Writing on houses of worship? Ignore the religious

Pop quiz: When you write about baseball or surgery, whom should you quote?

That’s right. And when you write about playing a piano or cello, whom should you quote?

Right again. And when you write about religion, whom should you quote?

Nope, missed that one. When writing about any field, you must include its practitioners — unless it’s a religious group.

NBC News and the New York Times followed that rule faithfully — in this case, faithlessly — in stories about efforts to save church and synagogue buildings, although both have long lost their congregations.

First, the NBC story, the more facile of the two. Travel writer Rob Lovitt found a team store for a minor-league baseball team in South Bend, Ind., that was once the home for the Sons of Israel Synagogue.

Granted, it’s meant to be a light feature by a travel writer. Still, when he includes details like foam fingers but leaves out details on the “rich history” of the synagogue, it’s like leaving a shoe dangling in the air rather than letting it drop.

He’s clearly charmed by the idea of keeping a revered site, quoting Joe Hart, the president of the team:

Just outside the left field fence, however, sat the empty (and previously deconsecrated) Sons of Israel Synagogue, originally built in 1901 to serve South Bend’s Jewish community. Using $1 million of a total ballpark-renovation budget of $4 million, the club restored the building, pushed the fence out beyond it and filled it with team gear and memorabilia.

The project was undertaken with the cooperation of the city and local Jewish community, which determined that converting a house of worship into a sports-memorabilia shop was preferable to having it torn down altogether.

“They gave us their full blessing,” said Hart — with one exception. “When we proposed putting a ‘Hit It Here’ sign on the roof, they suggested that a target on the roof might not be the best thing.”

Too fast, Rob. What do you mean by “deconsecrated”? Who in the “local Jewish community” signed off on this? And shouldn’t they have spoken for themselves?

The article throws a bit of respect toward the synagogue, noting that it kept its original chandelier and rooftop Stars of David. But it ends with a yok:

Now it is a store dedicated to another sort of religion, namely, the church of baseball, which may explain the mural that hangs above the cash registers. Taking its cues from the central panel of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, it recalls “The Creation of Adam” except for the fact that God is sporting a glove and poised to give Adam, not the spark of life, but a horsehide.

Now, I would have really, really valued a Jewish leader’s view on that. As Darren Blair, a friend of GetReligion, points out: “The writer failed to inquire about how well a parody of a Christian image was received by the Jewish community members who the owner reportedly worked with.”

Next up: the Times article on a movement to save historic European churches. This one isn’t played for chuckles or whimsy; but as we’ll see, it’s not much on spirituality, either.

The piece talks sympathetically about the Future for Religious Heritage, a network of civic-minded people trying to slow the “tsunami” of church closings from Italy to Estonia because of a “steady drop in attendance, baptisms and weddings.”

There’s an artful blend of facts and urgent rhetoric in the story:

Begun as a grass-roots movement in 2009, the Future for Religious Heritage took shape in 2011 as a network of groups from more than 30 countries, dedicated to finding ways to keep churches, synagogues and other religious buildings open, if not for services, then for other uses.

Here as well:

A recent poll backs up the view that religious buildings are widely cherished as part of Europe’s cultural heritage. According to the poll, conducted by Sociovision among 6,000 citizens of eight European countries, four out of five consider the religious buildings in their midst to be “crucial” for the future of their communities, and three out of four favor opening them to non-religious activities if that would keep them open.

What I don’t see in either story are any “whys.” What’s the use of preserving a house of worship where no one worships? Unless you count worshiping sports?

OK, so Europeans think church buildings are part of their “cultural heritage.” And we’ve already read that community and Jewish leaders in South Bend decided prefer to turn a synagogue into a sports-memorabilia shop instead of tearing it down.

The Times has an incredible quote by Olivier de Rohan-Chabot, president of the Future for Religious Heritage: “We have to convince people that churches are not just for believers. Suddenly, we have realized that this is a problem that concerns our civilization.”

Um, how’s that? What do the buildings contribute? We could guess that he meant churches were the places of worship, keepers of art and literacy, refuges from invasions, sites of rejoicing in baptisms and solace in funerals, and providers of basic beliefs that bonded peoples and built civilizations. A church historian could have filled us in on that.

Maybe that’s what de Rohan-Chabot meant. But we’ll never know from the Times story, because it ends there.

Pope Benedict XVI, you may recall, tried to get European leaders to acknowledge the role of Christianity in molding the continent’s distinctive philosophies. He failed, probably not coincidentally with the mass closing of churches.

I would have liked to know a religious leader’s thoughts on that matter. But then, I would have liked to read a religious leader’s quotes in either story.

About Jim Davis
  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I think the “deconsecrated” thing is no big deal for light reading, it is good. But I agree with you, the joking shows you the emptiness of the reporting. Hearing both sides of the sentiments — those lamenting the scaling down of religion, and those who joke about it would be a much richer interesting story. For both the groups are big.

    I have many secular Jewish friends that would be very happy for this change and laugh at the article too. But I would enjoyed a bit more sociology.

    • Jim Davis

      Oh yeah, I know that Jews are quite capable of laughing at themselves. I still would have liked to know, as Darren
      Blair said, the reactions of the Jews who allegedly approved the plan to remake the synagogue into a team store.

  • Julia B

    Many historic Catholic churches in Europe now belong to the government. It’s such a weird situation where the government is caretaker of these churches, implying they are important, but will not openly acknowledge their importance in EU documents. Benedict’s efforts immediately came to mind – I’m glad you mentioned him. My Norwegian ancestral 12th century parish church still exists and is used on a regular basis as a venue for cultural events. It would be interesting to get the input from real believers about this valuing of these buildings by the people and dismissal of their importance by the EU.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      I am sure the pharaohs, their families and those the great house and others who bought into the whole sun god thing, would not like how pyramids are used today merely as tourist traps, with their dead displayed in museums either. “It would be interesting to the input from real believers” of that dead religion.


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