Forgetting Hologram Jesus

23 11 2008


The temple, in its highest manifestation, was seen as constituting a microcosm, an image of the entire universe, and was laid out accordingly. The temple was seen as an organism, possessing a body and a living spirit. The spirit was attracted through the temple’s underlying geometry and proportions, and gematria, thus reflecting the harmony of the universe and those principles which underlie the genesis of life. Based on the idea of “like attracts like”, the temples of antiquity, like the Gothic cathedrals of medieval times, were designed to reflect, and hence enshrine, the living spirit of harmony which underlies the universe.

-David Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism

Added on to activities that I cannot drag my significant other to is the trip I have wanted to take to our new cathedral here in the Diocese of Oakland. I had seen it from the outside and was less that impressed with its circular, extremely modernistic look. (I think the best compliment I could come up with was “at least it goes with the rest of the buildings around it”, which I don’t think is much of a compliment considering the look of modern cities.) The idea of a new cathedral for our East Bay diocese has been kicking around since 1999, and when I first saw the initial design, all I could think was, “Oh no! Not this sh*t again!”. In spite of not liking it from the outside, and cringing at the photographs of what it looked like on the inside, I was prepared to give our new cathedral a fair shake. After all, the new church in my hometown was pretty, even if it barely looks like a church. The Cathedral of St. Mary’s across the Bay is impressive with a nice view of San Francisco City Hall, even though it is definitely not my style of church either. Unfortunately, my already shaky faith in the fate of the Church in this country was nevertheless shaken further by the extremely tacky, dated, and museum-like look of the new cathedral of our home diocese. A monument to 21st century civilization, millenial optimism, and petit-bourgeois good taste it may be, but a church it is not.

Apparently, the price tag of our new communal “worship space” was about 190 million dollars, a lot of which was spent for earthquake-proofing the building. For that price, I think you could re-build the Vatican three times over in a Third World country. Does it look like money well spent? No. Why does every modern structure have to resemble a shopping mall. Maybe there is still additional work to do, but you come up on the place from the side facing Lake Merritt, and you don’t feel like you are coming into a sacred space. Just a lot of concrete and asphalt. Natural, toned-down colors seem to be the main theme of this cathedral, but more on that later. This could be the Social Security administration office, the DMV, or just some conference center that we come to for a human resources meeting. Wait, what is that funny round building on the right? On the floor on a semi-circle before it is a verse from the Bible, written into the ground in Times Roman font (God I supposed wrote the Bible in Microsoft Word.) Hey, this must be a church? Why don’t we go in? Wait, haven’t I seen that door latch design before when my girlfriend dragged my barrio-kid-sorry-self to a Williams-Sonoma once. I have a bad feeling about this.

Upon entering, I notice the giant bird bath that passes for the holy water font nowadays. What’s up with that? Flowing water: it pretty, primeval, it gives us a sense of being in… okay, I don’t buy that either. But when I finally raised my eyes to the heights, I finally encountered him. Not some religious experience, mind you. More like an awkward meeting of a friend of a friend on the BART train. “Why, it’s hologram Jesus! I have heard so much about you. So, my friend told me that you would look so…. shiny?” Well, there he is up there, a medieval image projected and deconstructed to be the new central icon of Christ in the East Bay for the next thousand years. See, it was stone in the original, and now they have taken thousands of mirrors and other do-hickeys and made a Jesus made entirely out of light. Pretty freakin’ clever, huh? Ya get it? Who could not like a hundred foot Jesus made out of the rays of the sun? And it’s a traditional image to boot, so we can all feel good about it.

I didn’t.

My eyes then turned to other parts of the cathedral and my thoughts were just a whole lot of “what were they thinking?” The roof was made out of wood and space-age looking panels that created a partial barrier. This let the light come through the glass and metal structure that one sees from the outside. High roofs and lots of light, hence, “Christ the Light”. You following me so far? If you were a bored Catholic kid like me in a small town with nothing to do on a Sunday morning, think about the evangelist program from the Crystal Cathedral in LA. Apparently, this is its Catholic acculturation. On the sides of the wall were the twelve crosses that represent the apostles, complete with the Apostles’ names written on a plaque. Okay, I have definitely seen those candle sticks in front of the plaques at Williams-Sonoma. The concrete work had the “parking garage chic” going for it just like Our Lady of the Angels’ Cathedral in Los Angeles (the whole “we have so much money we can make our churches look like crap” color pallet). The woodwork was all done in intertwined slim, rectanglar blocks that looked like a child’s Legos set or seemed like it was some seventh grader’s final project for wood shop.

The pews were comfortable, though.

Then, there were the side “chapels”. I put “chapel” in quotes since I don’t know if you could call a place where you stand around and look at pictures a chapel. Added to this, there were no kneelers or side altars to speak of, so what else is one expected to do? And that is what people were doing: they were sort of side museums devoted to the past. See, here is a corpus of a Baroque crucifix. See, here is a Chinese-looking structure with the relics of Vietnamese martyrs. Here is the “chapel” to the Holy Family, with a bunch of really old paintings. There were even these funny-looking wooden stools that you could sit on to, um, pray… I guess. And in one there was an avant-garde stand where you could light your candles. At least, I think that is what it was for.

The altar and bishop’s throne were something out of the Flintstones cartoons, and I won’t comment too much about them. It was on an elevated stone structure, which felt a little like a Catholic “acculturaltion” of the stage of the evangelical megachurch. The only real images visible are the crucifix and the larger-than-life hologram Jesus. I decided to hunker down in the comfortable pew and pray my rosary. I got to about the first decade, and I thought to myself, “I can’t pray here”. I turned around and saw all sorts of people in the back of the church with their fancy, thousand dollar cameras getting those valuable photos of hologram Jesus. See how cool looking he is! It’s just like Disneyland. I get a bit of spiritual and emotional claustrophobia, so I take my rosary and I go into the crypt.

“Well,” I thought, “the mausoleum was the best part of your tour of Our Lady of the Angel’s Cathedral in LA. Maybe it will be nice here too.” There, of course, they had all of the stain glass windows from the old cathedrals they had torn down, along with the side altars and other old church paraphernalia. It also helped that I was still a monk and had a chance to scowl at Cardinal Mahoney from three feet away in full monastic habit. He definitely noticed. Nothing like mean-mugging an archbishop to make your day. This time around the crypt made me more profoundly sad. Tradition had been relegated to side “chapel” museums and to the basement of churches. “That’s how we used to be like, but it’s not how we do things anymore. Things are different now. But we’re still the same.”

When I go into these places, it makes me feel that here on the ground in California, these churches want to be the civic gathering places of the new multicultural, plural society. God forbid we actually have things that remind us that we are Catholic or that would scandalize even the modern person in the pew with ghosts of our muddled and backwards past. Give us a stone table, a plain crucifix, and the ever-lovable hologram Jesus, and the Baptist, the atheist, and the modern Catholic will all feel equally at home. The past is nice, but it is buried. At best, we have side “chapels” to remind us of our “Catholic heritage”, just as the Latino suburban business professional brings his white-washed kids to the local “fiesta” to remind them of the “barrio roots” that are now a dead letter to them.

I forced myself to finish my rosary in my comfortable pew and took one more lap around the place, and, no, it did not feel like a church to me. No one was praying, and I can’t imagine anyone could pray here. They had taken the money to build a church for the ages and built a church for our age: unimaginative, undecorated, and souless. Could a child’s imagination be captivated by the parlor trick of hologram Jesus? Does that stone table inspire any sort of real reverence? Can one look up in this church and feel one’s own smallness at the grandeur of God? Can you be Catholic in this church? I will speak for myself, and only myself, and I give a resounding “no”.

I then proceeded to the gift shop, and there I found again all of the typical trinkets of the past to be found at any Catholic store. I bought some holy cards and looked at all the fine devotional art. Good enough to sell, not good enough to display in the church in any meaningful way. I bought about four holy cards and went on my merry way.

In the end, I needed to aesthetically vent a bit, and my favorite place to do that nowadays is the Hare Krishna temple here in Berkeley. While I know what goes on there is obscene idolatry and veiled devil worship, at least it looks pretty. In a world of rampant informality and efficient looking meeting spaces, seeing someone prostrate herself to an idol can almost be edifying. At least she believes in something, I thought. I sat in the back of the temple, looking around. I guess I would do the same with any of the older Catholic churches in the area if they weren’t as ugly as our cathedral or closed during the day. They at least remember what we had long ago forgotten.

I suppose I would best summarize what has been forgotten with the Fideler quote with which I opened this essay. The church and its symbolism mean something, they mean something profound. The church building is a theophany in a mundane world. The Hare Krishna temple is a false theophany, but it at least intends to be one. It is also very like the design of our own ancient temples, with various scenes of Hindu cosmogony portrayed in colorful and sometimes terrifying reliefs. It also reminds one of the ancient Christian churches that have at the very least influenced church architecture until very recently. There is a narthex, a nave, and a sanctuary, each representing the the levels of initiation into God and the levels of the created cosmos. There also are shown all of the various hierarchies of heaven and earth, the sacred march of the divine through human history, and the majesty of God reflected in visible form. The church building is not just some nice “worship space” where we all get together as the People of God to read the Word and break bread. It is a revelation of the underlying principles of reality, both sacred and profane.

But there is something else to the Fideler quote that stems from the principle of “like attracts like”. At the consecration of a church, we ask God to come into the church building and dwell in it. In a way, the church itself becomes the Body of Christ, the visible icon of something that will only be realized in the eschaton. To do this, however, it must in some way represent the nature of God even in the most analogous way. Like, in this sense, must draw down like. That is why consecrated churches in the West had to be made of stone (“and the rock was Christ”), have twelve crosses representing the twelve Apostles, have an altar with five crosses representing the five wounds of Christ, and so on and so forth. The material does not contain the divine because we conjure it into it, it contains the divine because it resembles it and the divine can come and dwell in it. To make an architectural monstrosity, disconnected from any idea of tradition, and then call it a church is borderline sacrilege. We can ask, if like does indeed draw like, what is being drawn into the building of Christ the Light Cathedral? Hologram Jesus? Sorry, I don’t believe in him.

All of this is enough to throw me back into the arms of the SSPX, if I didn’t already know that traditionalism and burying your head in the pre-Vatican II sand are not going to help. I am beginning to learn that the real Christian response to these types of problems is neither the polyannish live and let live attitude of thinking it’s all going to be alright (because it probably won’t) nor to break off into separatist Amish-style Catholicism. Catholics have been enduring the insensitivity and bad decisions of the hierarchy for millenia. So why should this be any different? I have come to the conclusion that I really don’t care if the Church starts building churches in bowling alleys and ordaining Cabbage Patch dolls as priests. I am going to do it right, come hell or high water. If they want to blow 190 million dollars on hologram Jesus, I just won’t go in there anymore, and that’s that.

Instead, I went home and began to reorganize my home altar. I taped up my new prayer cards of Sts. Barbara, Mary Magdalen, Jude, and others I had lying around. I am thinking I might start gradually buying all of the statues of saints no longer found in Catholic churches: St. Lazarus, St. Expeditus, St. Philomena, etc. It’s the least I can do. I also refuse to let it ruin my life. They may make tradition obsolete in their cathedrals. But if they want my Green Scapular, they’re going have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. And I will continue to say “no” to Hologram Jesus.



10 responses

19 04 2012
The age of hip hop | The rose in the cross

[…] am also reminded of Hologram Jesus of the Oakland cathedral. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in […]

1 12 2008

I rather disagree about the Christus. It IS impressive.

Nothing else is though from the “chapel” with the Koran and the “confessionals” where anyone could hear or come upon a priest and penitent.

It is sad.

28 11 2008
Lord Peter

At first, I thought this thing was just Crystal Cathedral with a hippie Jesus hologram (what is the implied christological message there>). Then I realized Jesus has his thumb extended, so he is actually giving a blessing, not flashing the “peace” sign.

The upside of this folly is that, should the Oakland Diocese ever fold, the building could easily be sold to the local chapter of the Jedi Knights or Vulcan spiritualism practitioners.

27 11 2008
Julio Gurrea

Pope Suburban,

It’s actually “Dr. Manhattan” not “Dr. Jupiter”. And if I am going to have to see a comic book character portrayed in front of a church, it should be someone awesome like Rorschach (so much more awe-inspiring than Hologram Jesus).

-Subdeacon Julio

25 11 2008

There are five reasons I didn’t want to see this ugliness:

1. It looks like a beehive from the inside, and I don’t like bee associations.
2. The color and style of the wood looks exactly like that of the crappiest furniture in the world: Ikea, lightly stained.
3. The emphasis on natural lighting reminds me of house-hunting with my parents, where “lots of natural-lighting” gets touted by the real estate agent as making a house particularly attractive. If I wanted natural lighting, I would be a hunter-gatherer. God made electricity and power plants for a reason, after all.
4. The human eye can see in color. Monochromatic palette isn’t a selling point.
5. It looks like the downtown business center of the University of Chicago, perhaps because both are SOM designs? SOM is also the firm that designed many beautiful buildings in downtown Chicago and its (ugly) Trump Tower; there must be an almost perverse obsession with highly reflective glass and shiny metal among those architects. Then I guess they went to Ikea to get inspiration to add more “organic” elements to the cathedral in the form of over-use of wood.

Hologram Jesus, which with those patterns looks to be wearing a Masonic pyramid around his head, was just the nail in the coffin.

I like some modern architecture: Mies van der Rohe, Calatrava more recently. But not that 50s-70s concrete block obsession. Or the more modern use of heavy concrete blocks, most commonly encountered now in new university buildings and county courthouses, that I term new Soviet realist. I wouldn’t mind the outside design of this cathedral – as an office building. Basically, it screams “hey, this isn’t a worship space, this is corporate America with Ikea touches and lots of natural lighting! Doesn’t that make you feel more welcome here?” Not with freaky huge Jesus with triangular patterns all over his body straight out of Taymor’s production of “The Magic Flute.”

25 11 2008
Pope Suburban I

This giant, floating, glowing, light blue Jesus is disturbingly reminiscent of Dr. Jupiter, the radioactive, blue-skinned, nearly omnipotent post-human created by a nuclear accident as portrayed in the graphic novel The Watchmen.

25 11 2008
Ben George

I don’t think it’s just the hierarchy, my parish priest remodeled the depressing square-slab-style sanctuary into something much more traditional. I liked it but we actually lost a few families from the parish, they hated the fact that the priest had taken something “simple” and actually spent money on beautifying the church.

25 11 2008
Matt K

Move to Chicago! Almost every church in my Archdiocese is awesome and at least a century old, including our cathedral….

…OK, so maybe Holy Name isn’t that great, but at least it’s an old and traditional kind of bad 🙂

25 11 2008
random Orthodox chick

It’s the same with universities. I agree with my godmother: they make everything into ugly boxes and call it “modern art”.

24 11 2008

If it makes you feel any better, bad architecture isn’t just a Catholic phenomenon; it’s everyone. If you look at the older houses of worship in any major city, they all tend to look pretty nice. Once the Bauhaus influence started creeping in during the 1930s and 40s, things started going downhill. For example, I was surprised to find out this summer how much the architecture of early 20th century synagogues resembled that of churches. One synagogue used by Russian Jews looked exactly like an Orthodox church, down to the onion domes, while another used by German Jews looked like a Gothic cathedral. However, upon picking up a old copy of “The Southern Israelite,” a now defunct Southern Jewish paper, I saw an article with the ominous title of “New Synagogue Designs for 1948!” The accompanying photographs revealed the now depressingly familiar array of religious buildings that look like plane hangars, missile silos, factories, and other abominations.

The question I have is whether bad architecture bothers Protestants and Jews the way it does Catholics. Probably not, given the absence of a sacramental theology. For Protestants, church buildings seem to just be a means to an end, so it doesn’t matter if they look like St. Paul’s cathedral or a Wal-Mart. Given the popularity of these strange architectural styles among architects, I wonder if our churches look this way because the hierarchy likes buildings that look like Epcot center or because there aren’t that many architects doing traditional architecture. Or maybe it’s a combination of both.

“Forgetting Hologram Jesus” also would make a great bumper sticker.

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