The Dallas Morning News‘s architecture critic reviews the new $130 million facility that the venerable First Baptist Church — once known jokingly as the “Baptist Vatican” for its influence on the Southern Baptist Convention — has opened downtown. He calls the overall structure an example of “efficient and conscientious banality.” Excerpts:
The centerpiece sanctuary, identifiable from the street by its crown of pearlescent maroon steel, is a case in point. It is, effectively, an enormous television studio — it seats 3,000 — from which Jeffress can broadcast his weekly sermons, accompanied by a large chorus and a rock-infused orchestra. A bright, artificially illuminated room accented in marine blue, it makes no claims on the imagination. As visual drama, it pales in comparison to Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral, the limpid glass pavilion in suburban Los Angeles that is the Chartres of televangelism.
It is no accident that television, the secular religion to which we devote so many of our waking hours, assumes an outsize presence in the space of the church. The screen is the principal messaging system of First Baptist, and it is the defining feature of its sanctuary: a 150-foot-wide stadium-style video board wraps the full length of the proscenium. The operation of its computerized projection system requires 35 volunteers sequestered behind banks of monitors in a darkened control room that could easily double as a set for a sci-fi thriller.
Sunday services begin with a bit of technological wizardry emanating from that studio: a rousing video sequence indebted to the opening credits of TV’s Dallas. Backed by a propulsive score, an aerial camera swoops around the city’s gleaming skyline before homing in and zooming down on the new First Baptist, effectively establishing its presence within the urban fabric. “The goal is to welcome the city of Dallas to worship with us,” Grable said.
This is not my tradition, and I don’t relate to it in the slightest, but I don’t see that this renovation (or, if you prefer, wreckovation) is any different from what any other megachurch is doing these days. Tell me, though, is your reaction:
a) Whatever brings people closer to God is fine; the church has to speak to its time and place, and like it or not, this does;
b) Are you kidding? This vulgar razzle-dazzle is what Baptist worship has come to? What about the simplicity we were raised with?;
c) American Protestantism is making the shift from print culture — which gave rise to the Reformation — to a postmodern form of the visual culture that preceded the Reformation. It may look tasteless and banal compared to the aesthetic glories of historic European cathedrals, but this is the 21st-century Protestant version of the “smells and bells” that liturgical and sacramental Christians have always insisted on;
d) [Fill in the blank.]
The reviewer, Mark Framster, apparently lets his political commitments get the best of his aesthetic judgment in this unfortunate passage:
With its redesigned complex, First Baptist consciously insinuates its private space into the public space of the city, mirroring Jeffress’ evident mission to promote the role of faith in the public realm and collapse barriers between church and state.
This is achieved with the opening of a pedestrian channel that extends Patterson Street through the complex, connecting North Ervay with St. Paul. Anyone not paying strict attention might presume that this space belongs to the public. But in fact it is the privately policed property of the church, which subtly proselytizes all who pass through, confronting them with a massive granite fountain, conical in form, surmounted by a cross.
The fountain’s dancing waters are liable to accidentally baptize anyone near it when the wind blows.
Oh, come on. Is Framster really worried that some Baptist voodoo might get worked on pedestrians when they walk unawares through church property, and steal their souls? That’s princess-and-the-pea-level pettiness. But he’s right about this:
The Vegas-style score of hymns to which those waters are choreographed is audible from well beyond the church’s property lines. Whether one finds that music schlocky or inspiring is a matter of taste, but there is no reason it should be imposed on the public several blocks away, far beyond the church’s property.