“Something Other Than God”: Jennifer Fulwiler at the CIC

In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity.  While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with.  She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section.  Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.

Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs.  She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding.  For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.

I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced.  But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself.  If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point?  Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.

One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in.  Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results.  As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.

In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born.  This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions.  It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice.  She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company.  This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.

On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time.  She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be.  I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed.  And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Putting Some Color in the Emperor’s Cheeks

Visitors to Washington, DC always remark on the grand public buildings around the National Mall, which look like they were taken from Athens or Rome.  Monumental, temple-like structures house museums and offices, their exteriors often decorated with imposing statuary representing ancient Greek and Roman gods or allegorical virtues, in gleaming white marble.  The problem is, these buildings and their accompanying statuary are historically incorrect, as a new exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum demonstrates.

Employing a combination of research, technology, and artistic skill, “Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour” displays 120 works of sculpture from the ancient world, all of which were once painted and still retain some degree of their original color, even if only on a microscopic level.  These are accompanied by modern recreations showing what they may have looked like when they were new. In mounting the exhibition, scientists and conservators used electron microscopes, infrared, lasers, and other equipment for a close-up examination of the surface of these works.  They were then able to extrapolate the appearance of these sculptures, before they lost their surface decoration.

To our contemporary eyes, the end result is somewhat shocking, as you can see in this short clip.  A 1st century A.D. marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula is given the color treatment, and the effect is startling.  Instead of a distant, cold figure, we get a more realistic sense of this particularly cruel and insane member of the imperial family.  At the same time however, the colored surface paradoxically flattens the effect, so that the painted Caligula looks more like a giant porcelain doll than the unpainted Caligula, where we have to use more of our imagination to get a picture of the man.

It should not surprise us that sculptures like these were originally brightly painted, when we look at the buildings in which they once stood.  If you recall my article from last week on the just-completed restoration of the Domus Augusti, the home of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome, rather than a stark, stone environment, the walls of the imperial villa were covered with lively frescoes of landscapes and flowers in rich colors.  The colorful statuary featured in this new exhibition in Copenhagen would have looked perfectly at home in just such a space.

It’s interesting to imagine what Washington would have looked like if the buildings and sculptures which make up the monumental core of the city were decorated with something close to historic authenticity.  Keep in mind however that in trying to evoke the world of Ancient Greece and Rome here in the capital of their new republic, the Founding Fathers and those who came after them were not concerned with completely recreating the past, as if they were about to shoot a movie or stage a play.  Just as the Houses of Parliament and other government buildings in Westminster are a pastiche of British medieval architecture and design, looking back to the foundation of parliamentary rule, so too many of our equivalent structures here in America are adaptation rather than complete recreations.

No doubt a time traveler from Rome or Athens in the 1st century A.D., visiting Washington today, would ask why everything has been left unfinished.  They would comment on the lack of colorful decoration which they would have expected in official buildings and public monuments of their own day.  Yet while it’s certainly fascinating to see in this exhibition just how colorful the ancient world truly was, personally I would prefer that we leave the Lincoln Memorial exactly the way that it is.

Head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.) Museum of Archaeology, Munich

Composite of original and restored marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.)
Museum of Archaeology, Munich

 

Calling Frank Gehry’s Bluff

Regular readers of these pages know that I’ve been following the plans for a memorial to President Eisenhower, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, which is to be placed in a park just alongside the National Mall here in DC.  This rather titanic project, which has been in development for years, has yet to see a single spade of earth turned toward completing it.  With costs already estimated to overrun $140 million, it is also becoming something of a cuckoo in the nest of Washington’s monumental core.

This morning WaPo is reporting that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission meets today to look over some proposed modifications to the design, including one which pretty much eliminates much of the signature Frank Gehry style, i.e. using giant pieces of metal “screens” through the park.  As The Post points out, questions were already swirling around the grant of the commission in the first place.  The current re-think however, was prompted in part by concern from Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), that the screens ought to be eliminated or significantly downsized, in order for the memorial to go forward.  In response, Mr. Gehry has threatened to remove his name from the project altogether.

I say it’s time to call Mr. Gehry’s bluff.

Understandably, Mr. Gehry wants to be able to place one of his pimples on the face of the Nation’s Capital because it is one of the few major international cities that so far has refused him.  Washington is not a large city, nor an innovative one in terms of its architecture, but by nature of what goes on here and the impact that decisions made here have on the rest of mankind, it’s arguably the most important city in the world.  Moreover, coming to Washington without seeing the monuments and museums celebrating the history and achievements of the American people, is a bit like going to Athens and not seeing the ruins of the Ancient Greeks.

When you’re an architect ticking off boxes on your bucket list, you recognize that to build a memorial or museum here in Washington is to enter a pantheon of sorts. Your work is almost guaranteed to be preserved and visited for a long time, unlike, say, an office building or hotel.  You may even have the chance of seeing your work become part of history, as has often been the case with the Lincoln Memorial, for example.  However whatever you are designing and building for this particular city, which is a rather unique place, you have to keep in mind that your audience is not hugely interested in being flashy or trendy, but rather in expressing dignity: these structures are meant to last forever, if possible, not look great for 10 or 20 years and then start corroding and rusting away.

Since the Eisenhower Memorial is meant to serve the American people, by honoring the memory of a great servant and leader of that people, rather than the needs of Mr. Gehry, the simplest solution would indeed be that he remove himself from the project altogether.  No one seems to like his design, particularly not the family of Eisenhower himself.  It tells us nothing about the man from Middle America who helped lead our military to victory in Europe during World War II, or oversaw one of the most prosperous periods of growth in this country’s history.

If we are to have a monument to Ike at all, let it be upright and straightforward, like the man himself, with a minimum of fussiness.  Too much time, money, and ink have already been wasted on this project, with little or nothing to show for it other than wasted taxpayer funds – $25 million and counting – and a slew of hurt feelings.   For $25 million, we could have landscaped the parcel where the memorial park will go, and put up a simple column or plinth with a bronze statue of Eisenhower on it. Residents and visitors would already be appreciating a new space along the National Mall to pause, rest, and reflect on the man and his era.

My bet is that tapestries or no tapestries, Mr. Gehry is not going anywhere.  After all, the opportunities to build a major memorial or museum in Washington do not come along every day.  So for pity’s sake, let’s just stop lollygagging around, cut this thing down to a manageable size, and get the job done.

One of the proposed giant "tapestry" walls of the Eisenhower Memorial

One of the proposed giant “tapestry” walls of the Eisenhower Memorial