Wednesday, June 02, 2021

strolling through the crystal

On my last day in Anaheim, I took a quick five-mile walk to the nearest supermarket, Von's in Garden Grove.

I needed something for dinner and to fill my in-flight lunch bag with airplane treats (a lemon Greek salad, watermelon, and Thai pickles for that particular flight).

I was about five blocks from Von's when I noticed a familiar sight. On Saturday, my friend Victor picked me up at my hotel to go to dinner with him and his wife. That was extremely generous of them to share time with me when they were still preparing for the wedding on Sunday.

As we drove to their house, we passed what I thought was the Crystal Cathedral. Or that is how I knew it. The sign in front announced it was "Christ Cathedral." It turns out both names are correct. Sequentially.

When it was completed in 1981, one of the most popular ministers of the Reformed Church in America, Robert H. Schuller, was in the pulpit. It was hard to miss his presence on television during the 1980s.

And the Crystal Cathedral, as it was nicknamed, was featured in numerous architectural magazines. I found the sanctuary itself to be a bit cold. It could almost qualify as brutalism, but with glass instead of concrete.

But I have always been intrigued by the Prayer Spire -- that large icicle that could substitute for a European bell spire. There is something almost Gaudi about it that gives it a touch more humanity than the sanctuary building.

Matters did not go well for the cathedral. At least, financially. Bills piled up until the church was forced into bankruptcy in 2010. And that is when the name change occured.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange purchased the campus in 2011, making it the see for the diocese. Thus, the formal (and proper) use of "cathedral." Christ Cathedral, in this case.

I mention that the diocese purchased the "campus" because the property is vast -- as you can see in the above diagram. One aspect of the campus that fascinated me was the sculptures scattered amongst the buildings.

Some of the world's best art is religious. But you will not find anything on the campus to rival Michelangelo's Pieta or Donatello's Mary Magdalene. The work here is restrained. Far more Dutch Reformed than Catholic. And somewhat pedestrian.

No one could miss this moment from Exodus. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, written by God, in his hands -- only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf that had been sculpted by his brother Aaron, the Billy Carter of this little scenario. Moses rages in anger.

The problem for me is that he looks more like a wild-eyed homeless man who has been hired to hold up signs in front of a new chicken fast-food eatery. The enraged prophet gets lost in the sculptor's execution.

Or how about this one. Jesus' disciples are caught in a storm and they see their rabbi walking across the stormy waters of the lake.

This one is tricky. I forget who said it, but it is true nonetheless, that "Christ portrayed is Christ profaned." And that is certainly true here because the sculptor has turned a miracle into a man hailing a cab during a rainy day in Beirut.

Those two examples are merely amusing -- at least, to me. But my third example is far more serious.

One of my favorite stories in the gospel of John (even though it was probably liftted from another source, most likely the gospel of Luke) is the woman taken in adultery. A crowd of men bring a women to Jesus and ask what should be done to her because of her sin. This sculpture captures the moment. The semi-clad woman is on the right. Jesus is kneeling and writing in the dirt. The accusers are on the left.

As a piece of art, it is stiff. However, it does capture a specific moment as related in the gospel.

But there is something very dark about the piece. The three men accusing the woman are given faces that have graced the pages of anti-Semitic pamphlets for centuries. It is short-hand art to remind us that the people accusing the woman are Jews -- complete with hooked-noses and scowling faces.

And they were Jewish. In fact, every figure in the grouping is Jewish. The three men. The woman. And, of course, Jesus. Maybe that is all the artist meant to say. But, he didn't.

Here is how the sculptor saw Jesus.

No hooked-nose. In fact, Jesus' aquiline nose looks as if he might be a seventeenth European monarch. Charles I, Louis XIV, or Philip III. But he certainly does not appear to bear the same blood libel as the other men in this tableau.

What do we do with these pieces of art that cause us to be uneasy?

The first thing we do is to realize that one of the primary purposes of art is to make us feel uncomfortable -- to see the world with all of its warts. To destroy the piece or hide it would not do justice to the art it embodies.

And we can then talk with one another About how we do not always live out our ideals as we would like. That we are all sinners falling short. We are just like the people who went before us. But we still strive to be better each day.

Personally, I think this particular sculpture would be improved by placing a sign near the piece that included some thoughtful questions about the symbols the artist relied upon. Such as, could the artist have conveyed the moral hypocrisy of the accusers without relying upon hurtful stereotypes? Who are we in this sculpture? Can you honestly ask to be forgiven for what you have done wrong as you have forgiven those who have wronged you? That sort of thing.

Maybe we can actually learn from each other by having those discussions. Without rancor.

Come to think of it, like Jesus writing in the dust and biding his time.   

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