This is the church, where is the steeple?

Steeples and bell towers have gone out of fashion for church buildings, reports USA Today. What hurts is the reason:

Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change. . . .

Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.

Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year. . . .

After three decades of repairing steeples, [steeplejack Michael] Hardin still considers it “a bit of joy to restore something so old and so beautiful and help it retain its integrity.”

The average age of the churches he works on is a half-century. The older steeples, “built with top-notch lumber and a lot of heart,” are holding up structurally, and more often need only cosmetic fixes.

In more recent decades, Hardin says, “church builders went a little haywire. People used shortcuts and cheaper lumber or they moved to the fiberglass steeples that claim to be maintenance-free. And if there’s a problem they stand back and try to get band-aid repairs or they just remove it and cap it off.” . . .

Providence Baptist Church in McLean, Va., a congregation of 450 in the Washington suburbs, managed to get a whole new aluminum steeple and $25,000 annually for its maintenance budget by hopping on the leased-tower trend last year.

Senior Pastor Tim Floyd says the original steeple, moved from the congregation’s first location, was “in good shape, but it was too small for the larger, newer church. And we needed to bring in more money for our maintenance budget. So what could we do? We saw that cellphone companies are using innovative methods, like artificial trees with antennas, to disguise their equipment and bring in cell coverage without unsightly towers.”

Church leaders located a company ready to deal, negotiated the design and “now we have a steeple, hiding two cell antennas, that gives us a really big profile on the horizon. It’s elegant and majestic and a win-win for us,” Floyd says.

It’s also a visual contrast to a massive, modern megachurch across the street that boasts no steeple.

No surprise, says architect Gary Landhauser, a partner with Novak Design Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who worked on nearly 30 churches in past 15 years.

“We have done a lot of church designs, but we haven’t done a steeple design in 15 years,” Landhauser says.

Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”

via Church steeples, aging out of fashion, meet their maker – USATODAY.com.

Architecture, like other art forms, expresses meaning.  Do you know why older churches built steeples?  Why they had bells?  What does it mean that today’s churches tend to use cheap materials?  Why are they being made to look “more like a mall”?  What does it mean when the sanctuary has a stage with studio lights, big speakers, and a drum set?  What do these design features  tell us about contemporary Christianity?

HT: Mollie Hemingway

Analyzing the Situation Room photo

We don’t get to see a photograph of Osama bin Laden’s body, but we did get to see a  photograph of the President and his team watching the mission go down.  It’s quite dramatic to see the expressions on everyone’s faces during this intense moment–the President’s intense stare, the Secretary of State’s hand covering her face (apparently in emotion, though she says now she might have just been coughing due to her allergies).

The Situation Room during the bin Laden operation

The Washington Post features various experts commenting on the picture.  I was especially taken by this one by art critic Philip Kennicott:

At least two basic metaphors of power are at play: being in the room and at the table. Both metaphors expressly exclude us, the viewers of the photo, who are not there, not in the loop. The photograph fascinates because it represents the most basic aspects of political power: knowledge, access, influence and proximity.

The photograph thus puts the viewer in a subordinate position. But the chain of meanings continues at least one more step. The anxiety on the faces shows the degree to which some of the most powerful people in the world can’t control events. They (and their administration) are subordinate to chance and fate, to unknown unknowns and known unknowns.

So the sequence is this: We have less power than they do, and they have less power than reality. The photographer creates a kind of “V” of sightlines to emphasize this drama: We look in from one angle as they look out at another, almost a perfect mirror image.

We enjoy narratives of great power because we have so little power in our own lives over things such as errant buses, disease, death and the vicissitudes of love. The photo reveals that sometimes even people who seem to have invested in them the talent and power to be masters of their fate are frightened, worried, tense and uncertain. And so by excluding us from the world of one kind of power, the photo reminds of a more fundamental powerlessness. It keeps us out of one room but puts us all in another, from which there is no exit.

via Breaking down the Situation Room – The Washington Post.

Versions of Cranach’s Seal

As an update to the post on tweaks to this blog, let me show you some different versions of Cranach’s Seal, as we try to interpret what it means.  (I thought it is an image of redemption; Tom Hering suggested it was alchemical symbolism, so I’ve asked Dr. Montgomery; it could also be some kind of conventional heraldry symbolism–someone who knows something about heraldry, please chime in.)    Special thanks to Abby for alerting me to the final version here, which is the most expressive, detailed, and dragon-like.  Should we use that one for our logo, or is it too disturbing?

The Museum of Broken Relationships

Art of our times, from the University of Houston:

For two weeks this May, Blaffer Art Museum presents an exhibition from the permanent collection of the Museum of Broken Relationships. In collaboration with the American Association of Museum’s 2011 Annual Meeting, which is being held in Houston May 22 – 25, 2011, the exhibition will feature detritus from failed relationships – be it a wedding dress, an “I Love You” teddy bear, or a set of fluffy handcuffs – donated to the museum by people from around the world. Objects from the permanent collection will be on view alongside ephemera offered by Houstonians looking to exhibit their own love legacy. Conceptualized in Zagreb, Croatia, by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, after the couple ended their own romantic relationship in 2006, the Museum of Broken Relationships was established by the two to create a space of protected remembrance where the material and nonmaterial heritage of broken relationships can be witnessed, and where these experiences can move beyond the individual into a universal understanding.

via Blaffer Art Museum :: Exhibitions :: Museum of Broken Relationships.

Then follows a description of how people can donate their souvenirs from failed relationships–fluffy handcuffs?–to the museum.  This reminds me of T. S. Eliot and his poems on love in the wasteland.

Happy belated Cranach day!

I can’t believe I missed blogging about this yesterday, April 6 being the Commemoration of Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer: Christian Artists | CyberBrethren-A Lutheran Blog.

Go to that link to celebrate by looking at some of their paintings and what they mean.

Relics

Some people go to Cancun on their Spring Break; others go to Myrtle Beach.  We went to Baltimore.   My wife and I are both interested in medieval art, and the Walter Art Museum there is featuring a big exhibit of medieval reliquaries.  That is, containers for relics, bones and other remains of saints that played a big part in medieval spirituality, and, indeed, in Roman Catholicism to this day.

The containers ranged from mini-tombs to realistic statuary.  (The arm and hand pictured below used to contain an arm bone of a saint.  The priest would wield it to touch the sick and other worshippers, who considered that it was the equivalent of being touched by the late saint.)  They were quite well-crafted and beautiful, considered as works of art.  But the show made me intrigued with the whole practice of the veneration of relics.

What surprised me is that some of the reliquaries still contained relics!  I saw the tooth of John the Baptist!  Another tooth of Mary Magdalene!  And splinters from the True Cross displayed behind glass that was worked into an elaborate gold cross.  Other relics were tiny bits of bone that were wrapped in colored cloth, with a label identifying the saint they belonged to.   Even today Roman Catholic altars have to contain some relic of a saint, if not a fragment of his or her body, a “contact relic,” which is something that once touched the saint.  (A scrap of cloth from the saint’s clothing, or the like.)

Now a good many of these relics are obviously fake.  For example, I saw the sindarion, a cloth that supposedly wiped the face of Christ, leaving a miraculous image.   At the museum it was displayed in an ornate frame behind cloudy glass, and one could indeed see the face of Jesus, but instead of looking like a photograph, it was an image that conformed–surprise, surprise–to the style of late medieval paintings.  I learned that the sindarion was a very popular kind of icon, which meant that there must have been quite a few of them.  One question of my Catholic friends:  If an altar requires an icon, if the icon is spurious, does that invalidate the altar and its sacraments?  Surely not.  But why not?

According to the exhibit, the value of a relic is not just as a historical artifact to encourage one’s faith–as in, “wow, that saint really lived, and all this stuff really happened”–but rather, it is thought that these objects have some sort of spiritual power.  So surely an object that is not actually a relic cannot have that power.

Certainly some of the relics are authentic, particularly the remains of contemporary people who had been canonized.  Apparently, the practice is to dig up the grave of a person who has been named a saint, and to break up the body or the bones, distributing them as relics.  At the end of the exhibit we saw a modern reliquary containing the brown, desiccated finger of Elizabeth Seton, the 19th century American who was canonized not long ago.  I found that macabre.  Another question to my Catholic friends:  Why is it wrong to desecrate bodies in general, but that it is all right to do that to saints?  Is that what is in store for the body of Pope John Paul II?  It has been announced that it will be disinterred for the canonization ceremony.

Another modern relic on display was a bone from Francis X. Seelos, a 19th century priest with local ties, who served in the Baltimore area.  He has been beatified and awaits full canonization from the Pope, which is pretty much a done deal since two miracles have been attributed to him.  As I was marveling at this relic, an elderly woman with a European accent who was standing beside me asked if I were Catholic.  I said, no.  She said that she had prayed to Father Seelos, and he healed her son of cancer.  Then she caught herself and said, well, God healed him, but Father Seelos interceded for him.

I know quite a few evangelicals and Lutherans and others who have converted to Roman Catholicism.  I understand the appeal of the great intellectual tradition, the scholastic theology, the aesthetics, the ceremony, the history, and the like.  What I don’t get, though, is the popular piety.  Again, any of you Catholic readers, please explain it to me.

In the meantime, I have to say that the exhibit, fascinating as it was, brought out even more the Lutheran in me.

Treasures of Heaven · The Walters Art Museum.