Pew Americana

American Sanctuary; Understanding Sacred Spaces

by Louis P. Nelson
2006 Indiana University Press, 296 pages, 24.95
Purchase this book

This series of essays, edited by Louis Nelson, examines how people have interpreted the idea of the sacred in American history. Gretchen Buggeln’s fascinating contribution on New England congregational churches looks at an evolution in architecture and the way it is described by pastors and others. She argues that the idea of the meetinghouse as an ordinary multipurpose space gives way to an understanding of the church as a sacred place, set apart for worship, only after the Revolutionary war. There are also essays on the subtle religious component of the design of Central Park and the boundaries created in New York city by Jews called the eruv. The essay on Catholic architecture by Paula Kane is disappointingly weak and relies in part on the unstudied belief that Vatican II mandated modern structures. She looks at the closing of ethnic churches in Pittsburgh, a banal suburban church in Northern Virginia, and the Los Angeles cathedral, for which she indicates that the figurative tapestries of saints and baptism on the walls compromise the otherwise signature design. She can find nothing positive to say about the “creeping traditionalism” in art and architecture by the laity or younger clergy, who surprisingly take their cues from the Vatican. The essay by Louis Nelson on Anglican churches in South Carolina has interesting insights on the importance of regularity and the beauty of holiness. Jeanne Halgren Kilde’s essay on megachurches makes the point that the “seeker church” model, its commercial feel, the entertainment model, and anonymity is nothing new, but was promoted by Protestants in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.