church architecture

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.

It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.

Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.

Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?

I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.

The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:

PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.

So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.

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News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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Crystal Cathedral's Robert Schuller dies, and gets one last slap from the Los Angeles Times

Crystal Cathedral's Robert Schuller dies, and gets one last slap from the Los Angeles Times

Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, has died, and the Los Angeles Times just ran a lengthy obit on him. Schuller must be turning in his grave at this point.

After a short opening anecdote about his "Come as you are, in the family car!” era, complete with reference to his $83.75 offering plate take on the first Sunday in his old drive-in movie theater church, the newspaper of record in Southern California radically switched gears:

Schuller, who built the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove as the embodiment of an upbeat, modern vision of Christianity, only to see his ministry shattered by family discord and financial ruin, died Thursday at a care facility in Artesia. He was 88 and had esophageal cancer.
After a working life of great success and influence, Schuller was forced to watch from retirement as much of what he built was laid to waste. In October 2010, his church, then led by his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman, declared bankruptcy. That led to the sale of the cathedral and surrounding property to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in February 2012.
Changing tastes, financial overreach and squabbling over a successor were factors in the collapse. Schuller had turned over his pulpit first to his son, Robert A. Schuller, and then to Coleman. In March 2010, he and his wife formally cut ties to the ministry they had founded, bemoaning the “negative and adversarial atmosphere” enveloping the church's leadership.
It was an ignominious end to what had been one of the greatest success stories of postwar American Christianity. The silver-haired evangelist rose from humble beginnings to become one of the late 20th century's most recognized religious figures.

I agree that Schuller’s last 10 years weren’t his best. But did he deserve an obit front-loaded with all his mistakes?

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