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A New Social Gospel


In seventeen days the political torch will be passed. The new administration is paired with a sympathetic Congress and promises major change and public response is bound to be equally dramatic, comparable to the Civil Rights movement and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. As someone who lived through those times, my anxiety for the next four years is running very high. Many of us thought those battles had been won or at least achieved a stalemate.

One advantage of a long life is perspective, the ability to see cycles; the ebb and flow of public opinion and, now and then, the creation of new institutions. “The Church” has my attention these days, divided as it is on the merits of the President Elect. As a former Christian, I look with interest at the many flavors of Christianity, the Baskin-Robins of religious traditions. One source estimates there are between 30,000 and 40,000 denominations worldwide. But today they seem to be coalescing in two camps: those who find the P-E a divinely-ordained leader, an exemplary standard bearer for their Dominionist cause and ushering in the End Times. And those who see him as a narcissist and sociopath. God Save the Republic!

There is also Liberal Christianity, mainstream denominations that have been in decline since World War II; tolerant of all those changes that have irked, even infuriated, the Fundamentalist Right: the ordination of women; mixed racial and same-gender marriage; women’s control of their reproductive systems, to name only a few. I know where my sympathies lie, though they’re unlikely to get me back into the pew.


The Social Gospel

Ten years ago or thereabouts, I attended a history conference at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. The organizers were two older historians (let’s call them Statler and Gilfillan)—a pair of septuagenarians who lived together, finished one anthers sentences, and clearly enjoyed an utterly charming partnership—who at the pre-conference cocktail party discovered that I was the speaker on the Social Gospel. “We’re anxious to hear your paper,” one of them mused. “Neither of us can figure out what hasn’t already been said about it.” I ought to have been deflated—but wasn’t.

Historians of the Whig persuasion hold the view that given sufficient time, all history will be written, all sources exhausted,  all conclusions definitively set. Departments of History can then shut down, because the field will be in the hands of a maintenance staff keeping things up to date. Most of those Whig historians are now long since departed and I assume that Professors Statler and Gilfillan have joined them.

The problem shared by their ilk was a fear of “material culture,” the belief that history is solely about ideas, their rise and fall, and the difficulty of coping with the physical detritus from those ideas. Using maps to illustrate battles of the Civil War may have been as far as Statler and Gilfillan were prepared to go. My presentation was, in fact, almost exclusively focussed on the physical manifestation of the 19th century movement known as the Social Gospel: church buildings invented as the movement’s delivery system; what I contend is a unique American contribution to the history of religious architecture—a pretty bold statement I can back up.

In the meantime

Asbury United Methodist Church is Agincourt’s contribution to the Social Gospel movement, a building I designed one night while watching T.V.—sketched on the back of a U.S. West envelope—and developed during the next few days. And while I can explain why this a characteristic Akron-Auditorium church (the Social Gospel’s “delivery system”), I’ll surely do a disservice to the movement it represents.

The Gospel emerged during a period of national angst and anguish—a period not unlike our own—and tonight I’m moved to wonder how those conditions are manifest in my town of Agincourt, and how the Gospel will have morphed to address them.

Stay tuned for Part II,

[#904, the first entry of 2017]

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