Of Revelation, Concealment, and Faustian Bargains

Crossroads United Methodist, corner of Central/Northern

Crossroads United Methodist, corner of Central/Northern

The devil is many things, one of which is a successful electrical engineer.  Not for nothing is he called Lucifer, bringer of light.
 
— Marshall McLuhan

There’s a scene in the “Star Trek” reboot film Into Darkness in which Captain Kirk has released genetically-engineered super-villain Khan from the brig in order to help sneak onto a starship commanded by the rogue Admiral Marcus. Kirk and the Enterprise are being threatened by Marcus’s vessel, and Khan has a vendetta against the admiral, so it seems to be a sensible enemy-of-my-enemy arrangement, with Kirk in command. But once they are aboard Marcus’s ship and fighting through security, Khan’s superhuman strength and skills take over, and Captain Kirk becomes little more than a tag-along, struggling to keep up. An incredulous Scotty, shocked that the dangerous villain has been let out of his cell, asks “Why is he helping us?” As Khan dispatches opponents three and four at a time, an honest Kirk answers, “Actually, I think we’re helping him.”

This is of course the outcome of every deal with the devil. Bargain for the assistance of a superior power that has unshakeable interests of his own, and you will soon find yourself enlisted in his service, not him in yours. This is the essence of Judas Iscariot’s agreement with the Sanhedrin, of Doctor Faustus’ bargain with Mephistopheles for wealth and power. Countless small nations and petty tyrants have thus put themselves at the disposal of imperial superpowers, exchanging short-term gains for lasting bondage. This is the fate of the little greengrocer kissing Don Corleone’s ring and asking for a favor; this is what happens when a struggling small college makes a sponsorship deal with a pharmaceutical giant or some other corporate partner: you get funding for new research or for your new jumbotron scoreboard, but now your labs have become a Merck subsidiary pursuing the company’s projects, and your modest arena dedicated to amateur athletics has become yet another billboard in the service of the global Nike brand.  

Actually, I think we’re helping HIM. I thought of this recently when I drove past a large and prosperous-looking Christian church on 7th Avenue and discovered, when looking at it from behind, that its steeple was in fact a shell concealing a cellular communications tower.  

This is far from the only one of its kind that I have seen. I watched such a thing be constructed at a Methodist church along my daily commute last year: first, the data tower was built, ugly but honest in its utilitarian matrix of cables and steel, its base ringed round with orange plastic safety fencing and yellow “WARNING: HIGH VOLTAGE” signs. Then, the façade went up around it, wrapping the truth of the structure in ecclesially-themed stucco, with the trademark Methodist flame-cross logo near the top. If you had been a member of this congregation some years ago and you came back now to visit, you could be forgiven for thinking that the tall new structure, towering above the rest of the church, was expressive of a fervent new love for Christ, an evangelical zeal to lift high the cross above the treetops and the rooftops, a beacon of hope and truth in dark times. It is of course nothing of the sort, being instead expressive of a love, possibly fervent, for monthly checks from a cell phone carrier zealous to exploit a construction height loophole in a residential neighborhood.

I understand the need for church congregations which are in demographic free-fall to find new revenue streams to supplant dwindling membership and offerings. A liberal old-line protestant congregation like the UMC that professes run-of-the-mill social progressivism sprinkled with Christian symbols has got to do something to pay for the large building that it needed 40 years ago and for the skeleton staff and the ladypastor currently running the place. One has to pay the bills: and if one owns a large parcel of land in central Phoenix that is already zoned residential, then amputating a piece of it and selling it to a home developer would be a sensible way to come up with some cash; a tenant or two can make a large difference—perhaps a private preschool, a charter school, or a small religious group in need of a worship space could add monthly rent to the cash flow.

First United Methodist, corner of Central/Missouri: Palm tree hiding steeple hiding cell tower

First United Methodist, corner of Central/Missouri: Palm tree hiding steeple hiding cell tower

But letting a telecom company build a tower on your property strikes me as ethically problematic for a Christian church. It means allowing a place supposedly consecrated to Christ to become just one more minor junction in the vast, pagan, nay, diabolical nervous system that has become the invisible infrastructure of our souls and which we are allowing to re-program our humanity on a scale and to a degree unprecedented in the history of creation, a Faustian bargain that would exchange our entire species-nature for the power and instant pleasures of the information age. It is to let Sauron build a watchtower in the Shire, and a decision to do so would seem to require of a Christian institution at least some theological reflection, not just a shrug and a “Hey, it’s $3600 a month for 25 years.”  

It makes sense, though—progressive religion in the first world has long been in service to an agenda other than Christ’s. It has made its pact with the Prince of this world, for the favor of the world: if you have already endorsed the sexual revolution, identity politics, and the abolition of man as manifestations of the gospel, then your theological reflection has already taken place. The only grounds on which you could object to a cell phone tower on church property would be aesthetic.

Living Streams, Central/Glendale: at peace with the spiritus huius mundi?

Living Streams, Central/Glendale: at peace with the spiritus huius mundi?

Which leads us logically to the architecture of CONCEALMENT—when the evil to be avoided is not the ugliness of the thing itself, but only the APPEARANCE of its ugliness, then hiding it becomes a good. The postmodern mind sees no problem with this, nothing sinister, nothing troubling: for in its conception, what matters are appearances, some more successfully managed than others. Symbols, art, architecture, language—they exist to dress up whatever it is we wish to promote. In this mentality, there is no such thing as incongruity: a cell-tower steeple is no more or less jarring than earnestly Christian hip-hop in a megachurch service or a congregation full of agnostic Episcopalians insisting upon hearing a Bach Passion on Good Friday but not believing a word of it; no less a mismatch than a Christian apologia for Trump or for Clinton, for the secular ideologies of military imperialism or of pacifist-environmentalism; no more abusive than willfully selective hermeneutics of Catholic doctrine to promote the restoration of the French monarchy or full sacramental communion for unrepentant serial public adulterers. In all cases, the advocates just want what they want for various reasons. The theology is something produced a posteriori, not reasons for but rationalizations of.

It would be better for a church just to build a cell tower and leave it exposed for all to see, naked without shame. This is consistent with a Christian understanding of symbols, language, and exterior forms, which we hold to be for revealing the truth of things, intimately and organically connected to and expressive of them. Forms must be congruent with content, and the users of forms are ethically obliged to see that they do so.

To wrap pagan principles in a garment whose only purpose is to conceal the dark essence of the thing, and to conceal it using the vocabulary of Christian architecture and even the symbol of the cross itself, is sacrilege, an abomination of desolation standing in the holy place. Whoso readeth, let him understand (Mt 24:15).

At Crossroads UMC:  it's not a steeple, it's a "unit"

At Crossroads UMC:  it's not a steeple, it's a "unit"

Andrew Ellison