My wife and I went to a presentation Tuesday night by Steve Rosenthal, the talented Boston-based architectural photographer whose work is laid-out in a magnificent if pricey Christmas-gift coffee-table book entitled “White on White: Churches of Rural New England”. Samples here. (There’s a longer back-story to what drew us there, but it’s not germane to the main thrust of this post.)
There were perhaps fifty people in attendance for the lecture, slide-show and a short, thought-provoking video in a cozy/small space. Virtually all were over fifty. (We’re close but not there yet.)
Each photo in the book is magnificently crafted. Steve has been taking large-format photographs of ‘classic’ New England churches and meetinghouses for forty-five years and it’s clear he has both a love and unique gift for it. He has also done a great deal of research into the history of their physical construction, e.g., the introduction of pattern books for church-builders, the automation of shingle-making, etc.
Many shots entailed months of planning (e.g., in which season will the sun touch the north wall in just the right way?) as well as careful attention to the details of framing, weather, etc. He told a few stories about the lengths he’s sometimes had to go to (e.g., paying people off) in order to exclude cars or people from his shots. Without those fashion clues, it’s therefore impossible to tell a photo he took in the mid 1960′s from one taken just a few years ago. That labor gives each of the shots a timeless, contemplative quality that I found almost mesmerizing.
Not a bad gift. And no, I don’t get any kickbacks.
Now here’s where it gets interesting (at least for me; YMMV).
I obviously came at this with a bias — one might say an obsession — for the history of the beliefs and human affiliations that literally gave rise to those buildings. Adding to my sense that there was purpose in my being there, it just so happened (as it so often does with the living God) that that morning, the offset by six months One Year Bible program He led me to back in the Spring had me reading the passages in 1st Kings 6 where Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem — the culmination of generations’ worth of promises by God and increasing reverence by his people, both for Him and his laws and commands.
Coincidence that that scripture was in my program that day? No such thing.
Steve observed (and I’m paraphrasing), that “in the forty-five years I’ve been doing this, I’ve witnessed more degradation to these church structures than took place in the previous one-hundred and fifty.”
The audience seemed to murmur in dismay at this fact. This is terrible, someone said. What can be done? someone else asked. What they seemed to mourn was not the loss of belief but how a drive in the countryside would be less visually appealing.
Steve’s fellow Yale alumnus, Jonathan Edwards was also immensely intelligent and talented. He too was a New Englander. He too was concerned with bringing the church back to life. For Edwards, that meant the body of believers and he went about that mission with a contagious fervor arguably not matched in this area since that time. For Steve and many others today “church” seems to refer primarily and most importantly to the buildings that once housed those fervent believers.
Several of the questions after Steve’s formal talk revolved around the details of how various communities are allocating (or in my town, not allocating) funds for the preservation of these buildings. Steve was adept with figures for dwindling congregation sizes and how the small numbers of parishioners are dwarfed by the daunting maintenance costs of things such as classic steeples, heating and paint. He evinced what seemed a genuine sadness at this state of affairs.
One series of shots from the late seventies — unique in his collection — depicted the demolition of a ‘classic’ top-of-the-green white clapboard “church” that, when it went down, had just twelve parishioners and was being heated just one day a week. Several attendees gasped at the photos. The reason I put “church” in quotes here is because, when that happened, the building’s owners and parishioners were Unitarian. I was only a little surprised that they would be so surprised. God can act through the ordinary events of mankind just as easily as he can through miracles, thunderstorms, earthquakes and other grand spectacles.
The structure which went up in place of the Unitarian building was fascinating from an allegorical/symbolic as well as an architectural standpoint: an ugly one-story, vinyl-sided, drive-through bank. It’s hardly a unique case. The former church building at the end of my street is now luxury condos. The developer held an auction three weeks ago to get the remaining units off his hands. Welcome to Babylon.
Steve made another comment, the unintended allegorical significance of which made me sit up and take notice. He said, (and again, I paraphrase): “The light has to be right. You have to make sure the light is just right.”
He noted this especially while talking about a shot of a meetinghouse with a cemetery in the foreground, relating how he’d had to wait hours for the light to reflect just so off the sides of the headstones. (It is a beautifully composed shot.) He meant it in the photographic sense, of course. Looking at these empty church buildings, I couldn’t help hearing it in the terms Jesus laid out in Luke 11:33-36:
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”
Side note: I find it ironic/significant that we were meeting in a cellar — and not just any cellar. This one was once used to hide runaway slaves — another fascinating hint of real-life allegory (Romans 6:15-30) given the mostly non-believing audience in attendance.
(Side-note to the side-note: if one had a good arm, one could literally throw a stone from this location and hit the lawn of Our Lady Help of Christian’s Catholic parish, aka “ground zero” for the priest sex-abuse scandal. That is neither here nor there; just some local travelogue trivia.)
As the audience became more and more perplexed at the chronicle of decline Steve was laying out, what I wanted to point out, (but chose not to in what seemed a resolutely secular audience with a museum-goer’s viewpoint on the subject) was that what we were looking at were dead (if beautiful) husks… corpses… tombs.
The bright life-spark of faith in the eternal, living God who is light… the divine energy that had brought these buildings into existence through the dedication and giving of believers in generations past… had gone out.
Jesus doesn’t mince words with the Pharisees on this theme in Luke 11:40-48.
“You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” And he [Jesus] said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.”
Matthew’s take on the same scene is even more specific in this context:
You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous… (Matthew 23:26-29)
(Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Seattle once did a fantastic Sam Kinison-style sermon on this, shouting in a way I can only imagine Jesus might have with a righteousness that is only His. Can’t find it at the moment, but if I get time, I’ll add a deep link.)
I’m reminded as well of the scene in Acts 23 where, after being struck on the mouth, Paul uses the term “whitewashed wall” to refer to the high council Jerusalem as he stands before them. Interestingly, on Monday, my offset One Year Bible program had me reading Psalm 127. Verse one says:
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Sadly, whatever tactical efforts are being made and will be made by well-meaning local governments, preservation societies, real-estate conversion specialists, secular lovers of architecture, “cultural”Christians and the dwindling numbers of true believers who still worship in these places, the vast majority of them are going to continue to fall apart and disappear.
Much MUCH sadder and more dangerous, in my opinion, is the reason they began to fall apart and disappear in the first place. As Jesus tells his disciples in the well-known prophetic end-times teaching recorded in Matthew 24:10-12:
And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.
I awoke the morning after the slide show to find cold, wet snow falling, whitewashing the dreary dead-Winter landscape. How perfect.
Thankfully, Jesus continues, in Matthew 24:13-14:
But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Spring will come again as will Jesus. May we maintain our faith in the “wills” that he spoke, remembering that they reflect the relentless Will of the Father/Creator. May we draw on His strength to endure and proclaim with boldness, in these perilous, unbelieving times the truth that has not changed from the beginning.