Everything Will Fall into Place
Not until I set eyes on the artist’s rendering does it hit me how out of its element this colossal cross on the outskirts of Houston will be. I try to imagine the Heritage Museum at its base, volunteer docents guiding visitors past dioramas on Christianity’s longstanding marginalization in America. I marvel at the near-empyrean 150 to 200 feet it will spire up out of the museum at one of the city’s busiest five-level stack interchanges, dwarfing the 77-foot statue of its namesake, Sam Houston himself, in an act of holy Texas blasphemy.
I’m on a virtual walkthrough, paging through the plans while listening to the disembodied voice of Garrett Booth, associate senior pastor of Grace Community Church, the 12,000-member evangelical megachurch overseeing the project. He is stuck on one of the highways that will pass the proposed tower, somewhere in the 50 miles between his north and south campuses. With time to kill, he laments how the south campus’s proximity to an old Air Force base permitted the FAA to chop the structure’s reach by a quarter. It was the price they had to pay for the ultimate goal: “What if there was one of these at every entrance to the city?” asks Grace’s Senior Pastor Steve Riggle in a YouTube video. “You talk about marking our city for God!”
“Nothing is set in stone, but the prayer deck will be elevated to around 40 feet,” Booth tells me. “Houstonians can go up there to pray over our mayor, our city council, our business community, or they can go there for themselves—the fire department and police officers can pray for protection.”
Forty feet, I realize, puts worshippers at eye level with interchange traffic on the top ramp. Colonnaded and ornately corniced, affording a 360-degree panorama, this giant structure will be among the largest of its kind. The cross alone—without a prayer deck, museum, or 60-foot orb from which it can project like a sword blade and hilt—is likely to exceed $1 million. “Space Needle–like,” in Riggle’s terms, it will be the city’s most visible symbol of any faith.
Grace Community Church has been working for three years to erect four of these giant crosses on Houston highways, each standing guard over one cardinal direction at the city’s edge (or “gate,” in Gracespeak). The crosses mark the endpoints of an even more massive cross laid over Houston itself, with Grace’s two campuses at the head and foot.
In America, public religion takes many forms—ringing campaniles, GodSpeaks billboards, scripture in eye black, lots of crosses—but the public spectacle of these prayer decks is something new. The closest analogue is the Islamic minaret, the prayer tower banned by referendum in Switzerland last November. It’s almost as if Houston’s evangelicals, though not otherwise looking to pick up lessons from Muslims, saw the minarets against European skylines and thought: Why didn’t we think of this before?
To appreciate Houston’s rise as the Promised Land of cross construction requires first understanding the city’s zoning and urban planning ethos. Traffic here is the fourth worst in the country. The biggest east-west artery, Interstate 10, is the widest stretch of road on U.S. record—26 lanes, counting frontage roads and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. And, unlike other large cities, Houston has resisted developing useful mass transit.
Many years ago, Houston applied “Don’t Mess With Texas”—an official state DOT motto—to zoning citywide, effectively creating the laissez-faire conditions in which a Dunkin’ Donuts could share a parking lot with a strip club, adult video store, or head shop. Booth complained to me about the “barrage of neon signs for sexually oriented businesses and racy billboards that line Houston’s highways.” (The only things separating the south campus from Vixxen Cabaret are an Infiniti dealership and a lot with prefab homes.) Past city landmarks include, in the ’70s and ’80s, a several-stories-high men’s club sign portraying a voluptuous dancer, like a life-size cutout for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. The city, though chagrined, was powerless to remove it.
Steve Riggle came to recognize that Houston’s quirky zoning laws could benefit Christians too, and he dreamed up a plan for crosses marking the edges of suburbia, the megachurch terra firma. Riggle is the speaks-his-mind sort of pastor that evangelicals tend to rally around, and he has mastered the perspicacious go-getter style of Bill Hybels, the original pastorpreneur, by building his own international network of 1,500 churches. “If we do it here,” Riggle says, “I believe it will happen in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City.”
He formed a team in 2007, and they named the project “Make Your Mark.” By 2008, Grace had worked out preliminary plans for the elaborate crosses, as well as for the several charities to be spun out of the money raised for their construction. Riggle held a press conference in which he announced the vision’s culmination would be a 1,000-church-strong prayer-a-thon held at the giant crosses and broadcast nationwide.
Riggle knew making a mark also meant making enemies, so he made sure to rally support. John Morgan, pastor of Sagemont Church, a 16,000-member megachurch within of two miles of the Grace south campus, was an early, inspired supporter of Riggle’s vision. Morgan was so early and inspired, in fact, that Sagemont beat Grace to the punch. Last winter, Sagemont erected what is presently Houston’s sole giant cross (no orb, no museum, no prayer deck)—the John the Baptist of crosses, paving the way for a greater one.
As the first, the Sagemont 170-footer couldn’t help but look like it was trying to preempt Grace’s plan. Yet this cross, while kin to Grace’s in spirit, is visually and functionally very different. Its semi-pastoral setting, on a pond in a grassy field, invokes the same peaceful biblical conceits (shepherding, being still to know God, the Lamb Himself) that Grace tosses out, one that ultimately puts the Sagemont cross in a more culturally innocuous category of roadside Americana alongside a 190-footer in Groom, a small Texas Panhandle town, and a 198-footer at the crossroads of I-57 and I-70 in Effingham, Illinois. These crosses are erected in rural fields, along small-town highway feeder roads or someplace where their placement against a natural milieu makes them sanctuaries from the world rather than statements punctuating it.
Grace went on hiatus from giant cross erecting when Hurricane Ike hit in September, 2008, and the economy tanked, but behind the scenes it continued to enlist congregants, financiers, and an array of church and parachurch support. Early on, Jack Hayford, one of Riggle’s seminary mentors and current president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, flew in from California to announce he was behind the project. “The mark will be made and will last,” he told supporters. The lion’s share of Houston-area evangelical groups joined in. Corporate CEOs like Barry Cocheu of AmeriSciences, a health-supplements distributor, opened their deep pockets. Using Grace International’s reach, the project stashed away pledges of monetary and intercessory support from churchgoers nationwide. The plan, Booth assured me, is now back in full swing.
With the support have come the usual critics. Aghast nimbies—not-in-my-backyarders—vocally opposed the crosses in The Houston Chronicle and the TV news, some under the mistaken impression that they would be on public property. Lewder locals mocked them as phallic, and complaints rolled in again when Sagemont’s cross began to be bathed in a bright light at night. They react as if the crosses are an attack on the community.
Riggle and Booth, meanwhile, scoff at the criticism. They believe Grace’s good intentions are self-evident. But Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelicalism, calls the Grace plan “staking a flag in the ground,” and that is how most outsiders see it. When Riggle told talk show host Alan Colmes in July, 2008, that the crosses are “not to fan culture war flames,” his claim drew cachinnations. He’d already written on the project Web site, MakeYourMarkHouston.tv, “It is a movement to bring United States to its knees.”
Usually silver-tongued, Riggle maintains the media take him out of context. However, his statements belong to an old evangelical trope of spiritual warfare. It’s more than the worldview of outliers like R.J. Rushdoony and his Dominionists. I myself taught children vacation bible school lessons themed on the armor of God in Ephesians. Arming oneself for spiritual battle, stamping out unbelievers’ unbelief, bowing up against one’s fallen nature, defeating debt, preparing always for Armageddon. While by and large interpreted metaphorically, they nevertheless are fighting words. Grace in particular depicts even community outreach as war. BattleCry Houston, for example, is the name of a Make Your Mark outreach effort co-sponsored by Teen Mania to help teens cope with drug use, fatherlessness, pregnancy, and other moral blights in the city’s poorer wards.
Make Your Mark’s warlike rhetoric, however, stands in contrast with Grace’s megachurchy approach to the built environment: winning converts by conforming to, not conquering, the community. Chameleonlike, megachurches don’t storm the city; they slip into suburbia and blend in like another big box store. The aesthetics of Joel Osteen’s former Compaq Center—the corporate-headquarters façade, the earth-tone color scheme—are lackluster. Hybels’ Willow Creek looks like a community college. They are, above all, economical and adaptive.
“Most contemporary megachurches are resolutely secular in design,” the architecture critic Witold Rybczynski observes. “It’s the architectural equivalent of the three-piece business suit that most nondenominational pastors favor.” Without the crosses, Grace would be an exemplary three-piece-suit; its Mediterranean-style campuses have fountains and palm trees but—very self-consciously—no Christian symbols. That is the paradox—marking the public space while trying to blend inconspicuously into it. But it is not the only part of the evangelical world that requires compartmentalizing contradictory ideas. Preaching against the evils of secularism versus laboring to mimic them. Criticizing Muslims’ theocratic intrusions into the public sphere in the Middle East versus paving the way for Christians’ own back home. Valuing play-it-cool seeker-friendliness with adults versus lighting a fire in the church youth for lifelong battle.
Christianity is, by nature, an act of living in dichotomy. “Theology moves back and forth between two poles,” the theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “the eternal truth of its foundations and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” Today’s Christian intellectuals are in a lively debate over the old church refrain “In the world, but not of it.” Best articulated by the New Monastics or Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” one side would see Christians reject as much of that refrain as they can; the less in and of, the better. The great assimilated megachurches represent the other. Cross erecting is itself a sort of third way, containing both in and of, though cruder and still inchoate: be in control of the world. It tugs evangelicalism toward the more offensive, expansionist pole, and may be timed to counteract evangelicals’ recent willingness to scale back some culture wars attacks—this season’s War on Christmas was the tamest in years. Riggle’s vision could be enlarging evangelicalism beyond the footprint of the megachurch model.
Urban theorists have likewise wrestled with the relation between their ideals and the world that envelops them. The Neo-Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s chief criticism of his movement was that it had failed to produce fully socialist kinds of spaces; rather than transforming the architecture of capitalism, their ambitions had merely accommodated to it. He wrote, in The Production of Space, “These ideas lose completely their meaning without producing an appropriate space. A lesson to be learned from soviet constructivists from the 1920s and ’30s, and of their failure, is that new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa.” Could Grace have summed up the stakes of its own ambitions any better? As Riggle told a local TV interviewer early on, “If this doesn’t work, nothing else will work. But if we get it right, everything will fall into place.”