A Religious Pilgrimage…Of Sorts

We spent the long 4th of July weekend down in Santa Ana, CA, visiting friends. It was a great weekend with plenty of good food, drink, and baseball (I took in two games at the Big A). On Saturday, recovering from another rack of ribs, I decided to make a religious pilgrimage, of sorts, to the Crystal Cathedral and Trinity Broadcasting Network’s headquarters. The two are outsized symbols of American religiosity and embody the best and worst of it.

First stop, the Crystal Cathedral, recently re-named Christ Cathedral with the Catholic buyout. You can read more on that here. I remember growing up and seeing (but never really watching) Rev. Robert H. Schuller‘s services in the glass sanctuary. I was too busy dashing off to our own church services to give them my full attention. It always struck me as an impressive structure that seemed to tower out in the middle of nowhere. It’s actually surrounded by apartment buildings, office blocks, and those other bastions of American spirituality, shopping malls.

The space itself isn’t terribly offensive…it’s just a big glass cube after all. The organ is spectacular, or at least looks it. It would have been interesting to hear it in that confined, yet open-air space. I can imagine that I would easily get distracted from services by trying to count all the glass panes or steel reinforcement beams holding them together. All of the openness leaves little room for other works of art within the sanctuary, although I imagine the jumbotron is good for displaying images. On the other hand, surrounded by glass, you get the sense of being simultaneously inside and outside. Perhaps this suggests the sacredness of everywhere…that the holiness of the sanctuary space should spill out into the world around us.

   

What’s most interesting are the immaculately manicured grounds surrounding the cathedral. Visitors are encouraged to tour the memorial gardens, but they were closed for a funeral service when I visited. However, the most striking elements are the sculptures scattered around the grounds, many of which contain depictions of Jesus not familiar to many of us. Around the Crystal Cathedral, Jesus is happier than a pig in…well…you get the idea. There’s even a Terminator version of the child Jesus atop a donkey with mother Mary. There are virtually no images of the suffering servant on display. And why should there be? In SoCal, the weather is always fine and great deals can be had at the nearby malls.

Next stop, TBN!

It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even watch TBN, or channels like it, for entertainment anymore. Without a doubt, for the thousands of Christians who profess a more conservative, evangelical version of the faith, this type of programming provides spiritual nourishment. But it seems to me that this must be held in tension with the ways in which so much of this media empire has been funded. As my wife put it, it’s all built on poor old ladies’ money.

I pulled into the compound on Saturday afternoon expecting busloads of tourists visiting the holy land. Things couldn’t have been more different…or creepy. Aside from one or two families, the gift shop clerk, and a security guard, the place was a ghost town. From the outside, the whole place appears to be just another business park whose owners forgot to take down the exterior Christmas decorations (skeletons of neon light angels are attached to every lamppost). Of course, few business parks feature an enormous statue of…Christ the Conquering King…King David…you tell me.

When you enter the building, however, things get weird…fast. Consider the foyer, which looks like a dozen heavenly hosts exploded all over the place. The paintings of putti are nightmare-inducing combinations of adult bodies and child-like faces that would no doubt impress Dr. Moreau. And these things are everywhere. There’s also a disturbing fascination with mirrors, which line most every hallway and even some of the ceilings. Either the builders ran out of drywall or the people who work there really enjoy checking themselves out on a minute-to-minute basis. I had to double-check my surroundings when entering the bathroom just to be safe.

       

The most fascinating part of the building is the gallery that displays memorabilia from TBN’s history, a strange combination of religious artifacts (old Bibles and icons), American tchotchke (a Will Rogers pistol) and correspondence from evangelical luminaries and political leaders. It comes as no surprise that, in this space, even religious classics have been co-opted (and ruined) in the process.

       

Running alongside this gallery is a prayer hall with benches on which sit stacks and stacks of prayer requests. Thousands of pages bundled together represent countless needs for financial, medical, or spiritual assistance. I assume TBN has employees that pray over these, but it seems like visitors could kneel and take up the task as well. Access to certain other parts of the building are restricted without prior appointment, and I didn’t get to see the Praise the Lord set either. I would have loved to taken a seat on that giant throne!

At the end of the day, I wasn’t left with many surprising revelations about either religious site. I imagine that, in many ways, the religious kitsch on display at both the Crystal Cathedral and TBN headquarters mirrors much of what I saw at other popular religious sites on our trip around the world last year. To paraphrase art and religion scholar Frank Burch Brown, like Hollywood blockbusters, religious kitsch might be fun to look at for a moment, but it rarely leaves a lasting impression.

You can see more photos from my mini-pilgrimage here.

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About J. Ryan Parker

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