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.

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.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The latest advance I’ve seen rather suddenly appear, mainly in Ordinary Form Catholic Parishes- is the mural based crucifix. Usually very artistic and beautiful, high on the wall in the Nave, and in churches that had pre-existing domes, right in the dome.

    • James1

      Just for the sake of context, is the “mural-based crucifix” a *replacement* for an actual crucifix? Or is it to place a crucifix where one was previously removed some years past? Or is your use of “advance” somewhat in the vein of sarcasm?

      Personally, I’d be less than enthused that a crucifix was replaced by a representation of a crucifix.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Usually it means that the ugly “risifix” attached to the wall or the ceiling has been replaced with a beautiful mural, and to comply with the General Instruction, two other more portable and three dimensional crucifixes have been added, one to the back wall and of course the one carried in processional by the cross bearer.

        • slainte

          In my parish, the physical crucifix was long ago replaced by a stained glass window situated behind the altar which bears an image of Christ crucified on the cross. Positioned directly above the altar is an empty cross with the resurrected Christ positioned in front of the cross with outstretched arms.

          The wooden cross above the altar does not bear any marks of Christ’s crucifixion (ie. no nail marks, blood remnants, no symbol “INRI”)….it is smooth and unmarked, not unlike a cross I observed at a local Presbyterian Church.

          I never realized that the empty cross was part of a protestant tradition which emphasizes the resurrected Christ, not the suffering Christ.

          Symbols are important especially as they relate to the depiction of Christ. They also tell the story of a transition in Catholic thinking, post Vatican II, away from images of suffering and sacrifice.

        • James1

          Ah! Thanks for the clarification. I have to admit I tend to avoid most of the diocesan parishes in my area, and more regularly attend a parish run by Dominicans. It is technically not part of the local diocese, but rather the Western Dominican Province. While not a Latin Mass parish (Dominican Rite masses are said/sung on certain feast days and other occasions), there is a proper crucifix suspended above/behind the altar.

          I particularly appreciate the crucifixes I’ve seen in Mexico, as they tend to be a bit more realistic in the portrayal of Christ’s suffering, showing a good deal more sangre than one might find here in the US. As my wife is Mexican, we occasionally attend a Spanish Mass in one of the diocesan parishes, and I generally find the “decor” less than inspiring…

  • Dennis

    I think the part of the conversation – such as it is – that has been missed here is the whole reasoning behind the deconstruction and deculturation. The reason – as pounded into our heads for a couple of decades – was that THE CHURCH IS THE PEOPLE. The design and structures of which Jeffrey speaks serve, it was claimed, as a distraction from that. A way for the people, as it were, to shift the responsibility off of their shoulders. We were supposed to want plain churches because then we would be more aware of Christ in each other.

    I mean, it was lame, but that was the reasoning.

    • Jeffrey Tucker


    • slainte

      Some of the loveliest church buildings I have been priveleged to visit are Episcopal/Anglican, in particular Trinity Church and Saint John the Divine in New York City, and St. Paul’s and Westminster Abby in London.

      Henry VIII’s progeny have successfully preserved the English Catholic tradition by retaining and recreating elegant church structures, transcendent (albeit altered) high church liturgies, communion rails, evensong, and chant.

      I hope the Episcopalian/Anglicans don’t mind if we Catholics reclaim these expressions of beauty which they have safeguarded for so many years.

      • John O’Neill

        It should be mentioned that Westminster abbey and most of the Anglican cathedrals in England were originally built as Catholic places of worship but were stolen by the English monarchy after Henry VIII did not get his permission to marry his mistress. The problem with Catholic church architecture in America is that it has been designed for democrats who wish to show the world how common we all are.

        • slainte

          The legacy of confusion and revolution that was the 1960’s lives on.

          When the baby boomers warned the world not to trust anyone over 30, they meant architects as well. We have been living with architectural disasters designed by immature modernists ever since.

          Not groovy man, just not groovy!

          • Alba

            Even a modernist “beton brut” edifice can be transfigured by a solemn and orthodox liturgy; Los Angeles temple look alikes not excepted.

      • Alba

        The growth of “Catholic” sensibilities among the English led to the restoration of crumbling pre-reformation churches and the construction of many with a High Church appearance. St Pauls cathedral was for the 17 century a very continental ie foreign and “Catholic” looking building, even after many redesigns, and was not much appreciated by its incumbents. As high practices are on the wane and buildings are being reordered, or sold, for “more relevant and modern worship styles” a chapter on protestant aesthetics is closing. Anglicanism is currently the state religion in England but given that the UK will be shaken by constitutional change over the coming years and may not even survive as a unitary state, who knows. However, more significantly, a genuine Catholic revival in the Catholic Church has been initiated thanks to the sorely missed Ratzinger pontificate. It is now up to us.

        • slainte

          Christopher Wren, as the post Reformation architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, was likely called upon to forge a new architectural identity and expression of an evolving Anglican sensibility that was in many ways still tied to Roman Catholicism, yet striving to break free incrementally.

          Had Wren built a structure of stark simplicity, the Anglican faithful, still largely Catholic in taste, would likely have protested mightily in the wake of too much change, too quickly….a painful proposition for many. The restrained English sensibility contrasts with the more direct, emotionally reactive temperment of Scottish Presbyterians, whose demand for change was immediate and, at times, violent.

          I suspect that Wren’s catholicesque vision of St. Paul’s was destined to evolve and become more Protestant in alignment with the slow and measured evolution of the English people as they moved toward a new Anglican protestant identity. I credit Wren for a work well done.

          It will be a joyous day when Anglicans and Roman Catholics can one day reunite and celebrate the sacraments together. Pope Benedict is due a debt of gratitude for approving the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Welcome home.

      • margaret Allain

        I once , living in Norfolk at the time, where the wealth of churches is quite sublime, saying to the local pp oh if only we had not lost them, for him to reply, rather grumpily, that he wouldn’t want them. Presumably their maintenance etc.!

        • slainte

          Margaret Allain, Last year while in Brentford, London, I used to walk past St. Lawrence Church, an antiquated, abandoned Anglican Church with a For Sale sign which read, “Church Premises Exciting A3/A4 opportunity Ideal restaurant/drinking establishment, subject to planning”

          It was heartbreaking to witness a dignified church boarded up and encircled by a security gate with warning signs against trespassers. Immediately inside the gate was a series of headstones of parish families who were interred in the church’s holy ground for more than 100 years. A family member of the deceased would have no free access to these captive graves.

          Would any of these parish families, long gone, have ever imagined that their resting place(s) would be subject to sale for use as a restaurant or drinking establishment?

          There is a great sadness when a holy church, once witness to weddings, baptisms, holy communion, and deaths is summarily relegated to the dust bin of history.

          An image of St, Lawrence Church together with other decommissioned churches is provided in this link.

  • James Patton

    The Romans learnt about stucco from the Persians. It was used for Buddhist sculpture in Afghanistan, Hindu sculpture in India, and early Renaissance sculpture in Western Europe. So are “We are surrounded by such institutions that borrow from the history, art, architecture, and even ritual of the Catholic faith.”? That would depend on one’s understanding of THE HISTORY of art, architecture and ritual.

  • musicacre

    Great article; thanks for tying it all together. Those of us who are trying to pass on a robust and intact faith to our children are ever dismayed when having to participate in anemic liturgy with embarrassing (kindergarten ) music and repetitive and boring recitals of Novus Ordo (As opposed to the dymanic and ever-changing Latin Mass.)

  • Newark

    Not that I feel your making a blunder but this kind of thing has been going on for a very long time. Back in the twenties the new Woolworth building has glossily described as a “Cathedral of Commerce”. Sadly, Architecture belongs to anyone. Look at college campuses many of which are simply “Gothic”. There’s a lot more to it than Taco Bell’s thinking, they can’t be prevented from having – as you may see it – a spirituality. Yet we do have serious problems than secularity.

  • Adam Baum

    This should be the opening paragraph:

    Today’s pagan temples and chapels—governmernt institutions bent on acquiring power no matter what have appropriated Catholic styles, symbols, art, liturgy, and rubrics just as Catholics have lost confidence in them.
    Is there anything more pagan than what exists in government?

  • Maggie Sullivan

    My parish is plain, not inspiring, and the Blessed Sacrament has been place in a side chapel. The people are wonderful and our Priest is faithful but the building itself in not what it should be.

    • newguy40

      Hi Maggie: Unfortunatly, we can’t all be near grand inspiring churches. You can ask that money be spent to improve the beauty of your parish church. A faithful pastor will agree. What you need, tho, is to have the tabernacle near and not away from you and the congregation. In the sanctuary and close to the altar.
      it is a pretty clear indication of the orthodoxy and adherence to the magesterium IF the tabernacle is hidden, blocked or completely removed.

  • Jim

    Living in California teaches you two things. 1. If it looks like a Catholic parish then it is a shopping center. 2. If it looks like the ugliest vomit of a building then it is a Catholic parish on the site of an once indestructibly built beautiful parish that was out of a clear blue sky burned down by way of arson in the mid-1960’s.

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  • Alba

    A casino is true to itself: authentic. Catholic aesthetic criteria of the 20th century, especially in architecture, have drifted far from that. I am not anti-modernist but a space that could be an office, a conference hall or a supermarket is ambiguous and spiritually disengaging in its non-transcendence. Too many examples of the modern fall into that cliché bound space. It is bad architecture not because it happens to be “modern” but because it is simply badly conceived, designed and executed for the purpose intended. The Vat2 reformation came at a time when the modernist movement had waned but its rather dispiriting legacy was an easy “design and build”, shoddy and cheap style handy for public housing, office blocks and nondescript churches. A church need not be retro-gothic, classical, neo-classical but it ought to have something holy, spiritual and numinous about it. Within its walls, after all, the heavenly and the earthly conjoin in the Holy Sacrifice. Our ancestors built with that in mind. Does a 2000 year old institution really have to be reminded of that?

  • margaret Allain

    We, especially older, catholics have not ‘too often lost confidence in our own ritual and tradition.’ We had it destroyed before our eyes, despite our protests, when we were told, basically, who did we think we were?

  • CHCGrad

    Oh my! If you ever visit Atlantic City, you must see two things: The Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, and St Michael Church. You have described both most eloquently! I am fortunate to be able to worship daily at St Mike’s and, afterwards, I’m off to work at Borgata.
    St Mike’s is the jewel box of our diocese; its administrator, Fr Jeffrey Cesarone, one of its gems. Come and see!

  • Ken

    In our parish we to have a risifix, with arms
    out stretched. Those of us who understand and would prefer a crucifix, call the image Touchdown Jesus.

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  • disqus_NAVsMmJ24g

    I agree completely with this. I hate casinos. Too much chaos, noise, what a waste of time. Even casino-like places such as Chuck-e-Cheese I detest. And we are bombarded everywhere we go with the same thing. Stores with monitors at the register playing commercials, even gas pumps with a built in monitors playing enticements to come inside and spend money. Visuals everywhere to forget about the things that really matter, and mostly to forget about God.

    And when we need beauty and majesty, our churches have let us down. My church is bland, boring, ugly. Even new churches, that are trying to to correct the mistakes of the past 40 years still fail at bringing in true majesty.

    I think this stripping of beauty and majesty from churches only adds to the distractions and lies our culture tells Catholics. There are so many things that pull us from the Faith. I’m almost finished with Al Kresta’s book Dangers to the Faith and all the false spiritualities, “-isms” and lies that abound everywhere you go pull us away, or at the least make it so very hard to concentrate on Christ and practice the faith. At a time when we need churches to be churches to draw us up to Christ, we don’t have them. We have in essence protestant churches with crucifixes.

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  • Richard Davis

    Hi, Mr. Tucker, next time you are in Las Vegas I invite you to Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip next to Steve Wynn’s Encore. I think you will find that our cathedral combines elements of the best in modern architecture, art and design, while retaining those things which you rightly identify as essential to sacred worship–a reverent, dignified liturgy, well-performed and appropriate sacred music and a true sense of sacred space. To say nothing of sound Catholic preaching.

  • John Gerardi

    This is perhaps slightly related to your initial point of secular institutions borrowing Catholic symbols. As a budding young attorney, I’m always shocked at how much courtrooms borrow from a Catholic liturgical aesthetic, particularly older and more traditional courtrooms (some of which are as ornate and beautiful as any Catholic church). You have the “nave” where the gallery sits. You frequently have a “communion rail” (frequently a literal railing about the size of a communion rail) that separates the nave from the “sanctuary.” This “sanctuary” (the area where the lawyers, officers of the court, jury, etc sit) is an area set apart; the only people allowed into it are the “clergy” (lawyers) or others who are duly permitted to enter. Whenever I go into an older courtroom, I always have to fight my instinctive urge to genuflect, because it feels so much like a church!

    • musicacre

      And of course it is an offense not to rise when the judge enters the room! There is also bowing still, is there not?

  • Helfyre

    While the “Habit doesn’t make the monk” the converse is not true. The way we present our beliefs is important.

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  • Mack

    Well argued!
    Ditch the bow tie.