Monday, May 02, 2011

Some Books (1)--When Church Became Theatre

I have been making good progress in winnowing-down my book stack. I am anxious to finish with them so I can begin on the next pile, which already awaits my attention. In the next week or so, I hope to report on a few of the books enjoyed over the last few months.

Anyone who looks at the contemporary side-show of American mega-churchdom and wonders how Christianity came to such a pass will gain valuable insight from When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America by Dr. Jeanne Halgren Kilde. As the title indicates, this is not simply an architectural study, but an overview of evolving patterns of Protestant worship during the 1800s, and specifically how this was shaped and transformed by purposeful innovations in the traditional worship space. She "explores the complex relationships between space and worship, architecture and meaning, religion and society." This is a masterful work, and essential reading for an understanding of 19th-century American religiosity. As Kilde demonstrates, the calculated "revisioning of Protestant worship space," as well as the "reinvention" of a Christian past gave shape to a number of dynamic trends within Protestantism that are in evidence even today.

Briefly put, since the early 1800s, popular American church architecture has gone through four phases: the Gothic Revival, the neomedieval auditorium, the Late Gothic Revival, and finally, today's auditorium church. On the Gothic Revival:

"The hegemony of the Gothic as the generic Christian style was overwhelming at midcentury despite the fact that it seemed to contradict evangelical history and ideology in several ways....With its nave, chancel, choir and transepts, [the Gothic church] was ideal for establishing and maintaining the mystery of the Mass and the power of the clergy in the Eucharistic sacrament. It was inimical, however, to Protestant worship that focused on the sermon."

But as Kilde notes, "in their search for Christian coherence, evangelical Protestants separated the architecture from its liturgical function and imagined (emphasis mine) a generic Christian origin....Gothic design...was hailed as the only truly Christian building style precisely because it embodied Christian (i.e., generic Christian) principles...that these were pre-Reformation Christians did not greatly trouble [them.]" These churches "looked to a newly reconstructed past for their legitimacy, which a historicized Christian architectural style, the Gothic, provided," and "the appropriation and reinterpretation of the past for the purpose of reshaping and reformulating the Protestant church to respond to contemporary situations."

As one Christian writer noted in 1858: "The tendency of the structure must be continually upwards...leading the mind to the infinite above, which conveys the idea of the presence of God...Its interior must ...elevate the mid above all earthly thoughts; its forms must be filled with a spirit which in its development leads the mind toward the high undefinable ideas of that All-seeing and unseen God..."

To the Orthodox mind, this is strange and abstract language. I am not qualified to speak authoritatively about the significant of Orthodox architecture, but I do know enough to contrast it with the view above. There is no sense of pulling our thoughts upward, to some "infinite above," for the Triune God is there with us. The dome symbolizes the heavens, to be sure, but Christ Pantocrator is there, looking down on us. And with the iconography of the church, one has a sense of being literally enveloped into the mystical worship and adoration before the Throne.

I am reminded of Father Stephen Freeman's series of lessons (and now, book) on the "Two-Storey Universe" where, according to Protestant thought, God is imagined as "up there somewhere," on the second storey.

By mid-century, Gothic Revival had been largely abandoned in favor of the neomedieval auditorium churches which abandoned downtown for suburban locals, where they "strove to preserve and maintain the goodwill of wealthy members." Concern for the poor and needy often gave way to programs for "the family, " as they "adapted more fully to the growing consumer-oriented industrial culture." Kilde noted a process that "transformed audiences into voyeurs."

By late century, the pendulum had swung again, away from the neomedieval to the Late Gothic Revival. At this point, Kilde asks an important question:

"One must ask whether evangelical religion was simply colonized by capitalism during the peak of the U. S. industrial revolution. Were these churches merely the gilded totems of a capitalist age? Were they artifacts that furthered the ideology of wealth and consumption, bathing it in a glow of sanctified virtuosity and thus justifying it and the materialistic lifestyle it encouraged as sacred?"


Milton T. Burton said...

I think this may be much ado about very little. Many years ago an architect explained this fad for the Gothic, along with the wealth of gingerbread thusly: "The industrial Revolution had progressed to the point where machines could make elaborate trim and even complex structural members very cheaply." He went on to say that people will always overindulge in anything that has quickly become cheap that was once expensive.

John said...

This post was thrown together rather hurriedly, and I did not go into as much explanation as was needed. This book was less about the architecture and more about what was going on within the structures themselves--and how the changes in architecture were but a reflection of the changing nature of worship. The auditorium style popular today had a run back in the mid 1800s as well, though then housed in a "neomedieval" church instead of our contemporary big-box steel building. But the concept was the same--worship had taken on the nature of an audience watching a performance. The author follows these trends down to the megachurches of today. In short, the author uses architecture as markers on the evolution of mainstream Protestantism (in truth, most of her subjects were Methodists or Presbyterian churches.)

Milton T. Burton said...

I understand that part of it clearly and I am in agreement with you that such "worship" is in reality just showmanship. However, it is very American. I was just playing devil's advocate on the subject of Gothic Revival.

Milton T. Burton said...

The post was good. Did not seem hurried at all.