Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New Battle for the Liturgy

In the 1980s and 1990s, congregations across America were divided over how to worship. One side said that times were changing and the church should also change to become more culturally relevant. It was okay to use popular music in church, they said, because traditional organ music and hymns are passé and driving away those ubiquitous “young people”. Others said, form must follow function, and traditional music and liturgies are the best way to objectively proclaim what the Church has always proclaimed: the gospel.
In retrospect, we can see that music was the whipping boy for larger issues. It was the tangible change that was occurring in the congregation, but plenty more was changing, too. The role and authority of the pastor, the mission of the church, even the necessity of the cross were all being redefined in the contemporary movement. All of these things were silently being debated as the drummer set up his drums and the guitarist tuned his six-string. In truth, these debates continue to rage. But most of the congregation dividing and conquering has already happened. Now, congregations are either “traditional” or “contemporary” or some weird combination of the two.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Grass is Indeed Greener: How I gave up dreaming about the big city and learned to love the suburbs

Rod Dreher, a self-declared "crunchy con" and editor of the Dallas Morning News editorial page, let slip some opinions about suburban living that was a bit surprising coming from him but all too obvious in my own experience. To understand where he is coming from, Dreher has been a major proponent of living a way of life that combines holding conservative political beliefs and choosing to live an authentic lifestyle that rooted that is cherishes nature, traditional family life, community, and faith. "Burkeans with Birkenstocks", in which back-to-the earth values of hippie movement are grafted onto bedrock conservative principles of self-reliance, independence, religiously-based virtue.  They like to consume market-fresh organic produce, protect the environment and live in historic walkable neighborhoods. They agree with most liberals on a whole of host of lifestyle and cultural issues, but depart from them on issues such as taxation and the level of government involvement. It's rather a private choice to live this way, and policy should be designed to grant independence to people who choose it, while encouraging everyone else to be better connected with nature and eschew crass commercialism and sprawl.

Since popular examples of crunchy-cons are still too few, Dreher openly refers to his own daily life to illustrate. He insists on eating food from the farmer's market or at Central Market (an upscale grocery store, which sells both organic products and exquisite foreign brands) while raising chickens in the backyard. He home schools his children, belongs to a small orthodox Catholic parish, and has purchased and restored a small craftsman-style bungalow in a historic yet transitional neighborhood in Dallas. Reading some of his more anecdotal columns, there is an inevitable air of sanctimony when talking about himself, but the benefit to the reader is that he lets you peer inside into how he thinks about a variety of topics as it relates to his life. His writing makes his personality accessible, which allow readers to see someone who constantly confronts doubts about his beliefs and witness how his opinions change.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Breakdown of a Megachurch Viral Video

What is it that makes the megachurch click? There are so many answers, and since the megachurch phenomenon is relatively diverse, no one can point to any one thing. In a scant few cases, they offer theological certainty to a relativized world. In others, they offer entertainment and a commitment-free faith. In others, they offer a "power of positive thinking" sort of message that resonates with folks beaten down by the sin of the world. In far too many, they offer a "name it and claim it" empowerment to people who feel alienated from their government, culture and even currency.

But a recent viral video highlighted one more reason megachurches have become (at least for now) the pinnacle of the American Church experience: they notice, appreciate, and celebrate the suburban lifestyle and the middle class grind that most Americans experience 6 days a week.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Glenn Beck: An Ego in Search of a Message

Glenn Beck has annoyed me for the eight years I've known of him. I couldn't fully articulate why until this weekend. I always thought his over-the-top antics would fizzle out on radio as more people yearned for serious analysis and less sarcasm. When he went to CNN, I figured he would be the next in the long line of radio personalities who wouldn't translate to television. But Fox intervened and his celebrity has taken off. Now he's writing novels and becoming a religious crusader. Don't think Mr. Beck hasn't noticed that his level of influence is at an all-time high.

Just as it is obvious that Mr. Beck is in over his head, it is just as obvious he has no clear understanding of his limitations. While I am glad he is informing large swaths of the public about subjects I have come to know and despise (liberation theology, for example), he is quickly turning into a clownish figure who would probably endorse a third party if he could figure out how to benefit. Couching behind his newly-found religious voice which gives him the pretense of humility, Mr. Beck appears to be every bit the narcissist our president is. Not only does he presume to be a political expert, he is now some sort of preacher of an ambiguous gospel. And why has he adopted this new religious tone?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Are House Churches the Future of American Protestantism?

If you can get everything you spiritually need from a small group, why would you ever attend an established congregation? That's the question before many American Christians who have turned to the ancient practice of the house church, a gathering of about 10-15 Christians for fellowship and worship. One report indicates as many as 9% of American Protestants attend home churches. There are no paid clergy, no sermons, no organs, no sanctuaries; just a small gathering of the faithful to get all they need from church without all the hassle: prayer, Bible reading, community and the sacraments.

The time might be right for a serious house church movement, but we should remember these sorts of movements have come and gone through the centuries. Lutheran pietists in Norway and Sweden established house churches when they felt they could no longer participate in the state church. Certainly, those in house churches now would tell you the first congregations met in homes, essentially as small groups. Even megachurches, ironically enough, have taught millions of their own members how to have house churches as they have refined methods and published books outlining best practices for small groups. What is a small group but a house church? Serious community, Bible study and the sacraments are almost impossible to find at a megachurch, so the need to supplement with small groups became apparent.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Distillation in the Desert: climate, the environment and how we build

Having been lucky enough to immerse myself in climatic biomes such as tropical forests, mountains, oceanfronts, prairies and temperate forests, it has only been since last week that I finally got to experience a very important one--the desert. Driving through northern New Mexico, I was struck by how such radical environmental conditions, with its extremely dry air and sunny skies, provoked an equally radical response by people in how they built a suitable man-made environment. Though humans have made deserts habitable since the dawn of time, the reason I consider the desert a radical environment is due to its distinct lack of what makes human life (or any life for that matter) possible: water. Without water, either in the air or on the ground, the whole equation to how we build changes dramatically.

It's useful to remember that though our bodies are made up mostly of water. We therefore must consume even more to stay healthy, it constitutes only a small fraction how we use this resource. Most of our water goes to irrigating our man-made landscapes either in the form of farms or private lawns. Still, our direct physical need for water comes first, and in extremelty arid climates like New Mexico, there is little or no irrigation to speak of. It makes one realize how much of the built environment relies on channeling water resources towards mostly leisurely ends. A fountain here, flowerbeds there, green lawns, shaded parks-- they all have the important function of softening the hard and coarse surfaces of urban life. We have a natural aversion to living in something completely manmade, as evidenced by the common complaint of some cities being nothing more than "concrete jungles". Greenery, ponds, and displays of flowing water all contribute to a intrinsically human need for calm and repose in a city, even if it is only intermittent. Though not as important drinking or flushing, this urban role for water is not completely wasteful, even as it requires lots of it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Modern Timelessness: Kahn, Piano and the Kimbell Art Museum

In keeping with the ongoing tradition of architectural rivalry with Dallas, the latest addition to Fort Worth's world-class cultural district was unveiled late last week. The Kimbell Art museum, which is housed in what is arguably Louis Kahn's greatest masterpiece built in 1972, has presented the final design of its long-awaited addition realized by Renzo Piano, an architect who has earned the reputation as the world's premier designer of museums. The addition more than doubles the exisiting exhibition spaces, provides additional lecture halls, and most importantly for its Texan patrons, abundant parking below ground. The news follows a rather eventful year for high-design in the metroplex, beginning last fall with opening of two brand new buildings in the Dallas Arts District, the unveiling of the Perot Museum of Science by Thom Mayne (currently under construction), and the recent opening of one of Ricardo Legoretta's stronger works to date, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Compared to Piano's numerous other museum commissions over the years, Texas has been of special value to his success and development. The state has now four of his projects, including two in Houston (the Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Gallery) and one in Dallas (Nasher Sculpture Center). It was in the Menil in 1986 that Piano established his most recognizable architectural prototype, the multi-layered roof that lightly hovers over a single-story art pavilion and bathes spaces underneath with diffuse natural light. The Twombly across the he street expanded further with the addition of motorized sun controls and fabric, and the Nasher exhibits an innovative eggcrate-like system of sunshades. Having closely followed his career since going to the Menil for the first time while in college, it seems that the Italian has blessed Texas with his best work. It's certainly a bold statement, but it has much to do with particular aspects to which I think Mr. Piano excels that are coincidentally rare in most of his projects elsewhere. Upon examining the drawings and images of his latest plans for the Kimbell, it seems he is reinforcing those aspects further, endowing these projects with a timeless beauty, yet preventing him from doing likewise for other projects of differing scales and function.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Why Conservatism is So Counterintuitive and Ideologues are Lazy, Part 2

America may soon embark to do something few nations have ever done: reverse the inevitable statist march. Nations have overthrown Communist governments in heroic and history-making fashion. Think the Berlin wall coming down or the Ceauşescus running for their lives. When things get bad enough, governments either adapt, as China has, they fall of their own weight, or they are overthrown. But rarely is there pre-emptive change, to use a notorious word. Rarely does a nation catch sight of what is coming and do something to reverse course. That may be changing.

There are reasons no nation has done this. In essence, citizens get in the habit of delegating more responsibility to the state, and most states are all too happy to comply. The citizenry grows lazier and chooses to take less responsibility for itself. They lament the unpredictable nature of life - where will my healthcare come from? Is my retirement secure? - to the point where they are willing to trade more liberty for more security. There's also the inevitable class envy that propels "spreading the wealth around." Couple that with Frederich Hayek's prediction that the worst in society always seem to end up on top (because of their naked ambition) and you have a recipe for increased state intervention every time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Designing for the Apocalypse: why many architects love a crisis

As reports and revelations about the diminishing credibility of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) continue to unfold daily, there is no question that it has major implications. If the science behind AGW were beyond doubt, it would provide a powerful argument for greater government regulation and economic participation. It would empower a worldview geared against greater personal liberty and a rising standard of living. Accumulating wealth would depend more on subsidies and catering to a marketplace in which supply and demand are dictated by government policy rather than actual needs and wants of free people.

As professionals who try to address such needs and wants in all of its variety, architects are very much subject to AGW's affect on buildings, both in the way they are designed and engineered and in the way they respond to government mandates. In fact, architects are very much wedded to AGW, as it justifies their guiding design philosophy and helps structure their firms' core values. Many signature designers, including a few that I personally know, have put global warming at the the center of all that their work aims to be about--whether it be in the aggressive employment of green technologies in their buildings, to their promotion of a planning solution (e.g. smart growth) or building type that can be shown to be earth-friendly (e.g. skyscapers). The issue's inherent demand for greater control over the environment in the hands of an enlightened elite complements well with architects' own (and as yet, unrealized) ambitions of becoming the major shapers of the built environment. Idealistic architects ultimately want to transcend the rough-and-tumble, at times crass, reality of the free market, and if the global warming issue makes this possible they will quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What Americans Really Want in a President...and Televangelists

As Sarah Palin reemerges in preparation for her run at the presidency in 2012, she has shown herself to be wonderfully transparent. Contrasted to the cool and calculating President Obama who rarely speaks sans script, Mrs. Palin is good at speaking off the cuff and in a folksy manner. Too folksy, for many. In separate interviews, I was reminded why she will almost certainly not be a viable candidate in 2012. She's folksy to the point of sounding crude or ignorant at worst or as having poor political instincts at best. I'm willing to ignore some of her less impressive moments during the presidential run of 2008, as it was her first time in the national spotlight. One gets the impression the McCain campaign didn't exactly support her and the media was clearly in the Obama camp.

By now, though, she should know better. Two moments in particular have not impressed me. First was an interview on talk radio, in which she used the phrase "screwed up" at least three times. Presidents should not speak that way. Governors should not speak that way. I'm pretty sure I will not want my daughter speaking that way. A few weeks later, she used the phrase "B.S." True, she didn't say the word, and even Dick Cheney famously uttered a far more graphic word, on the Senate floor no less, not to mention Rahm Emmanuel's latest foray into course language. But there's a difference in a Vice President or even President using salty language and a candidate who needs to woo voters. Something about that just seems undignified.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Imagine": Theme Song for the Morally Vague

Part of the reason I have not been able to write in several months is because I have been in the process of moving to Houston. Getting settled involves getting acquainted with the city and all it has to offer. To those not from Houston, you may be surprised to learn that Houston has robust artistic offerings, ranging from early music, the symphony and opera, and scores of smaller music and dance companies that perform almost nightly all over the city. Perhaps I’ll write more on that in another post.

The focus for this post is on a song I heard performed at the Houston Boychoir Christmas concert, John Lennon’s Imagine. (The song also enjoyed a recent primetime cover on Fox’s Glee.) I don’t want to cast aspersions on the boychoir, which presented a fine concert. And lest I be accused of picking on young boys, this song was performed by alumni of the Boychoir who were all adults. Besides the fact that the song has nothing to do with Christmas, its selection was disheartening for several reasons. I’ll focus on one: while the song appears to be the ultimate musical offering of peace and goodwill, it is nothing more than a catalog of daydreams separated from reality.