Sunday, March 30, 2008

The world we inhabit

Two books, reviewed by David Taylor at Books & Culture, consider the physical nature of both the "good city" and church architecture that "gives emphasis to the presence of God in the people gathered." Excerpts:

In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Bess presents a four-part case for good urbanism or, as I might call it, a good experience of a good city. The four parts can be summarized as cities and human flourishing; cities and the sacred; cities and New Urbanism; and finally critical essays on the topic. While lacking a single-threaded argument, the book nevertheless holds together thematically, and the message repeated throughout goes like this: The best life for human beings is the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others, the chief community of which is the city. The good city is the city with good urban design. Which is what? Very simply, it is a city full of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, the vision articulated by advocates of the New Urbanism, or "traditional urbanism," as Bess calls it.

Designs for a good urban experience, Bess explains, would take into consideration the ecological, economic, moral, and formal well-being of a neighborhood. Whether on the outskirts of a city or in the urban core, each neighborhood would enjoy "a walkable and mixed-use human environment wherein many if not most of the necessities and activities of daily human life are within a five- to ten-minute walk for persons of all ages and economic classes." Such neighborhoods would embody the best social and aesthetic features of historic urban life, and to bring this vision to fruition would be to occasion human flourishing. Good urban planning is good theology.

The enemy to this vision is Suburban Sprawl. [...]

Suburban sprawl, Bess contends, dissociates daily communal life from physical place. It is environmentally unsustainable and unjust; it makes people slaves to their cars. Usually it is also ugly; useful and mostly durable, yes, but architecturally unbearably dull. ....
And on church architecture he reviews Mark Torgerson's An Architecture of Immanence.:
.... Torgerson asserts: our "built realities can both shape theological understanding and unleash or restrict practice and ministry." No architecture—no building, no design—is ever neutral. And that style of church architecture which Hope Chapel [note: Taylor's church] shares with most of Western culture in the 20th century he calls "immanent." An immanent style is that which gives emphasis to the presence of God in the people gathered.

A simple way to tell the difference between immanent architecture and its opposite, transcendent architecture, is this: one is a House of the People God, the other is a House of God. In the one we give emphasis to the nearness of God, in the other to the transcendent holiness of God. Here is the house church, there is the Gothic cathedral. The history of church design then is a history of swaying back and forth between one and the other. The 20th century for its part represents a striking turn towards immanence.
I very much agree that the physical setting for worship is not neutral, but I disagree that the direction of church architecture toward "immanence" in the 20th century was positive. I'm inclined to think that the pendulum has swung much too far in the direction of the people and away from God Himself. To paraphrase Chesterton, those who worship the "presence of God in the people" may - and often do - end up worshipping themselves.

The Good City - Books & Culture

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