Besides eating turkey and watching football today, many Americans will participate in an alternate activity: attending Thanksgiving services at church.
The nation’s collective psyche was shaped by its early churches, writes cultural historian Judith Dupre of Mamaroneck, N.Y. America’s newest churches, some now under construction, reflect the current zeitgeist: a yearning for community and tradition at the same time.
In her new book, “Churches,” Miss Dupre portrays 59 edifices from around the world, all on full-color plates with floor plans and interior and exterior views. Her choices for this country’s houses of worship reflect psychological states ranging from the tall granite towers of the Salt Lake City Temple, spiritual home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the black-paneled Rothko chapel in Houston, whose creator, Mark Rothko, committed suicide before its completion.
Most telling of America’s core values, she wrote, is the Old Ship Meeting House, a venerable Unitarian building in Hingham, Mass. Formerly a Puritan church built in the 17th century, its basic, simple style reflects the indomitable spirit that settled this country and the way Americans perceive themselves as plain, hardworking folk.
Both business and worship were conducted in such meetinghouses, which were stark alternatives to Baroque European churches, from which Americans had fled. God’s word, not stained glass or sculpted images, was their way of communicating with God.
The 18th century saw the construction of additional plain buildings, such as the Meetinghouse at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, built by the Shakers. This Protestant sect, whose community at Sabbathday Lake was founded in 1783, shaped the future of American design as beautiful and utilitarian. Their clean-limbed chairs, chests, built-in cupboards and oval boxes exuded clarity, forthrightness and efficiency, all hallmarks of American design.
Sometimes functionality won out over beauty. Churches were springing up all over the American landscape by the 19th century. One of those was the Great Auditorium, a huge, clunky Methodist chapel in Ocean Grove, N.J., a beachfront town 60 miles from Manhattan. These were places where worship and play combined in the pursuit of holiness. Gatherings were known as camp meetings, which were open-air religious gatherings where participants camped for weeks in tents pitched around a central worship area.
One of the author’s choices for a typical 20th-century American church is the Crystal Cathedral, a 21-year-old venue in Garden Grove, Calif. It is a super studio for televised Christian worship, she says, and the typical Latin cross plan of the traditional cathedral was inverted to bring the worshippers closer to the stage. There is no altar. The church has become one of many service providers: State-of-the-art entertainment, full-service outreach programs and celebrity guests.
Newer churches avoid such sensory overload, she says.
“They’re more abstract, more minimal in their use of materials,” she says. “This is an audience overwhelmed with information. They do not want any more input. This is a contemplative group. So architects are trying to create a container for transcendent exchange between the individual and God.”
Many images jettisoned after the transformative Vatican II, the 1960s-era Catholic church council that ushered modernity into that denomination, are returning, she says. Votive candles, saints’ images and stained glass are sought by a younger generation tired of technology. Despite this rush toward sanctuaries geared toward intuition and silence, the author does not envision great architecture nor art for the nation’s churches.
True art, she explains, is sometimes incendiary, and few church administrators are willing to commission artists whose work inflames instead of soothes.
“The great artists are not being called to be in service of the church like they once were,” she says. “Giotto, Gaddi, those artists who introduced the Renaissance into the church; those were the most forward-thinking artists of their time.”