This past week, I had my normal Wednesday morning breakfast with the guys. It’s an eclectic group. Four of us are seminary trained. There are two ministers, a sex educator, a lawyer who specializes in non-profit law, and a journalist.
As the morning was wrapping up, my friend Jim was telling me about his recent vacation to Philidelphia, and most importantly his trip to see the Phillies. He told me about the new ball park in Philidelphia, which continues the trend of “retro” construction first pioneered in Baltimore with the Camden Yards. He then suggested that this was in keeping with the postmodern trend of returning to traditions with renewed vigor (his words).
I first started my baseball watching career watching the Washinton Senators at JFK stadium in D.C. (yes Virginia, I am THAT old!). JFK represented the trend of the 1950’s to build circular, multipurpose stadiums, such as Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and whatever the monstrosity was called in Atlanta. These stadiums were functional in that they housed a bunch of folks and allowed fairly easy entrance and exit.
The next trend after the multipurpose stadium was to make these parks impervious to the weather. “We have the technology, so let’s build it,” we thought, and so the domed stadium was invented. The Astrodome was the forefunner of this trend, followed by the MetroDome, etc. This was going to help baseball by alleviating rain delays and making the baseball experience more uniform.
However, the designers of these “one size fits all” stadiums didn’t realize an important fact: that the experience of baseball wasn’t limited to the game on the field. There was a reason that Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and Fenway Park were the most popular venues in the game. They may have been old and lacking in modern amenities, but they were built to be baseball parks — nothing else. There was a tradition that was a part of those spaces. Folks go to Wrigley as much to experience the park as to see the Cubs play (which is, after all, an exercise in futility). Somewhere along the way the folks that ran the majors realized that attending a baseball game was about being part of an experience, and experience that included the park as much as the game.
So, when the folks in Baltimore decided it was time to revitalize their tired, old city, one of the first things they looked to was the baseball stadium. The old stadium was tired, multipurpose, dirty, and simply not a very fun place to watch baseball. The city planners had a different vision — to create a Wrigley Park experience from scratch. So they built a park that screamed baseball. It had one purpose, to enhance the baseball experience, that is, to make a statement on the nature of the game. They succeeded beyond their dreams. Reviewer after reviewer commented on what a great park it was, and the games began to sell out. From that time on, all of the new baseball parks have followed that model, with their own twists and turns.
There is an important thing to recognize in this move to reclaim baseball tradition. Although the parks harken back to the days of yesteryear in their architecture, they are very much tied to technology and current realities. Coors Field, where the Rockies play is designed in the old style, but has video monitors with instant replays distributed throughout the Concourse. At most of these parks you can buy a Bud or some other Milwaukee beer, but there is just as likely to be a brew pup on the premises and a sushi bar next to the hot dog stand. These parks take the ambience of the old and marry it to the enhancements of the new to create a thoroughly postmodern experience.
As I’ve been thinking about this during the past week or so, I’ve been trying to think about what this means for the church. After all, folk like Robert Webber and Len Sweet have been suggesting that the church must have an “ancient-future” orientation is this postmodern time. That is part of what is happening in the new ballpark, taking ancient forms and combining them with new enhancements, such as web browsers in the seats, WIFI, and designer brews.
The place this gets talked about the most in the church is in worship formats. In a backlash to the baby-boomer influenced seeker-sensitive worship models there has been a movement to regain appreciation for ancient forms of worship — liturgy, candles, incense, etc. The goal is to infuse the ancient traditions with lost meaning (although it may really not have been lost, but hidden) as we also integrate new forms, most especially electronic media and contemporary musical forms.
There has also been some discussion on the use of location and space in the postmodern church context, but not much of an exploration on the ancient-future notions of how to utilize space. Generally, the focus has been on facilitating community, placing the gathering as the central theological image defining the layout. This isn’t a bad thing, especially in response to the modernistic Protestant emphasis on the proclamation of the word leading to the “preaching house” model of church architecture. What needs to be examined in greater detail is the ancient church emphasis on the sacrament as the defining image, so that everything is focused on the body and blood of Christ.
I am still pondering what it is about the “ancient-future” ball parks that makes them so appealing. Is it their single minded purpose of design? Do they facilitate a communal atmosphere? Is it a connection to a broader tradition? What do you think?