On Cold War Spies, Monastic Architecture, User Experience, and the Operation of Grace.

Blackford Oakes, engineer and spy, is now helping to rebuild the family chapel of the German political leader, which was damaged by Allied bombing.  It’s a Marshall plan project that provides cover for him to be helping to undermine the count’s bid for power, because the CIA is backing Adenauer and doesn’t want to make Stalin mad.  It is also a project that he’s coming to love for its own sake, and in his research for it he’s reading the journal of the chapel’s original architect.

“It is regrettably not possible,” he reads,

to position the church at this latitude in such a way as to lengthen its season.  But from about 18 May until about 24 October, the confluence of light, as seen by parishioners who occupy the eastern-most three-fifths of the nave– the rear section will be deprived of the perspective necessary to the blend– will provide during the daylight hours the desired balance of blues, yellows, and reds, and the pilgrims will follow the story, so well laid out on glass by Herr Tissault, of St. Anselm’s philosophical journey to Paradise.”

This, thought Oakes, was a medieval jam session.  This was how they let themselves go.  No ballistic-missile engineer cared more for the placement of his moving parts than Meister Gerard cared about the arrangement of colors in St. Anselm’s church.

You could at least make a case that websites are a cultural product that have quite a bit in common with Medieval cathedrals.  In both cases, the designers think very carefully about how the environment will be experienced by the end-user, and they must take into account not just text and pictures but sound and moving images as well.

So far so good– but that’s just as true of opera, which Wagner conceived of as a kind of total art that would weave back together the arts that had been segmented after… I think Wagner’d’ve said the Greeks, but I can imagine Chesterton saying the middle ages.

The real similarity, the new kind of similarity, between websites and cathedrals, lies in the fact that both have to be designed to incorporate the free will of the user.  The user– the visitor to the site, or the visitor to the church– has choices to make, once he’s entered the environment.  He can linger on the front page, dart into a secondary page, nail theses to the door in the comments section, make a private confession via an email to the site’s administrator.

So what does this make the internet?  Is it, because it’s aping this experience but not offering the embodied sacramental reality that goes along with it, uniquely dangerous?  The low-church Protestant in me sees the internet as actually less dangerous because it is less total, because it promises less. It doesn’t explicitly promise salvation, and Protestants have a problem with the medieval Catholic theology that essentially did (we Protestants think) promise salvation as a result of participating in the sacramental environment of the church, clicking on all the links, filling out all the quizzes.  That’s not how salvation works, we Protestants say.  It’s not mechanical, and you don’t pursue it or build it up by doing a prescribed set of cultural rituals.  It’s a gift, given because of and in the context of a loving relationship.

“Prescribed cultural rituals,” I wrote– but I guess the truth is that it depends on who is the prescriber of the rituals.  And I know that Catholics in all ages have in fact taught the essential gift-nature of salvation, its essential relationality.  The mechanistic way of reading Medieval Catholic soteriology may be a kind of secular sociological reading, a reading from the outside, that doesn’t take the Catholics’ own writings about salvation and sacraments all that seriously.

If I were a Catholic, I would point out this: that the “sacrament” that is central to a great deal of the internet experience is, in a sinister faux-parallel, a sacrament of consumption.  A large chunk of the total number of electrons whizzing through Time Warner wires are dedicated to coaxing us to click “Buy” on Amazon.com.  It’s in this way that we are (often) invited to participate fully in the world built for us by web designers.  We participate partly by navigating the site, doing Web 2.0 things, interacting: a lot of internet marketing is dedicated to convincing us that that partial participation will, if we only buy this particular yoga mat or set of scrapbooking tools, be transformed into full participation.

In just this way, according to Catholic theology, it is in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the actual eating of the bread and wine, that we enter into– and allow to enter in to us– the sacred world that is displayed for us in the design of the cathedral.  Cathedrals were intentionally meant to seem like the temple in Jerusalem, which was itself, we are told in the New Testament, patterned after the heavenly throne room.  The presence and practice of the sacrament took the cathedral out of the realm of seeming and into the realm of reality.  Because God was present, they believed, in the sacrament, therefore wherever that consecrated bread was, was the heavenly throne room.

Whether or not Catholics are right about this, I am sure of one thing:  very often– not always, but often– we do hit “Buy” on Amazon because we are hungry to participate in the life of the Kingdom, hungry for our real lives, hungry for God’s presence, hungry for a kind of true abundance and wisdom that comes from Him.

I don’t think internet shopping is evil.  I think that it can be evil, if in it we are exercising the sin of greed.  I think what is good about it is a reminder of and symbol of the even-better of God’s reality.  But that’s true of every good thing in the world– from a wise and moderate purchase, to a really excellently designed website, to a human family, to a cathedral.  Whether a sacrament is more than a sign-post– whether it is in fact in some sense a destination– that is what, as a Protestant, I don’t know.


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