Of Tepees and Tabernacles

We are building a new church in our parish, and to lead the effort I have been thinking and reading about church architecture. Looking around at the dismal buildings that have been presented as Catholic churches over the last 50 years, one has to ask where on earth the architects, designers, and liturgists got their ideas.

We don’t have to look far. G. K. Chesterton said, “Every argument is a theological argument,” and the modern churches clearly reflect the beliefs of their builders. First, the builders and their buildings are fundamentally utilitarian. Driven by the unquestioned modernist dogma that “form follows function,” they have designed not churches but auditoria. Everyone can see the altar; the sound system is excellent; the toilets are capacious and clean. The air conditioning works, and the roof does not leak, and (most important of all) the building was not expensive.

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When it comes to whether the church should be beautiful or not, the building committee adopts the doctrine of Judas: “Why should the money be spent on costly ointment when it could be given to the poor?” In other words, let’s cut out all that beautiful stuff; it’s too expensive. We need a few statues and vestments — but cheap, mass produced stuff will do. But too often, once the cheap choice is made, they forget that the money saved was to go to the poor, and the savings are merely pocketed.

Then there are the liturgists, who tell us that the Mass is all about “gathering the people of God for a fellowship meal.” Therefore, everyone must sit around the altar as a family. I heard one trendy priest explain, “When I am celebrating Mass, I am like the shaman telling stories around the campfire with the whole tribe gathered around me.” On this pretext, on Holy Saturday, this priest brought the new fire into the sanctuary of the church itself. I suppose it was unsurprising, therefore, when he built a church that resembled a large brick tepee.

In fact, the tepee has its own theology: Some anthropologists theorize that the Native Americans built tepees and placed them in a circle around the campfire because they understood life to be cyclical. They lived in circles because life was a circle: birth, death, and reincarnation.  But the Judeo-Christian understanding of the cosmos, history, and God’s providence is not cyclical but linear. We believe in an intelligence behind all things, which has purpose and meaning and intention. Therefore, we believe in a beginning and an end; an Alpha and an Omega. Consequently, those other tent-dwelling nomads, the Hebrews, worshipped God not in a tepee but in a tabernacle.

I have never understood why Christian architects agonize over the basic structure of a church when the Bible itself has a whole section on church architecture. One only need read Exodus 25-30 chapters to see just how God wants His house to be built. Of course, we need not try to create an exact replica of the temple in Jerusalem, like an attraction at Disneyland — but the basic outline is there. The temple itself was simply a grand and permanent version of the tent-like tabernacle in the wilderness that God prescribed.

The basic outline is a rectangle with a large outer courtyard for the people, an inner courtyard for the clergy, and a Holy of Holies where God’s presence was focused. For 2,000 years, the vast majority of churches — whether Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, neo-classical, or a combination of the above — were built in this same, simple, three-chambered fashion. These Christian churches conveyed a sense of direction from the entry, through the great west door, up the central aisle to the sanctuary with its altar, and finally up to the tabernacle — the Holy of Holies and the presence of Christ. These Christian churches not only conveyed in architecture the linear view of salvation history, but they also evoked the hierarchical sense of the church. As you moved forward, you also moved further up and further in.

All of this is lost in the modern tepee, circus-tent sort of church. Tradition was trashed, and innovation was in. Every new church had to express the latest trend, or be the vehicle for some architect or poorly trained parish priest to “express himself,” or some new idea or enthusiasm.


Another principle from the Book of Exodus corrects this modern mania for self-expression. Along with the rectangular, three-chambered structure, some other principles were also established. The tabernacle was not essentially a meeting place for the people of God; it was first and foremost the dwelling place of God. That the people went there to make sacrifice and worship was incidental. The focus, therefore, was to create a worthy and beautiful dwelling place for the deity.

The difference between then and now is striking. We moderns don’t intend to make a temple for God. We intend to make a meeting place for ourselves. No wonder we build auditoria and not temples.

The final principle established in the instructions for the tabernacle rests on the second. If this is the dwelling place for God, then nothing but the best is worthy of His house. We read that the children of Israel brought all the gold and silver that they had plundered in their escape from Egypt and used it to make the golden candlesticks, the gold-plated tables, the sacred vessels, and the Ark of the Covenant. The women brought their costly fabrics and threads and wove into the panels of the tabernacle exquisite portrayals of angels. The fabric walls themselves were not made from rough wool, but from expensive dolphin hide and rare linens dyed with precious purple and encrusted with gems.

No base, utilitarian meeting place with a few tawdry trinkets and decoration thrown in. Instead, the tabernacle was a glorious dwelling place for God–an awesome throne room for the Almighty, into which His people came to offer their sacrifices of praise.

One of the happier consequences of the tepee churches is that, because they were built cheaply and filled with trashy junk, no one will feel too bad when they reach the end of their lifespan and are either torn down or turned into the parish meeting hall. They were fashionable buildings of their time — a time when the timeless was dismissed as boring. Consequently, like bell bottoms and double-knit leisure suits, when their time is over, these inconsequential buildings may be disposed of, and no one will grieve their going. No one will form a committee to petition the bishop to preserve the historic and important church. Instead everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and vote to bring in the demolition team.

Happily, a new generation of church architects is even now arising that understands the impact and importance of timeless architecture — and how tradition can be at once timeless and up to date. These young men and women are determined and intelligent and talented, and they are fully Catholic. Committed to their faith, and undaunted by an architectural establishment that, feeling threatened, ridicules them, they are working quietly and courageously to renew the tradition in our day and age. They wish to build churches that are beautiful tabernacles for God — not just gathering spaces for His people.


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