Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 6

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:

A quote:

It is possible that all architectures, everywhere, are tangent to one another. One leaves a building only to enter its neighbor. A continual entering and exiting. – “Eight Short Films About Architecture,” G.C. Waldrep

By now, it is a common present-day Christian thing to say, “the church isn’t a building; it’s the people.” Of course, they are right. Of course, they are wrong.

Obviously, the success of a community is based on those who commune, not the room in which they break bread and eat reduced fat Oreos. But, I can’t forget about the architecture, because it is everywhere, and in fact, we are human architecture, cartilage spread over bone like a brick wall, skin sealing us off from the possible pain of air. We are buildings, and we are a stack of closed doors trying to open.

So, yes, there are home churches, and churches that meet in cinemas, attics, subways, mountaintops, anywhere, really, but still, we bring with us the fears that have been nailed to the beams and steeples of the churches we grow up in/around, despite the fact that the bucolic white church is still just a product of architectural vogue.

The philosopher Michel Foucault discusses Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon–a structure (in his most common example, a prison) with a tower in the middle of a circle of high-rise chambers. In each chamber, the prisoner/occupant has no choice but to view the phallic tower, and has no way of knowing whether a prison official is inside watching her/him. This, as Foucault says, creates a non-violent means of control that encourages self-discipline.

The idea of something we can’t see watching us. Not a stretch for you and me.

When I first studied the idea of the panopticon, I had thought that Foucault was criticizing Bentham’s all-seeing eye, as it would surely make everyone crazy with the paranoia of who is/is not watching at any given moment. As I look back over it though, it seems he was suggesting it was a good idea, and that it could be used in schools and for mental patients–any mass of people that needs to be constantly controlled.

The architecture of power, then, is the architecture of fear. In “Eight Short Films…”, Waldrep says there is no word for the fear of architecture.

The idea of God in the Panopticon isn’t as scary as the thought of your leaders, pastors, reverends, elders, bishops, deacons, etc. camping inside the eyeball, watching us learn to be controlled. We cannot speak to you when you are behind the Pan-pulpit, and therefore your lessons become a power play. We are the unruly mob, and you are the one getting inside our head.

I want the architecture to change, and to expand, and I want you to get out of the panopticon and preach to an empty stage, so that you can know, like I do, a little bit about what it’s like to talk to yourself. Then, we can experience the blessing of leaving this building together and visiting a neighbor’s building, and another, and, hopefully, the visitation will never stop.

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper

About bp

I'm writing a book. It's called, Wake, Sleeper. My writing revolves around this idea of art: attempts to recover what is lost.
This entry was posted in Series: Letters to an Invisible Church, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 6

  1. Brian Wilkins says:

    The essay made me think of something that I’ve had trouble resolving. I think there’s a natural architecture to the mind or, at least, a way that our mind responds to architecture. Raised a good Baptist, I was well educated on the importance of church architecture designed to limit the power of the minister–no ornamentation, no raised dais (even though this has been changed in many Baptist churches out of a sane desire to see who is speaking, Communion is most often done from the ground level), and no fixed pulpit. The idea was that this would encourage all believers to question, prod, and be generally responsible for their own salvation.

    Great idea, if you’ve never seen a cathedral.

    When I entered Sacre Coeur in Paris, or Salisbury Cathedral, it was as if the roof of my head had been just lifted off. I could feel what I prefer to call the Holy Spirit coming in like rays of light. These moments remain significant experiences in my life. Everything was in its place.

    I think that’s what’s missing in the Baptist church. It’s an oddly authoritarian use of symbolism–THOU SHALT NOT LET THE PASTOR HAVE POWER, DAMMIT–that defeats it’s own purpose. Like most imposed forms, it pales beside the glory of an organic truth.

    So, uh, yeah. Less a comment than a rant.

  2. bp says:

    I’m glad for the less comment. I’ve sort of realized these posts don’t generate ‘discussion’ in the typical way–and even though this keeps the number of views down somewhat, I’m glad for the change in response tact because it yields, well, this.

    What I find fascinating is that when your brain-roof is peeled back and fed Spirit-Light it is the result of something gargantuan in its newness. France+cathedral=new perspective for American Baptist. And that is definitely the architecture I long for. So, how do we create an architecture that retains the depth of foreign-yet-familiar history, and the familiar-yet-foreignness of the every-week meetinghouse?

    • Brian Wilkins says:

      It’s an interesting point to locate it in the new. I would locate the experience more in the Sacred–though it’s interesting that many of the circumstances in which I’ve felt the thrill of the sacred have also resulted from something new. It’s too involved an idea to tease out in this space, but I would love to think more about that Venn diagram overlap.

      I think that you can create a sense of the sacred within the familiar, if there is mindfulness–if there is the proper attention applied. Certain structures encourage the mental state where mindfulness can be applied, but that can happen through the architecture of ritual as well as the physical building.

      Ugh. I think I’m about to go on about staging.

      So First Parish in Dover had an Easter Vigil, involving a meeting in the “tomb”, which was simply the church basement decked out for the service with an altar and some candles. It never really stopped being a church basement (which may be the most mundane place on earth except for a nursing home) but the lack of light and the candles combined to allow a space for the imagination. I think that’s all that’s truly required. The Catholic Eucharist, for all of it’s voodoo fingered hocus pocus (yes, I know I’m using a linguistic callback), provides a space to engage the imagination. If you are focused on the manifestation of Christ in your body, something will change in you.

      In most protestant churches, we’ve annihilated the chance for the imagination to join in the dance. That can be helped though, with a little stage management and props–to help the willing suspension of disbelief, to quote a little Coleridge. If we go to play, then maybe something will come from it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s