Sunday, September 11, 2005

"They're tryin' to wash us away..."

Church experts will tell you that small churches are so resilient that "you can't kill 'em with a stick." It's a comforting if not entirely lovely metaphor; and it's a complete lie.

Churches don't die when the doors close for the last time; when no one bothers to gather for the sermon on Sunday morning, or the Christmas carols in December, or bring a covered dish to the supper in the hall. Churches are more like some of the damned in Dante's Inferno, the ones he found suffering as shades there, even though Dante knew they were still alive. Churches are usually dead long before the doors have to close because the bills can't get paid, because simply not enough people care to attend, because it no longer seems "worth it."

I speak of Protestant churches, of course; those churches that are kept alive by the efforts of their members, not a judicatory or a denomination or the largesse of a bishop's purse. I speak of churches that must keep themselves alive on their own merits, which receive little or no real financial support from their hierarchies, and really only have a financial connection in being asked, annually, for more money for the important, "larger work," of the church. It is those churches which most easily come to resemble whited sepulchres, and fool even experts into thinking that they are immortal. It isn't until something cataclysmic happens, that the truth is revealed, and the church is shown to have died in spirit many years before it finally totters into its institutional grave.

Cities are like that. Cities don't die at all, or at least rarely. The "ghost towns" of the American West are almost an anomaly; but only in the speed with which they rise and fall. Troy; Athens; Rome; Cairo; the great capitals of the southern African continent, of Asia, of India: all have come and gone, had their place on the world stage and been replaced. Some have risen from ashes, like London after the Great Fire, or Chicago. Some have not, like Troy or Babylon. Some are the capitals of Ozymandias; some are ghosts of themselves, lingering seemingly forever. Munich was rebuilt after the war, and piled up the building rubble into mounds as a reminder of the scars of Nazism. But it is an almost entirely new city, as if something had plopped down out of the future in the midst of ancient, well-established, long-inhabited Europe. Cities don't die; but they never retain their grandeur.

Except in our memories; in our imaginations. That's where grandeur dwells, anyway; in our memories. Rome is a great city because we remember it as such; and Paris, which gave us so much of what we now consider modern culture, but the Paris we think of is the engineered Paris of Napoleon III, not the "organic" Paris of Hugo, or of history. The London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes is long gone, the Dublin of Joyce is being reshaped even as we sit. Grandeur is all a matter of our perceptions, and our perceptions are at least tw0-thirds longing, and one third desire. The grandeur of New Orleans was over long before Katrina hit. But the storm turned over the stone, to show us there was nothing underneath but a grinning skull, with little left of skin, or lips.

Perhaps that is too pessimistic an assessment, but it is hard to think so right now. The great flood of 1927 led to the diaspora of many African-Americans to Chicago and Detroit, and the South was not improved economically or culturally. The city may be rebuilt, but will the builders have even the vision of a Napoleon III, much less a Tennessee Williams? The city we all imagined was New Orleans was the French Quarter; and now we find out that was supported by a poverty and misery so terrible even those living in it didn't stop to take stock of how bad it was. Do we want to put that stone back down, and recover that? Do we really want to "save" the New Orleans we never knew, the city we have finally seen was the place of our brothers and sisters, was, indeed, our own "Third World" that we all willingly exploited, even as we condemned Nike for it's slave labor and oil companies for exploiting Nigeria and Pat Robertson for dealing with brutal dictators?

Churches that have died have only one chance for survival, and that is to embrace death, and seek resurrection. Few have the spiritual strength to do that. Determined to remain true to the culture of the church that brought them to the end of the path, resolved to insist that "we have always done it this way!," they stubbornly refuse to stop being who they are. New Orleans is a reflection of who we are, as a country, a people, a culture. Will we learn; or will we be stubborn? Will we seek resurrection? Or embrace death?

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