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Sep 19, 2005

Playing the Cathedral


In the first flood of photos documenting the effects of Hurricane Katrina, I hadn't noticed how many struck a religious theme.  Looking more closely, however, there were any number of floating icons, windswept priests, home made signs appealing for mercy, and churches with roofs blown off and spires folded over.

As humble as these images were, it made me think they might represent a different presence for religion.  After years of being preached to by this government and threatened with hell fire, perhaps a new order had arrived.  Maybe the Almighty him- (or her-) self had decided to step down from the Bush team.

Whatever it was, the failure of the government to respond effectively to human suffering couldn't have done more to erode the far right's claim to the moral high ground.  At the same time, just the perception that racial and economic demographics was a variable in the application of "compassionate conservatism" couldn't have been more damning.

Looking back at Katrina, it's possible one of the profound effects will be the neutralizing of God as a right wing asset.


Although the administration has been shaken and seems unsure which wound to bandage first, one of the most urgent priorities seems to be the need to spiritually reframe the disaster in order to restore the piety brand.

I was looking at the so-named "National Prayer Day" photo gallery at the White House website.  A prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral  -- which might have been Bush and Rove's central motivation for this rushed and contrived commemoration -- was marked last Friday.

I'd be interested in your opinions on all of the photos, but I was interested in three -- and one in particular.


The shot on the lower left of the montage is a fish-eye view of the cathedral, with the "ant-like" guests along the bottom.  The highlight of the picture is the mammoth house itself, with the stained glass window on high.  In these types of images, it's hard not to appreciate man's relative insignificance in the larger scheme.  Might it also imply that those "on the ground" lack the weight to judge this tragedy (or this Administration) before a higher authority?


I was also interested in the top middle picture of the black televangelist, T.D. Jakes.  Jakes' role, and his sense of opportunism, were telegraphed by a particularly unguarded NYT "White House Letter" (Gulf Coast Isn't the Only Thing Left in Tatters; Bush's Status With Blacks Takes Hit - link) published earlier in the week.

If you look at the taller version posted by the White House, you will see they (again) make creative use of perspective.  Looking straight at the image, you can't help but have to look up to this man.  Also, the strikingly white lectern virtually shouts out that a black man of God is here to bear witness for his other "Commander in Chief."  Also, the way Jakes is framed against the foreboding gothic architecture almost seems to pull a little of that hell fire back again.


What I wanted to look at most closely, however, is the bottom right photo -- the one and only depicting Bush with survivors of the flood.  Last week, I examined the photos featured on the White House site showing Laura Bush in the Gulf "reaching out" to displaced evacuees (Laura: Just Say N.O. -- link).  Surprisingly, most of the images (photographed and hand-picked by White House spinmeisters, mind you) showed Mrs. Bush being treated coldly, passively or even invisibly.

So here we are, two weeks later, and the impression of Bush alongside the survivors (again, according to an image made and chosen by the White House) seems highly ambiguous.

I don't know if the people here were flown in for the occasion, or had been relocated to Washington.  Either way, it looks awkward at best.  There may be genuine warmth between Bush and the man in the wheel chair, however there is no eye contact, and the disabled man appears to lean back, as if he has to be the one to make a physical accommodation.


With the security person (at the base of Bush's back) signifying the separation of this group from the larger audience, these men and women mostly give the appearance of extras in Bush's compassion play.  It is fascinating looking at them looking at Bush.  To an extent, they maintain public faces.  At the same time, each seems to express a characteristic detachment.  As well, several seem to share a skepticism -- as if aware their President cares a little too much.

(image 1: Chris HondrosAFP/Getty Images.  New Orleans.  images 2 - 5: Eric Draper for the White House.  Washington National Cathedral. Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 16, 2005. image 6: BAGnewsNotes graphic.  September 10, 2005.)


I think the shot of Bush at the pulpit is also intriguing. His gaze is perpendicular to the audience behind him. While obviously there likely are people in front of him, they are invisible to the viewer.

Seems symbolic some how: Bush looking off in a completely differen direction from the public.

The big window in the National Cathedral is the most visually arresting thing there, so why would a photographer not aim for a dramatic shot of it over the suited prayerful. I can read nothing more into the photo than that. As for the photo of Jakes, his head looks small, even appears disembodied, set upon the lectern, making him look somewhat attenuated...and maybe that's the way the White House wants its minions to look, not to upstage the President. As for the photo of Bush trying to win points by leaning into the personal space of the man in the wheelchair -- the expressions of those around him make clear no one's buying it. The whole day of prayer thing came off as a transparent PR ploy, shameless.

In the photo on the upper right, where "President George W. Bush bows his head in prayer," Bush (and the rest of his entourage--Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld) appear more disgruntled than contemplative. They're scowling instead of praying. This group is peeved that they have make a show of public grief after this tragedy. Bush is clutching a pencil or pen. He's trying to convey an aura of busyness, that he's taking time off from the "hard work" of the presidency to attend this service.

In the photo on the upper right, taken from the same vantage point. George and Laura have inappropriate false grins on their faces. They're cycling through another false emotion. Alongside them, Cheney looks sour-faced and bored. He obviously can't wait for the service to be over.

I also think the photo of Jakes is very strange. It looks like a black head on top of an ossuary. The whole idea of him speaking at a lectern is lost by the strange perspective.

The people around the man in the wheelchair seem very uncomfortable. The woman in the foreground's body language and facial expression couldn't be more skeptical and dismissive of bush.

Cathedrals are built so big probably to remind people how small they are in God's realm. It's my guess that not only do skyscraper office buildings conserve urban space, but they also remind people how small they are in the face of the corporations within. Shopping malls are cathedrals of consumerism; lavish, cavernous structures designed to remind people of the power of money, the power of want.

Showing the expansiveness of the cathedral compared to the tiny human figures within might be an attempt at false humility. God is on Bush's side, the image says, because he makes himself small in God's presence, attends service, etc. But all the pictures show Bush looking over the others in the cathedral, which makes me wonder if Bush treats God more like a political bedfellow than the Supreme Ruler of the Universe or whatever Christians call it. God becomes one of Bush's good buddies behind him. Bush may be one to bend down, but never one to kneel. The photographer would have been kneeling or sitting on the ground to get the photo while the rest in the cathedral are sitting on pews. How humble can Bush really be if he is always standing over everybody? How genuine can his humility be if he looks down on everybody all the time? In my opinion, the picture of the cathedral means the people outside are the ones kneeling in the dirt while Bush keeps his clothes clean in the cathedral, where he looks down on those lower than him.

The picture of Jakes is creepy to me. It looks like his head is on the altar, disembodied. Why would the national prayer day have a black man's head on the altar (or podium or pulpit, not familiar with church jargon) as a representative symbol? It seems almost like a glorified "mug shot," in that it's a picture of a person's face without any real deeds the person has done for context. A talking head. I don't know what kind of deeds Jakes has done, but from this picture, it looks like all that matters to the administration or to the photographer is that he talked.

To me, the photo of televangelist Jakes looks like a disembodied head perched on a sarcophagus. Maybe the intent of the photographer or the person that selected it for posting at the WH site was to project loftiness and power, but you need more of the torso to depict power in a low-angle shot.

What's really creep is the banner across the top of the page at the WH page where the pics are posted. Reminds me of the Sistine Chapel somehow, with god-like Bush reaching out from the hurricane cloud . . .

That was my impression of Jakes, too. A disembodied talking head. Wasn't that also a character from a sitcom, maybe Third Rock, the big talking head?

The fifth one, of bush speaking, with all the rows of people perfectly lined up. it's like a military formation.

Bush also played the cathedral the night before in New Orleans: or he at least played in front of it. The matching colors of the shirt and background lighting were the most notable feature of the show.

Forgot this in my earlier comment. Invited elites may have shown up for the cathedral pontificatin' but here in Ohio National Prayer Day was pretty much a no-show. No one showed up on the Statehouse lawn, few churches even bothered to participate. I especially like this quote:

"We need a prayer that's walking and not just talking," Fuzz said. "We need a prayer with legs right now."

In the case of the cathedral, I think you need to give credit to the architect and not the photographers. The "higher authority" in these photos is unavoidable and it is meant to be. For instance it would be impossible for a photographer to take a picture of the lectern from the audience point of view and not be forced to look up. The lectern is pure white not matter what the speakers skin color is. These psychological devices are evident in Christian churches all over the world and for good reason; they are big and important and we are small and insignificant.

Of the pictures, the "floating Mary" is the most striking to me. The image is dark and tranquil with enough of a hint of wrought iron grillwork to add some subtle detail, relieving the starkness.

The Mary is submerged but upright, flooded and sullied but unbroken. The flood waters come and go, and Mary remains implacable. I am not even Catholic, but this feels oddly comforting. There is some solidity in the chaos of disaster--the icons (and what they represent?) will remain. I wonder if they feel comforting to residents of NO.

On the otherhand, the image of Rev. Jakes was disturbing. My first impression, looking at the smaller thumbnail with my unreliable eyes, was that this was another piece of statuary that had survived the flood. A head on an ornate base--very bizarre, but oh well, I thought, New Orleans has multiple influences and this surely fits in somewhere.
So then when I realize it is the real, live Reverend speaking, he still looks statuesque and formal. Almost so formal that he appears disembodied not only from his actual physical body, but also the down and dirty reality of the survivors. I haven't heard him speak, so I don't know if his style is more impassioned than this image would suggest. My impression may be unfair given the apparent formality of the ocassion. Meanwhile, Bush & Co are acting like cut-ups at a funeral. While everyone else seems somber, they are acting lighthearted or pissy. Even if they weren't from the administration, I would find their behavior inappropriate.

In the image in which Bush is greeting the man in the wheelchair, the man in the wheelchair is leaning way back to look up at/speak to Bush. I fnd it striking that *he* is having to accomodate to Bush, *not* the other way around. I wonder if Bush chose this man to speak to, and if so, if he was picked because he was less threatening because he was disabled, in the "down" position. He does actually seem good-humoredly engaged (or humoring Bush, anyway) in contrast to the people around him who are more dispassionate and even withholding. On the other hand, both the man driving the wheelchair and the woman in front wear an official badge of some sort, so maybe it's all work to them, and they're keeping their emotional distance.

BTW, I believe the man who appears "masked" in his expression is the Mayor, yes?

I don't think God was ever on the Bush team. Look at what they are doing; He or She would never condone invading another country and killing thousands of innocent people. What the administration is doing not only goes against religious teachings, it is criminal and must stop.

BAG, you're Reaching here.

Maybe the Almighty him- (or her-) self had decided to step down from the Bush team.'s possible one of the profound effects will be the neutralizing of God as a right wing asset.

False dilemma. Expressing your belief by no means guarantees that God is on your side, right, left, or center. of the most urgent priorities seems to be the need to spiritually reframe the disaster in order to restore the piety brand.
...A prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral -- which might have been Bush and Rove's central motivation for this rushed and contrived commemoration day -- was marked last Friday.

There's nothing new about politicians and leaders of all stripes appearing in the Washington National Cathedral, a "great church for national purposes." Martin Luther King was one.

The highlight of the image is the house itself, with the stained glass window on high. To me, it suggests that man is small and insignificant in the face of the Almighty. Along those lines, it might serve to remind that those "on the ground" lack the merit to cast judgement on this tragedy (or this Administration) before a higher authority.

For many others, cathedrals offer a place to contemplate the majesty and complexity of God, and a place to appreciate man's technical and creative abilities. From a Judeo-Christian standpoint, man, being made on Earth in the image of God, is by no means insignificant.

If you look at the taller photo posted by the White House, you will see they (again) make creative use of perspective. Looking straight at the image, you can't help but look up to this man.

Like many other photojournalists, Eric Draper clearly likes strong composition and deep perspective. These are common photographic techniques used to increase visual interest. Other than emphasizing foreground subjects, they carry no inherent political bias.

...the top middle picture of the black televangelist, T.D. Jakes. Jakes' role, and his sense of opportunism...
Also, the strikingly white lectern emphasizes that a black man is here to support his other "commander in chief."

Statements like this come uncomfortably close to Uncle Tommism. Besides, taking gravity into account, the lectern looks more like it's supporting the man inside it.

BTW, there are black conservatives. Libertarians, too.

I thought the way Jakes is framed against the foreboding gothic architecture also pulls in a sense of fear.

Substitute "awe-inspiring" for "foreboding", and "respect" for "fear", and you can also get a sense of how many people feel when they're inside cathedrals. Natural ones are better, though.

Last week, I examined a set of images featured on the White House site showing Laura Bush "reaching out" to storm survivors (Laura: Just Say N.O. -- link). Surprisingly, the majority of images (by the ordinarily spin savvy White House) showed Mrs. Bush being treated coldly, passively or even invisibly.

So here we are, two weeks later, and the impression of Bush alongside the survivors (this being the image picked out by the White House, mind you!) seems almost as toxic.

One BNN POV laid atop another does not necessarily give a complete picture.

Obviously the White House thinks the public might see things differently, otherwise why would they deliberately release such "damning" images? Consider also that Eric Draper, a black man, is President Bush's personal photographer and the White House Photo Director. It's quite possible he selected these images for the WH site.

There may be genuine warmth between Bush and the man in the wheel chair (although there is no eye contact, and the disabled man appears to lean back, as if being the one to physically accommodate Dubya).

Perhaps the man is just leaning back to say something, and Bush is leaning over to hear him better. The physical distance between individuals in this photo is exaggerated by the false perspective created by the camera's wide angle lens.

To twist a phrase, don't attribute to deliberation what is merely caused by circumstance.

...the failure of the government to respond effectively to human suffering...
...the administration has been shaken and seems unsure which wound to bandage first... if their President cares just a little too much.

Damned if they don't, damned if they try, damned if they do.

What would be "just right"?

Damned if they don't, damned if they try, damned if they do.

What would be "just right"?

I'd settle for honest failure. Maybe there's no action the Bush administration could have undertaken that would have prevented the levee failure in NOLA. If, after honest and open evaluation, competent leaders had decided that eliminating the "Death Tax" provides more cost / benefit to the citizens of the United States than maintaining levees, so be it. That would be honest failure.

This tableau, fotonique, is bullshit through and through. It was not a shortage of prayer that left citizens stranded for days without food, water, and medicine in what was once the most advanced nation on earth. Dragging the Katrina response into a cathedral in Washington DC is a substitute for honesty, a dishonest attempt to change the subject.

As long as the tactic is dishonest then, yes, every possible action and outcome is damned. Rightly so.

I have to agree with fotonique on this one. I love the site, and particularly the series of Laura last week was an especially successful example of your method. But the interpretation of the shot of Bush and the fellow in the wheelchair is colored by partisanship, pure and simple.

If you imagine Clinton there instead of Bush, you would (probably) be saying something about how the people there feel so comfortable in the presence of a politician who genuinely seems to want to be there and comfort them etc. That may even all be true, Clinton authentic in such settings and Bush not, quite possible -- but the point is that the picture doesn't really back you up. The woman who is "skeptical" -- I call that "bemused." "Amused," which might even be a positive characterization, must be coupled with "incredulous" -- if it were Clinton it would just be "amused," full stop. The guy who is "denying" admittedly doesn't look very pleased, but the guy who is "masked" just looks neutral.

I think the interpretation of Bush and the guy in the wheelchair is a bit off; it looks like the guy is leaning back to talk in Bush's ear, and Bush isn't looking at anyone because his ear is turned toward him. The rest of the people in the photo are a different story, though. It looks to me like some part of the ceremony is still going on, and they think that's more worthy of their attention than the President having a photo-op in their midst. (The only other explanation that suggests itself is that they're not happy to be seen with him, and I can't imagine the White House would have let that sort of people attend.)

I didn't hear anything on the local DC news about survivors who were evacuated to DC being invited to the Cathedral, so I'm betting they were brought in for the occasion.

What these pictures should lead to is not the analysis of themselves, primarily, but the question of where government and religion can relate without the one being flooded by the other. Metaphorically, the pictures show that this government will allow religion to be flooded by poor decisions, misrepresentation. For the first picture, it shows me that Catholics have been sidelined, abandoned, misled. Roberts may be a Catholic, Rove, too, for all we know. But calling oneself a Catholic and living in that tradition are not the same. Just as being pro-life does not mean coming down on the side of a debate but actually saving lives, serving the poor, not abandoning the babies and elderly to die and suffer in shelters for the sake of political or monetary gain. Catholics beware--the Republican party will not save your tradition.

Dwelling, even sitting down within the confines of a Cathedral--this medieval tradition, this bridge to Europe, this intellectual and spiritual past--is not something that these neo-cons can ever hope to embrace. They are not the equals of the architecture, for their minds have not been schooled in the scholastics, in the disciplines. They look out of place because their place is not there. One does not simply get to enter into such places for free. One's commitments precede one; one's inability to commit precedes one. Entry in a living, natural way within the medieval tradition means that one must learn to understand that architecture, that religion from the inside. For this government (though NOT for all conservatives, and I am one) what they cannot make bend to their will they trash and throw away.

Their photographers do not know how to photograph it, even. They and their cameras are more at home in the Evangelical monstronsities, the new ones built over the last ten years in this country, gatherings for thousands that are more designed for the collection plate than the communion plate.

Back to the medieval: the celebration of the Eucharist in every major Christian religion is a solemn thing, one that involves the entire community. These neo-cons know nothing of community, nothing of history, nothing of the great religions. They are nominally what they claim to be. But religious people, true ones, are not nominalists. We are bread and wine for one another. We are aware of our own brokenness. We do not enforce the brokenness of others. Jesus, Come and save your people. From these people.

Not all religious conservatives are neo-cons. Many are socially conscious and those of us that are abhor the way our fellow citizens have been treated. May God have mercy on this government, for I find it quite difficult to have any. Every part of my conservative being rises against the false pride and lack of love that have been shown.

I have a question: what good does it do to show Bush is not a comfortable, good president? Are there really any conservatives (other than me) who you will win over that way? Are your analyses really more than agreeing with one another over how bad he is? I mean, why not put out there more important pictures--like of people in the shelters, people in pain, people who need your attention. This man deserves no more of ours.

Just a point of pedantry -- the Washington National Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral, not Roman Catholic. (The Catholic cathedral is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, IIRC.)

The photo on the top of the White House website does look like a painting from the Sistine chapel, with Bush's arm reaching out!

Weren't there any objections to choosing Friday as the National day of prayer? (Where was Rep. Tom Tancredo on this one?) After all, most Christians consider Sunday their sabbath, and for Jews it's Saturday... it's only Muslims who have Friday as their holy day.

Michel is right: there's way too much Bush at the Bag. I'll never understand what's going on by looking at him anyway, I'll only succeed if I open my eyes. For instance, look at Bush, do you see Iraq? No. Look at Iraq, do you see Bush? YES. So look at Iraq. Even I sometimes button my short wrong (which he didn't) or have a sweaty back (which he did). More weight, less air.

"We need a prayer that's walking and not just talking," Fuzz said. "We need a prayer with legs right now."

Lots of church folks are going down to the region to help out. There's some walking prayer! Thanks for the image; I'll share it with the people in my mission team!

Michel - amen! And thanks.

I saw this same Virgin Mary statue a week or so ago, less submerged. (or there could many scattered round the city, like gnomes or pink flamingos)

Struck the same cords. With the right-wing Christian fundamentalist wing seemly having its way with the federal gov these days, I thought how this picture wouldn't mean much to them! I doubt it is used for their propaganda purposes. After all Mary is an idol, and us (non-practicing in my case) Catholics idolaters!

Another reason they are in an Episcopal cathedral, as a Catholic cathedral would be inappropriate. John Robert's withstanding... if he were spouting loudly the dictates of a Pope, he'd be dead in the water.

Anyone know if Dubya and Laura took Communion at the Pope's funeral mass? (She sure loved dressing the part).

I think the man in the wheelchair and those around him do not appear all that taken with Bush. They look like they are above him looking down in judgment, the church arches give them a commanding presence and a religious authority or aura.

The man in the wheelchair also has a very strong and commanding presence. He is holding Bush away, and though Bush has forced his head back by partially by invading his personal space he is still talking to Bush's ear... he has no use for a practiced pity compassionate look or kiss from Bush. It also seems that he has a lot to say, and no close talker like Bush is going to stop him.

The only thing in Bush's favor is he is lending the man an ear rather than talking or giving him a stupid look.

Bush has that power pin stripe suit (In my opinion solid black would be appropriate) and might just be looking for a moment to interupt and keep moving using his presence to keep people like deer's in the headlights - and leave before anyone snaps out of it.

I must say if I meet Bush there are many things I would like to say and things I think he needs to hear. I would likely just babble and shake his hand. In any case I would be respectful, though I do not disapprove of those who would not be. This fellow does not look like he has any issues with telling Bush what he wants to.

If Bush wants us to live with him he is going to have to listen every once in a while. Who knows, maybe next he will actually pay attention and think about what others are saying.

(Or in his case at least take some pictures to make it look like he will)

The picture of the Virgin Mary just over the flood waters is a very sad, pensive, and repectful (of Nature, God, and Man & Death) in my opinion. The house and the paint job seem just right. If I saw that picture in 50 years I would think of New Orleans and the impact of Katrina.

I am very appreciative of all the critique. As BnN acquires a greater following, I rely more and more on your feedback, with a special ear toward those of you who have been with me some while, know the site well, and care for the intent in a way that makes us all want to look after it, and apply it in the most relevant and effective way.

I sometimes regret that the blog form requires so much output at such a pace, it inhibits the level of contemplation, idea formulation, research and, especially, process or "mission" analysis that one would take for granted just in writing a column or article, let alone a dissertation or a book.

Again, pressed up against the contraint of time, I take away a few key points. 1.) The site has a tendency to "water down," grasp or miss the point in the face of excessive partisanship. 2.) There is only so much space worth devoting to Bush.

Starting with the post at the top of the site today, I hope to improve in at least these two areas. Also, if you have further critiques or insights in terms of the process/direction of the BAG and it doesn't seem to fit this space, always feel free to email as well.

My first take on the Jakes lectern photo is that it looked like he was struggling to be seen (heard?) over the forbiddingly high lectern, like his head was straining upwards. It made it look to me like he was drowning behind it-- the patterns in the white stone resembled the foam of swirling water.

Maybe the photo was put on the wire because it suggested a very direct empathy between him and the victims? That Bushco. needed a spokesman who was *really* in touch with the tragedy, even symbolically, since the administration was (rightly) castigated for being so far out of touch?

Heh, don't worry too much about the partisanship thing. Every so often you should take a breath and ask what you would be saying if the parties were reversed. Aside from that, it's valuable even in its current form. Keep putting the thoughts out there, relatively unfiltered. It's all great stuff.

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