This weekend I watched a DVD produced by our local public television station: Sacred Spaces of Greater Cincinnati. It was interesting; gave me a new list of places to go visit when I get a chance. The documentary was, as you might expect, tilted heavily toward 19th-century churches–predominantly Catholic, followed numerically by historic Protestant churches, plus Plum Temple and a couple other Jewish houses of worship. The classic tripartite: Catholic, Protestant, Jew. But modest kudos to the producers for making some more expansive moves:
- They started by acknowledging the mounds built by Native peoples (cue the flutes; you can’t mention Native Americans in a historical documentary without playing a flute in the background). That segment was over pretty quick, though, apparently because we don’t have any surviving mounds in the Cincinnati area.
- There was an intriguing look at a Swedenborgian church built around 1860. Cincinnati’s Hindu temple and Islamic center were both featured. And in an unexpected but thoughtful move, the documentary looked briefly, at least, at a couple of megachurches as representative of new trends in sacred space.
- I understand now why we have so many synagogues turned churches here (something I noted in an earlier post). These are, more specifically, African American churches, whose congregations were displaced by a project of “urban renewal” during the 1950s and 1960s, when the city tore down black neighborhoods to make room for the freeway system. This segment was the documentary’s strongest move toward paying attention to social context and power relations.
- There was an intriguing segment–too brief, alas!–on the abandonment or destruction of sacred spaces: historic but irretrievable murals destroyed when a 19th-century church was demolished; old churches sitting abandoned; churches repurposed to serve as office space for a non-profit, or as an outlet for American Eagle Outfitters.
It would be an interesting exercise to do a close reading of the flowery prose that opens and ends the documentary, when the narrator articulates the significance of these sacred spaces. These spaces are important for all kinds of reasons, we’re told–i.e., they do all kinds of positive things for individuals, families, and communities. But the things the documentary named were, to my recollection, all “secular” in nature–the kinds of functions that could readily fall within the purview of sociological discourse (e.g., providing a focus for immigrant community life). There was no attempt to describe the meaning of “sacred spaces” in the kinds of terms that religious studies scholars have developed to try to separate religion out from other domains of culture–no talk about spirituality, or people’s conceptions of the divine, ultimate meaning, etc. I intend no judgment in making this observation; I’m simply intrigued by it as a rhetorical move and interested in speculating about the cultural calculus that motivated it.