic bucket will only last at most a few seasons before it fades, cracks or is lost at sea. It most likely will not be passed onto the next generation of toddlers.
Plastic and other synthetics have an amazing ability to be manipulated into almost any shape while remaining uniquely non-descript, the end result being a hollow flatness. As literary theorist Roland Barthes noted in his essay “Plastic”: “In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata.”
Even though we are dust and to dust we will return, we should not teach the permanent truths of our faith through art and/or buildings that, by design, will return to dust, or worse, to a sort of degraded shabbiness, as plastic does, in only a few years. Materials (as well as design) should have an enduring quality. Egg tempera on panel is preferable to acrylic on a felt banner, stone is preferable to drywall, etc.
What If We Can Only Afford a Hut?
Of course, if a hut is all we can afford to build, by all means we must build a hut. But let it be a beautiful hut.
However, churches are best constructed with more permanent materials. Stone is a metaphor for the Church Herself. Quarried from the earth, of the same substance as our own clay and dust, yet solid and durable. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matt 16:18)” As a bonus, it is easy to clean, never needs to be painted or repainted! Nor does it easily burn in fire.
True gold is valued for its ability to reflect light. It never tarnishes. For these reasons it is a precious material to embellish our churches, and we value it even more than silver, which also beautifully reflects light but needs to be regularly polished.
So in answer to the question, “Why are you so materialistic?” I would have to answer, on the contrary, that given our situation – uniquely situated between heaven and earth – the problem is that we are not materialistic enough.
Roland Barthes essay “Plastic” appears in The Plastics Age: From Modernity to Post-Modernity. (Sparke, Penny, Editor, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990).
Posted by Karen D’Anselmi, September 2016
Coming in October…”What is Wrong with…Wall-to-Wall Carpet?”
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