The Casino and the Cathedral: On Recovering Our Abandoned Culture

Today’s pagan temples and chapels—capitalistic institutions bent on money making no matter what—have appropriated Catholic styles, symbols, art, liturgy, and rubrics just as Catholics have lost confidence in them. They are winning and we are not. It’s time for Catholicism to become newly aware of the richest of our own symbols lest we lose out completely.

Here’s an small example. A few years ago, I sat in a Taco Bell trying to figure out why the art is placed where it is and what the colors in the place are trying convey. Eventually it clicked. The whole structure is modeled on a parish mission chapel. The pictures on the wall are iconographic. The colors are stucco like the mission. The building is shaped like a chapel. The lights hang down low from long wires.

I can’t believe that I had never realized this before: the bell in Taco Bell itself is of course the church bell.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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We are surrounded by such institutions that borrow from the history, art, architecture, and even ritual of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is not an intentional imitation. The forms and practices of our Catholic past are part of the cultural air we breathe. But those who capture them, however inadvertently, and instantiate them into secular and commercial forms, are thinking through their model carefully and testing their effectiveness against their driving purpose, which is of course to make money.

They do very well for themselves. I do not intend to condemn such institutions for that reason. They provide useful and even essential social function of providing for material needs and wants. Still, they have a different purpose in mind from institutions of religious faith.

What I find intriguing is how such secular institutions so strongly believe in themselves and what they are doing, even when they appropriate forms and styles that once defined Catholicism—and, in this respect, they are outwitting Catholics who have too often lost confidence in our own ritual and tradition.

These secular institutions understand that decor matters. Architecture matters. The music of the place needs to fit with its goal. Color and form does matter. Every form of art and its thematic integration to the whole is well considered with the driving purpose in mind. And many of these forms are borrowed from the Catholic ethos and transformed for money-making purposes—just as the Catholics once appropriated pagan forms for its liturgy, vestments, and calendar.

Last week, I spent several days in the thick of such a secular institution—a new and super-flashy casino in Las Vegas. It provides a great example of the use of architecture, ritual, music, and other forms of sensory signaling in order to achieve a central purpose. The goal is about as base as possible: to extract as much money as possible from people in its space in exchange for which the casino provides a tantalizing fantasy of the high life.  It works.

I was there not to gamble. I don’t think gambling is immoral; I just don’t like to do it. I was there at a convention to speak on several economics topics. But I had plenty of time to reflect on what makes this strange place tick, and to think about the surprising parallels—both similarities and differences—with the liturgical culture in our churches.

If Taco Bell is the mission parish, the casino is the cathedral. I made some effort to deconstruct the way this casino makes it all work.

All the while, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the prevailing ethos for many years in the Catholic church has been to downplay the importance of cultural signaling in its liturgical presentation, to suggest that style does not matter, that pop music is as good as chant, that statuary and iconography only serves to distract, that established sacred forms can be freely tossed out and replaced with no great damage, and so on.

Whereas Catholic institutions are shy about putting the liturgical and artistic forms forward in an aggressive way, secular institutions, such as this grand casino I visited, are more dedicated to using artistic forms—many drawn from Catholic experience—more competently in providing for material needs than our own churches are in providing for spiritual needs.

The most obvious parallel is the sheer height of the buildings themselves. Las Vegas is a large flat land with plenty of room to build. In residential areas, this results in sprawling flats. But on the strip, there has been a 60-year competition to build ever higher and more spectacular buildings, up up up, all designed to convey a sense of elevation and awe. Your eyes are constantly drawn off the ground and to the sights all around and even to the vast expanse and seeming limitlessness of the sky.

The casino floor in the hotel in which I stayed shot straight up, covering three floors and, in places more. The escalators taking you up and down were in full view. There were layers upon layers of activity and complexity to entice the eye. It all serves to keep us looking and attentive and upwardly oriented—upward like the earnings you will presumably make. It’s part of the design to make you feel that you are somewhere special and interesting, part of a winning and forward-looking scene.

The height and upward direction of the cathedral has a different purpose: to draw us to the eternal by lifting our hearts and minds toward God. The height keeps us interested and fascinated with what we experience there. Our heads are always up and the angles and lines of the cathedral are always lifting our eyes. The variety of statues, art, shapes, and windows gives the impression of infinite fascination.

George Weigel reports having spent three solid hours just gazing up while he visited Chartes in France. That’s the idea: not abstraction but instantiation in a way that appeals very intensely to the senses.

In the casino, a crucial feature of creating this atmosphere of good fortune and ebullient optimism is the music. It hits you as soon as you leave your hotel room and travel down the elevators. The style is unrelenting upbeat pop hits from the 1970s to the present. Every selection is carefully chosen. There are no contemplative love songs. Every song has a quick beat and a strong sense of win. It envelops you completely on all sides and the selections run, truly, all day and all night without stopping.

It is inescapable. It makes you want to move to the beat, to sing along, to snap your fingers, and throw yourself into the common culture of the place. You are invited to believe. Every note says: risk it all, make it happen, you can do this, history is on your side, you are a winner.

Imagine, for a moment, if the casino would replace this music with Gregorian chant or polyphonic music of the Renaissance style, the two forms of music named by the Second Vatican Council. That would certainly change the mood and introduce an element of reality that the casino owners are trying to get you to avoid. If the music ever did stop completely, I can’t even imagine what the result would be. People would freeze in confusion.

Should it not be the case that the Catholic Church has its own musical forms that are unique to it that present the purpose and idea behind the institutional setting? It already has. That music is embedded in the ritual and history. For the Roman Rite, it is drawn from the Gregorian tradition. This music says: examine your conscience, consider the higher truths, turn your attention toward your creator, consider the purpose and goal of your existence, glorify God, partake of heavenly things.

But today, we are likely to experience something very different, something that suggests not Church, and not really casino but more like easy-listening shopping music or maybe a youth rally. Some parishes go so far as to reflect the sense of a pop concert.

This approach can only lead to confusion and disorientation, scrambling the message. So too for architecture. If a Church looks more like a warehouse, barn, or residence, it cannot achieve its goal in the same way. The heart and mind are not drawn upwards. If the statues and icons are stripped, the faith becomes an abstraction. If the smells and bells are gone, we lose cultural and ritual symbols that signal where we are and why we are there.

If the walls of the nave are bland, stripped of ornamentation, if the vestments are drab and sloppy, if the statuary is not to scale and embarrassed about itself, and of the liturgy itself is presented not as spiritual drama but rather a routine text to be read, the environment losing the capacity to penetrate and convey its mystical reality. Why should anyone respond to it if the event is not serious about what it is?

As for the casino, for someone like me, raised in a world without such places, the whole scene is a kind of wild feast for the eyes, with colors and flashing lights and overt displays of worldly enticements. The dealers have carefully crafted uniforms. The casino floor is a maze that keeps you spinning and wandering. The smell of smoke and liquor—it’s tempting to call this the devil’s incense—is overwhelming. It is another world—something completely unlike that which you have ever experienced.

It is so unfamiliar as to be intimidating to any newcomer. You stand around the gambling tables and watch. What you see are elaborate yet foreign rituals. The language is unfamiliar and yet the players understand. They communicate in code. The code extends even to small glances. The rubrics of the dealers are elaborate and carried out with expertise that wins the confidence of the players.

By design, the unfamiliarity is designed to draw you in, to entice you to learn, to tap into your curiosity of this game and its culture, to get you to be part of the club. Clearly it works. Once you invest yourself in knowing and understanding, you can play. Then you stay. It becomes part of you and you take pride in your knowledge and skill. And then you spend and spend, with the faith that something wonderful will happen to you.

In a similar way, Christian ritual in liturgy done well can seem unfamiliar and forbidding to outsiders, but thereby also enticing by its sheer remoteness. It invites you to discover, learn, invest yourself, to become part of something that had only been part of the remotest legend in your mind.

And yet for decades we’ve heard the demand that the goal should be to strip away the mystery and difficulty and “meet people where they are” by not insisting on any understanding or effort on the part of newcomers. This is sheer folly.

Secular institutions thrive on creating spaces that are driven and purposeful, that make it nearly impossible for the individual encountering this world not to be completely surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the intended idea behind the institution.

Meanwhile, our Churches are shy, cautious, and confused about the purpose of why we do what we do, cautious about our historic forms, wary of being the real alternative to the casino culture, and even unknowledgeable about how to go about realizing the fullness of our own tradition and ritual.

People are drawn to institutions that believe in their purposes and put the evidence of it up front so that it is apparent to all who walk in the door. The casino makes an effort to transport its customers in order that they might come to believe things that are mostly fiction and all untrue.

The Catholic faith, which is that one space in this world that is charged to provide the fullness of truth in time and eternity, needs to make similar efforts to transport its people to a world of truth that no one else is willing to take on. The key to doing this is found in our heritage and liturgy, which, if we accept in its organic development as it has emerged through the centuries, give us a spectacular template for the art and sensory signals that put on display the mystical reality that liturgy puts before us.

The claim of the Mass of the Catholic Church is more impressive than that offered by any other institution. “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Would someone walking into Mass for the first time be convinced that we really believe and teach this?

Let not our symbols and rituals be taken from us and made to serve mammon. We can make them our own again, not to win superficial games but win souls and the whole world.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photograph of the Planet Hollywood casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.


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