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Christianity, its divisions, shades and shadows

July 20, 2017

It probably goes without saying here, but interest in a particular subset of Christian church architecture goes beyond fascination, well into the range of compulsion. And it may also be redundant to confess how odd this is, due to my own religiosity: coming from a Congregationalist background (thanks to my mother) and having a passing connection with Rome, I am currently among the unchurched — a significantly growing segment of the American population. Does that disqualify me? I often wonder.

During the Bush II administration it struck me as almost unbelievably obtuse that W’s pentagon had absolutely no understanding of the nuances of Islam. The fundamental differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims accounts for much of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, yet our military think tank — given their removal of Saddam Hussein and failure to grasp why we weren’t welcomed as heroes — failed to understand that fundamental reality. Islam is, indeed a complex and nuanced religion, as witnessed by this chart:

But this diagram is child’s play compared to the major, minor, and minuscule subdivisions of Christianity: If ye think it consists fundamentally of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, think again. One source puts the number at 30,000 distinct Christian groups, some of them with as few as one hundred believers.

I only mention this for two reasons: 1) it’s really very interesting, and 2) it faces me almost every time I encounter a community with five Lutheran churches in a half-mile radius or three Presbyterian facilities. Consider the community of Indiana, Pennsylvania (population 13,975 in 1910), which has two fine A-A churches within fifty feet of one another on the same city block. Count me confused.

Both of these churches are sophisticated examples of the Gothic Revival at the beginning of the 20th century. But other situations aren’t always so harmonious. I’ll enjoy delving into the reasons for two Presbyterian churches in Danville, Illinois, one an exceptional example of the Romanesque Revival (though not really Richardsonian) and the other a remarkable battlemented box with crenelations, towers and other Medieval rigmarole that would seem to have little direct connection with spirituality — unless you agree with Martin Luther that God is “a mighty fortress.”

The newer and smaller of the pair has become a community theatre space, a natural outgrowth of the turn-of-the-century’s preoccupation with acoustics. My personal preference may favor one, but both are historically interesting.


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