Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nothing says: "We really don't believe this stuff" better than...

...carving a gargoyle of "Darth Vader" on the side of your "cathedral."

by Larry Beane

If the ones who claim to be Christians don't take their sacred spaces and their faith seriously, why should anyone else? Is it any wonder our churches are emptying in the west?

Of course, the way the North American Lutherans communicate their own unbelief in the sacred and transcendent is to butcher the divine worship service of the church from the reverence of the historic sacramental liturgy and turn it into vapid entertainment with rock music, clowns, dancing girls, skits, and other nonsense. And I think such frivolity equally communicates unbelief as the "National Cathedral's" display above.

Can you just imagine the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier wearing a Darth Vader mask while he marches back and forth? Are we likely to find a Mosque being decorated with Obi Wan and Chewbacca among the minarets? How about the Holocaust Museum having "Use the Force, Luke" carved in Hebrew letters on a memorial plaque? You know, just for laughs.

Well, I know one fictional character who is laughing at us right now. C.S. Lewis called him "Screwtape." And his real counterpart is mocking us for making his job easier.


  1. Grotesques, of which gargoyles are one type, aren't meant to be serious statements of theology; they are artistic outgrowths of folk lore and practicality (the need to wick water away from stone). The use of Darth Vader is no less serious than that of any other fantastic creature or beast from legend, and is fitting as a means of de-empowering a modern symbol of evil. One might as well say, "nothing says we don't really believe this stuff like carving fantastic pagan-inspired images of green men on our churches..." Of course, a lot of protestants *do* say just that, and take it as another example of medieval Catholics falling away from the faith.

  2. You can read more about the humor in Gothic Grotesques here:

    If you click on the pictures at the left and you'll be taken to s series of images of medieval carvings. Many of them can't really be called serious, so I'm not sure your criticism stands, unless you think the silly images from centuries ago were also in poor taste.

  3. I find your lack of faith. . . disturbing. >=o)

    Of course, I'm not surprised by anything seen at the National Cathedral -- do we have a national bishop? If not, why a national Cathedral?

  4. I've got to go with Jody on this one. My first reaction was like Pastor Beane, that this was a frivolous putdown of sacred Christianity. But this Darth Vader (and the raccoon on the other side) were contest winners from kids to desigh a gargoyle (grotesque) for the Washington Cathedral. Artistic expression is the hallmark of grotesques, which do not need to channel water as a gargoyle. Examples abound. Personally I don't care for the Darth Vader choice, but hey, I don't like most art.

    Matt H.

  5. When they replace the cross on the steeple tops with Yoda, then it will be really troublesome.

  6. Being a lifelong DC resident (born and raised in the city, exiled for college and seminary, and now transplanted in the suburbs), I have to say the Cathedral has been one of my favorite buildings in the city (the National Shrine and Franciscan Monastery coming quite close behind...leave it to a Pastor to put religious buildings on the tops of his favorite list lol).

    A response to Eric...The official title of the Cathedral is "The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the Diocese and City of Washington". It's "unofficial" title is "Washington National Cathedral". The unofficial title is meant to be reflective of the Cathedral's "assumed" roles: 1) to be a "great church for national purposes", as was a part of L'Enfant's original plan for the city; 2) to be the seat of the Episcopal Bishop of Washington; and 3) to be the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA, though the Presiding Bishop's office is in New York. So, there is a "National Bishop" whose "chair" is in Washington.

    But, what this post has pointed out to me is something that I've wondered curiously about a few times. Fr. Hollywood's title of this post made me think back to the question I had in my mind as I looked at the cover of CPH's adult Bible studies on the Lutheran Confessions, where I saw on the cover the pictures which looked a whole lot like the West Front of Washington National Cathedral. Just seemed an interesting choice for a series on Lutheran Theology...but to many people, a picture of a church building may just be that. And being the passing thought that it was for me, maybe the thinking of many people may be right.

    Peter A. Schiebel

  7. Grand Moff Tarkin reports that ELCA is seeking altar and pulpit fellowship with the Church of the Jedi. With that done, "the last vestiges of the Old Republic [will] have been swept away."

  8. Obviously there is a lack of faith here. We believe in the supernatural, but do not like to think about Uncle Screwtape, maybe we should. Little things that seem to not mean a thing slowly erodes our faith, so slowly we do not notice it, until our religion is nothing but a politically correct country club where the members claim to be Christ Centered. And Satan get the last lauph.

  9. Dear Peter:

    The cathedral's website's "about us" section is illustrative: "The Cathedral is a spiritual resource for our nation: a great and beautiful edifice in the city of Washington, an indispensable ministry for people of all faiths and perspectives..."

  10. Dear Jody:

    Your point is well-taken, but only to a point. The medieval grotesques do represent distortion and a sense of ugliness that epitomizes the fallen world - even if the artists injected some humor. In the same way, we have a local abbey here in New Orleans whose iconography includes grotesque depictions of skeletons and devils in the frescoes. There is great artistic license at work, but a point is being made. And they are not without some humor in some cases.

    Gargoyles likewise (through their ugliness, or even as chimeras) show the degradation of creation.

    Darth Vader(tm), by contrast, is a fictional movie character, created by a Hollywood mogul, a trademarked corporate image which is in no way a "modern symbol of evil" to "de-empower." It's a plastic motorcycle helmet with a mask. It is not the stuff of children's nightmares.

    Darth Vader is a completely fictionalized character - albeit a character with a specific narrative and a moral lesson, one that many people have virtually memorized through their devotion to the story. This lines up precisely with the way skeptics treat Jesus, the Biblical narrative, and the Church. It would be interesting to ask the average person if this carving is likely to make you believe Jesus is real, or if He is rather a nice, but fantastical, character in a story with a moral.

    The cultural level of unbelief and syncretism was not a problem in the middle ages. Furthermore, the character Darth Vader is even rooted in Taoism, and was dreamed up by a secular Jew. The fact that he is also the father-figure of the savior in the story who abandoned good for evil, may also send a message about what the Church confesses about Jesus. At very least, it sends a frivolous message.

    The ECUSA are free to put anything they want on their churches. I'm commenting as an outsider. But I find that it goes beyond tacky to being downright mockery of Jesus and of sacred spaces. I also find it sad that this is the Church of St. Bede, St. Thomas Beckett, St. Julian of Norwich, Archbishop Cranmer, the Tractarians, and C.S. Lewis.

    I think it is a good thing not to take oneself seriously, but turning one's sacred space into a Gothic version of the Hard Rock Cafe or Grauman's Chinese Theater is a pretty trashy way to treat things we Christians around the world hold sacred.

    I wonder if the Wailing Wall will soon be sporting a Spider Man(tm) head, or if St. Peter's Basilica will be decked out with a statue of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, or if we'll soon be seeing Eastern Orthodox churches with icons of Batman, Robin, and the Riddler.

    Something tells me we won't.

  11. Larry,
    I have to agree with Jody, et al. Gargoyles, et al. are also fictional characters meant to represent what they do. I fear you are making a mountain out of molehill (if this is even a molehill; it could very well be a good representation of children's conception of the face of evil).

  12. Dear Bryce:

    I guess we'll have to disagree then. I would be ashamed if my congregation wanted to incorporate, say, SpongeBob or Optimus Prime into our church's architecture. And I hope not to live to see the day that Venom and Sandman are depicted on a chasuble. I suppose it isn't out of the question.

    And then we wonder why Islam is growing while Christianity is decreasing in the west. Maybe it's because the Muslims take their religion more seriously than we do.

    The religion of the western world is Entertainment. Hence, iconography depicting Darth Vader. Can Fitty Cent and Miley Cyrus statuary be far behind?

    You can keep the Darth Vader stuff on your churches, Bryce. We have enough problems of our own!

  13. Larry,

    Do you have gargoyles on your chasuble? >=o)

    Part of this discussion seems to be the role of what gargoyles are -- what do you think of having just straight mythical beasts upon the Church walls?

  14. What's concerning me here is the views of myth. Yes, Darth Vader is a fictional character in the 20th-21st century use of the term. He did not exist and has never existed. He was, as it was aptly put, the creation in the mind of a Hollywood mogal.

    Not so gargoyles to the medieval craftsmen. I'm not a student of medieval art, but I do know something about what they said about monsters. Monsters arise out of the natural order. The fact that we, from the vantage of the 21st century, find them fantastic does not mean that they were understood the way we understand Darth Vader. For men and women of the middle ages, monsters (and I'm guessing here that gargoyles were understood as a physical representation of monsters) deviated from the correct order of creation, and were indeed beyond human comprehension, but they were not unnatural.

  15. Dear Eric:

    Mythical beasts can indeed be used to convey the faith. Daniel and St. John do this in the Scriptures themselves. I am not opposed to such imagery. Like I said, the St. Joseph's Abbey is a good example of allegorizing death through iconic art. Grotesque figures can illustrate the ugliness of the Fall.

    Darth Vader is a comic book character. There is a vast difference.

    My objection is that using such transient pop-culture figures from the world of science fiction that are actually based on the false religions of Taoism and Entertainment are not helpful. We're sending a message that we think Christ is basically a comic book figure.

    In his book "Already Gone," Ken Ham crunches the numbers regarding the hemorrhage of young people from the churches in the west. His findings are interesting. According to the data, it makes no difference whether or not children participate in youth groups and Sunday School. In fact the kids that attend Sunday School in conservative evangelical churches tend to leave the church at the same rate.

    What Ham discovered is that the *way we teach* Sunday School is actually encouraging the departure of young people. We teach Bible "stories." We teach them almost as fairy tales. We depict Noah's Ark almost comically. We don't emphasize the historicity of the faith. And as soon as the world challenges the faith as a fairy tale, young people jettison the faith.

    If they stop believing in Santa in their youth, why not stop believing in Jesus in their youth?

    In other words, we don't take the faith seriously. That is a big part of the problem. And by the time the children are in *middle school*, not high school or college, (Ham argues), they are *already gone* (hence the title). We are not doing a good job of teaching the children that Christianity is true. It isn't just a morality tale or allegory. It isn't Star Wars without the light sabers. Rather, it is history. The Bible is reliable. Jesus is physically present.

    Having a beautiful Gothic cathedral decorated with a comic book character is an example of Christians doing the very opposite of what they should be doing to be "relevant with the youth." How is this any different than excusing "liturgical dancers" because David danced around the Ark, or giving the green light to rock bands in the churches because the Psalms speak of using various instruments? Darth Vader on the church is simply the high-church wing of the ECUSA's version of a praise band. It is an accommodation of, and a capitulation to, pop culture.

    The Christian faith is neither entertainment nor a science fiction tale.

    I hope this clears things up.


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