Friday, February 19, 2010

posted without comment

Attack of the Ugly Babies

A sermon "zinger" used to encourage church plants instead of resuscitating old churches goes like this:  "It is easier to have a baby than to raise the dead!"   Jesus, however, did only the latter. Evangelism is a bit more complicated than the sound bite conveys, simply because people are.  Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, many non-Christians are seeking a deeper, ecclesial reality in their life, not a gospel that caters to their present one.  If non-Christians go to church, or back to church, a significant percentage of them want it to look, architecturally, like a traditional church.  If you doubt this assertion, look into Lifeway's recent survey that shows it to be true.

This is why Christopher Benson's Hosting the Holy One post on beauty in our churches is not merely a concern for hipster Christian aesthetes, but for anyone who cares about evangelism.  Preserving old churches - especially our endangered pre-modern ones - should therefore be considered alongside the prospect of building new ones.  (Though it is fair to hope that such restorations will not replicate the violent disorientation and iconoclastic purging to which some well-meaning congregations have unfortunately resorted.)  Even when building anew, however, churches should consider constructing in traditional styles.  A vanguard of traditional architecture, centered at Notre Dame, is growing, and as the New Liturgical Movement points out, it is not necessarily more expensive to build that way.  For more, see the Institute for Sacred Architecture or Philip Bess' excellent book Till We Have Built Jerusalem.  Evangelicalism boasts a great variety of architectural styles in its history, and they can be recovered.

But, some might ask, Isn't the pragmatic modern style of architecture more conducive to pragmatic evangelicalism?  Not by a longshot.  In An Architecture of Immanence, Mark Torgerson demonstrated the alliance of Protestant liberalism (to which evangelicalism is traditionally opposed) and architectural modernism.  His diligently researched book concludes that flat, immanent modern architecture is uniquely suited to mid-century liberal Protestant denial of the supernatural, both of which (he seems to subtly imply) have been outmoded.  Before evangelicals build in the modern, pragmatic style, therefore, they might want to consider whether or not the architecture they worship in will be counteracting the sermons preached therein for decades to come.  It is impossible for architecture to be neutral.

Still, I'm not too hopeful about the possibilities for an evangelical recovery of traditional architecture.  Having spurned the superior resources of Christendom, evangelicals have great difficulty detaching themselves from the dominant culture, and architecture is no exception.  In addition, our economic downturn will do much to regenerate that ancient argument (John 12:5) against extravagance in worship, as if the poor were not ministered to by beauty as well.  God, needless to say, does not require exquisite buildings, and "wherever two or three or gathered" still, of course, holds true.  But as the "easier to have a baby than raise the dead!" dictum catches on, we best brace ourselves for Chick-fil-A church plants (available on Sundays!), or some really ugly babies.

[crossposted at evangel]

Monday, February 8, 2010

And miles to go before we sleep

The fact that evangelicals are actually resisting Christopher Benson's suggestion (Hosting the Holy One) that evangelicals prioritize good architecture is profoundly disheartening. Writes one commenter:
We have been given a function in the New Covenant, not a form. The modern mall was not so designed as to be an ungodly as possible, but to be as economic and functional as possible. And so it is no wonder to me that a church seeking functionality and feasibility should build a building resembling such functionality...

If a stadium is the mot economical and functional way to include 40,000 people in an experience, then why would not Lakewood church (of which I am no fan) not use a stadium for a different kind of experience for 35,000?

There are reasons besides conformity that modern evangelicals have caved into functional practicality, and it is mainly because it is functionally practical.
But as we've indicated before, if the point of evangelicalism is, I don't know, evangelism, then McChurches aren't very practical at all.

Asks another commenter: "How many cathedrals have been built with the purest of intensions and lavished with gilded accoutrements only to end up host to a Godless mass of ritual?" I'm not sure what this "Godless mass of ritual" is - it sounds frightening - but just imagine how much worse it would be in a profoundly ugly building.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Filling the Void

North American Churches has been silent lately, a fact which has lead to a spate of attempts to fill the void. First Things has resurrected the venerable New York Times tradition of sermon reviews. Check out St. Ignatius Loyala, Old Saint Patrick's, Calvary Baptist and Marble Collegiate. But because the authors realize that the aesthetics of the building cannot be ignored, these are more than just sermon reviews. Either a church worships with you or counteracts your worship. As our inaugural quote dictates, buildings are not neutral.

Then, Professor Kourelis, that exemplary steward of our irreplaceable ecclesial heritage, seeing the lack of posting here, went ahead and planned an entire course on Lancaster churches, and launched a new blog!

As if that wasn't enough, my friend Kerry, currently touring the country with a choir, started sending me photographs of the amazing churches he's encountered, such as Cram's Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte. Here's the plan, here's the reality.

There's too much unappreciated beauty out there. I have not posted lately not due to a paucity of encounters, but due to my not knowing how to digest the many that I've had. First there was a streetside church in Newark (people seemed rather puzzled that I photographed it), then a Long Island mansion that has become a convent (I didn't even get the name), or Cram's Byzantine Christ Church, St. Bartholomeuw's, which the unprecedented dome and rose that I could only get by laying the camera on the pew for a 30 second exposure, not to mention the Tranfiguration apse and side chapel. And don't get me started on my trip to Judson Memorial this Sunday, where I was able to go in and see the LaFarge windows, in a McKim Mead and White setting, with Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture at the front for good measure. A triple threat. Perhaps I'll post some of my favorites from these encounters in the weeks to come.

And yet, it's serendipitous that we've been dormant, seeing all who've joined in the task. Highlighting the endangered churches in the American architectural ecosystem is too important of a project to do alone. We shall persist!