The Cathedral at Reims
For its dazzling reporting, points of view, and pungent observations, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America has become a permanent part of the American sociopolitical bibliography. The first volume appeared in 1835, the second in 1840, yet for more than 150 years Democracy in America remains a basic text in American History and political theory. Today, Tocqueville is as called upon to decorate the blowviations of commentators and politicians as often as they call on Lincoln or Washington.
In one of his most prescient remarks he noted how wedded Americans are to practical rather than philosophic matters, and how relentless and practically single-minded is our pursuit of money. "I know of no county," Tocqueville observed, "where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of a people."
Our preoccupation with money and the getting of it is hardly news, but it is surprising that it is such old news. My goodness. To think that some Frenchman should know that about us such a long time ago--and to write it down for everyone to read and see--is a bit unsettling and kind of humiliating. I would like to think that we are a deeper people and a more enduring culture than that.
Matters of culture and money were on Sinclair Lewis's mind when he wrote Elmer Gantry in 1927. Sadly, Lewis--who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature--is almost forgotten today. But in Gantry he described the role that churches then played in small town culture and which remain quite relevant today: "It was in these grand buildings that people heard the music, saw the art, read the great things, and received the great ideas." Church and culture were often inseparable in those days.
One modern degree of cultural separation--that we observe in Berryville and Eureka Springs and really everywhere today--is that the grand town architecture that was then the town's churches--are now banks. Look around to see the facts of it. It is in banks now that we see native stone, marble floors, fine tall windows, and careful gardens harboring along the shores of foundations. Inside them is the hushed, reverent sound of rustling bills and of interest compounding. If it is not love of money that has made this so, or its relentless and single-minded pursuit, it is at least a material statement of a national value and the DNA of our modern culture.
Conversely, the churches we build these days are mostly gussied-up pole barns of the rudest construction that could, in a week's time be retrofitted into garages for dump trucks and backhoes. What goes on in these buildings may be good and may be the same Old Time Religion that was shouted out in the pretty churches of yesterday. But how deeply the wisdom of the ages resonates within such impermanent walls seems an open question.
I have my own agreeable dreams of compounding interest and I would certainly enjoy being the richest man you ever saw. I like money as much as the next guy. But I also know that the prettiest churches in Carroll County are St James' in Eureka Springs and the First Christian Church in Berryville and that to walk by either one is to be reminded, and pleasantly, that there is more to life than money. For the simple pleasure of looking at them they are worth having, saving, and perhaps attending.
In his In Defense of the Gothic, John Ruskin wrote of his admiration of gothic architecture, one measure of his admiration was its roughness and handmade look. "Wherever we find perfection," he said, "we find slavery." His comments were specifically about the many gothic churches in the England of this time, and how their rough, imperfect exteriors were like the faces of the miners and other working people who attended them. It seemed to Ruskin that such roughness was a sign of freedom from conformity and slavery to fashion and the other dull traits of modernism.
I suspect that Ruskin would be puzzled by the architecture of churches today, and how it conforms for the sake of utility rather than to aspire to beauty and permanence. He would want beautiful churches, if not perfect churches, because he believed that we deserve them. I am sure he would not be puzzled about the fineness of our banks, for they have always been fine. But that those churches no longer provide a counterpoint to them would surely make Ruskin sad.