|eclectic imaging (redux)|
Bergerkirche Düsseldorf, Altar
Many thanks to your interesting thoughts of yesterday about Düsseldorf's Bergerkirche, the church with the somewhat different look. Most of you seem to like it, I didn't expect such a definite result. However, I don't like the design of that church and I want to tell you why. For me this church is an expression of a severe crisis. But let's take one thing at a time.
Let me first describe you some technical details I didn't mention yesterday. The altar I'm presenting today is made of plexiglass and a lightsource itself, therefore the glowing effect. Additionally, the altar is digitally connected with other churches and changes its light intensity based on their musical 'output' (I don't know the details but you might keep in mind that the glowing might become more or less intense). The stained-glass windows are remnants of the 1950s, when the church was rebuilt after the war. In 2003, the artist and professor of statuary at Frankfurt University Tobias Rehberger was commisioned to do a complete redesign. That's what we can see today.
I think everybody has peculiar expectations when visiting a church of a greater community of believers, especially when you're in Europe. There's a common sense of understanding a church building as something with a hall or nave and with an altar at the end of the nave or perhaps in the middle of the hall. Usually some seats or benches are arranged around or before that altar and often there's a musical instrument, preferably an organ. With the exception of the instrument you can find everything else in this church. But where's the religion?
When Protestantism did arise in the 16th century, it virtually shook the earth. The struggle between the Catholic and the Protestant world eventually culminated in the Thirty Years' War, a terrible bloodbath whose consequences are still detectable till this day. Protestantism was the only force to break the Catholic hegemony. But can we feel this furor in this church? Is the energy of early Protestants still noticeable?
The membership decline of the big churches does not come to an end. (This statistics shows the number of secessions from the Protestant and Catholic church in Germany). Due to a peculiarity in the German tax system you may save money from the tax by leaving the church (churches are tax-financed here). But many people don't leave their church only for pecuniary reasons but also for a feeling of disinterest. 'The Church' for them no longer works as landmark in their lifes. Especially the Protestant churches in Germany are affected by this development.
For the churches there are two possible solutions to act against this: a small community of believers returns to the roots and becomes orthodox (in its most extreme variety this leads into fundamentalism), or, if the church is too big to fall, the church iteself changes into something different. German churches usually took this second solution. Especially the Protestant churches in Germany are trying hard to get a modern image. The church is no longer meant to be a source of authority and imperturbable faith but an offer to society to choose God as a friend, to put it briefly.
The design of the Bergerkirche is a result of this new policy. It's a soft, pleasing place, quietly located in a backyard and you might come as you are. The panels of fabric and the glowing altar make you think of visiting an art exhibition. Because this church isn't only used for church service but also for conferences and various churchly events, it's not a bad idea to have a room with good acoustics and without fixed benches. This article describes the design in detail, especially the artist's desire for making the design part of everyday life. Rehberger wants the church to have a "feelgood" atmosphere, a pleasing room you like to enter and that communicates social warmth. By omission of all Christian imagery and transforming the iconography into a light metaphor (represented by the altar) the artist creates a quite radical approach. However, this light symbolism is too much Manichaeism for me.
Some early Protestants were iconoclasts and liked to burn things like this, because, accourding to their doctrine, God was not in pictures but in the word. That's why the Protestant mass doesn't contain the Eucharist. I hope that the liturgy of the Word in the masses at Bergerkirche are sufficient, because without even the slightest optical hint that you're in a Christian church the word has to compensize a lot! However, I'm not sure about this, when I read articles about 'sleep-ins' in that church, where beds were arranged and visitors were invited to lay down and have a rest while listening to Bible verses about rest and peace. Too much feelgood for me.
Another Protestant virtue and tradition is inwardness. That means basically that you have to find the worth of things, the way to God (or enlightenment) in yourself because it's hidden there. Usually this thinking is in a sharp contrast to all forms of outwardness (ornament, decor, icons etc.) as this is thought to be vain, superficial and an obstacle for finding the right way. However, there's no guarantee that God is in your innermost. What if you find nothing, or worse: something evil in you?
When Germany celebrated its reunification in 1990, it was said that the republic would become more Protestant, as the capital was moving from sleepy, Catholic Bonn to exciting, sexy, Protestant Berlin. This is true and it is also not. True in so far as the remnants of a Protestant bourgeois culture are still present and lead to a society that puts emphasis on things like 'personal responsibility' and 'provision for the future'; this is pure Calvinism. It is not true, as the number of atheists and agnostics is still rising. But I guess that many people are still asking the old question what their life is all about, and what's the meaning of it. And does the church of their parents and grandparents have an answer for this?
We're living in a capitalistic world. Especially the Protestant church tries to communicate its message by means of supply and demand. To raise the demand the message has to be modified. And that's why the Bergerkirche got its design: there's nothing that hurts you. Soft colours that match the recent 70s retro trend, no rememberings of suffering or the duties of a believer, no confessions, no questions asked. But so faith decays to just another offer in the big drugstore of life, it becomes a pure matter of lifestyle. But this is not an option for the one who wants an answer for the old questions. Or who is looking for comfort. And that's why I see a severe crisis when I visit this church room.
Agreement, protest? Let me know!