Big Box Jesus

48 thoughts on “Big Box Jesus”

  1. Johnny,
    You said in your article that you have studied many municipal budgets and the results are “insolvent.” Have you looked at their comprehensive-annual-financial-reports? If you have not, you might look there and see some very interesting “pockets” of liquidity and capital reserves that are not going to show up in the budgets. All these municipalities are incorporated and are required to make a financial report. Just ask for their “CAFR” and if you have not seen these, I think you are in for an incredible journey. Would love to hear what you find!

      1. Well, please don’t start chewing glass. As you obviously know by the “cutting” response to my suggestion, no financial report can be read literally and takes an in depth “reading between the lines” to realize the bait and switch behind municipal reporting. As Minicozzi quoted in his lecture “it’s about the numbers” and how they are creatively presented that is the challenge in translating what is being covered up by their constant changing of standards and definitions of terms. No financial analyst worth their weight in leverage will simply fall line and sinker to the cooked results of any corporate report. But, nonetheless, someone reads the calfers and it isn’t the general public nor general media and even few policymakers. The question of the day is: who reads these reports and what do the numbers presented say inversely about what “isn’t being reported”? You definately are not going to get the full story looking at their budgets which is where the cooking starts to always beg for more taxes and bond levies. No legislature or council person that I have confronted has ever denied that the “reserves” exist. But they have acknowledged the funds cannot be accessed. Getting to the truth is like you say, very painful indeed. If these reports are so “falsified” as you suggest, then that in itself is telling of a much, much bigger story here.

        1. I would never use the term “falsified” to describe any public document related to municipal finance. I’m merely suggesting that given the gap between what the public demands and what is physically possible there may be some perfectly legal yet… “discretionary” accounting methods to make things look more reasonable then they might actually be. This is generally referred to as “kicking the can down the road.” Sooner or later towns tend to run out of road.

          1. Yes, that discretionary spending clause…which every city manager, county commish, and state gov’ner cannot operate without–trust me, I’ve been there and that is definately a hot topic too heavy for this banter. Oh well, thank you for your responses and for Marohn’s site. I look forward to more of your insightful articles and innovative perspective. Nice work!

  2. πŸ™Œ Johnny!! Again you’ve hit the nail on the head!

    As a southern boy that was raised in the πŸ™ Baptist church (that happens to be πŸ‘¨β€β€οΈβ€πŸ‘¨ homosexual πŸ‘¬) I did not follow that “Yellow Brick Road” but instead hightailed it north to Brooklyn as soon as I finished college (after a stint in Hawaii).. Where – it turns out – I live in a converted factory building down the street from ‘the projects’ (Lions! πŸ™€) SURROUNDED by neighborhoods dominated by Afro/Latin/Caribbean & Asian ethnicities (πŸ… Tigers! 🐲 ) near one of America’s largest Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods (Bears! 🐾) OH MY!

    My folks thought I was absolutely nuts to move to a Brooklyn neighborhood in 2002 decorated with graffiti, window bars, and concertina wire. Jokes on them. The GREAT INVERSION πŸ•Š is well under way & my ‘hood’s growin’ up to be a tolerant, safe, walkable, affordable lil’ Garden of Eden in the shadows of the tempting Big bad Apple 🍎 πŸ˜‚

    I personally don’t care for or need a commercialized Mega-Church to tell me to treat others with respect (or to proselytize about my afterlife) but as you said, some family members and friends back south ‘buy’ into this sort of arrangement and I respect that. The churches these days I think had to modernize to keep attendance up… and you can’t refute the fact that these ‘Houses of Worship’ do provide a THIRD SPACE for diverse backgrounds to gather (under the auspices of a congregation) when so much of suburbia lacks public space. Again, not for me but ‘live and let live’.

    Great choice of a title and cover image showing a six lane airport-style approach highway to this article! Keep up the amazing perspectives and photo essays! I always love the way you present your ideas – It’d be nice to connect when I’m out in the Bay Area mid-October..

    1. I looked you up. Love your work and loft. (Apartment Therapy) Reminds me of my own youthful adventures. When I think about the next generation of funky bohemians I suspect they will inhabit the places that are 1) super cheap and 2) largely unregulated. The most likely destination for tomorrow’s artist lofts, gay bars, creative food scene, and live music venues will be the abandoned husks of suburban commercial strips in failed fringe suburbs. A long vacant Kmart is the next iteration of the urban industrial loft building. Dead strip malls are ready made studios and incubator spaces. The only thing standing in the way at the moment is code enforcement. It’s just a matter of time before many declining suburbs become so broke they can’t even pay people to slap red tags on things. I give it thirty years. Then, inevitably, such sad desolate run down locations will become fashionable with the “Dentist from New Jersey” crowd and the artists will be priced out. It’s all part of the big cycle of life…

      1. Thanks Johnny! I’ll definitely hit you up in Mid-October when i’m in the Bay Area.. Would love to talk more about this..
        Off topic… to expound upon your commit “Kmart is the next iteration of the urban industrial loft building.” It’s not limited to the ‘burbs – big city shopping destinations are going through profound change as well.. as evident in these articles:
        Perhaps it’s the beginning of another ‘Great Inversion’ and we’re at the tipping point of a Great Rebalancing.

      2. Thanks Johnny!
        I’ll definitely hit you up in the Bay are in October when i’m in the Bay Area.. Would love to talk more about this..
        Off topic – to expound upon your commit “Kmart is the next iteration of the urban industrial loft building.” It’s not limited to the ‘burbs – big city shopping destinations are going through profound change as well:
        Perhaps it’s the beginning of another ‘Great Inversion’ and we’re at the tipping point of a Great Rebalancing.

  3. I was just watching the Dead Malls Series on youtube, and it is hard for me to grasp how a real estate company could let a property with dozens of empty stores in it just drift towards insolvency for years. Why not put office space private or public, or healthcare facilities or call centers or sports centers or housing or factories in the empty stores?

    There seems to be this mindset in America that you can only have chain stores in shopping malls. If that doesn’t work it’s dead, nothing you can do about it.

    Post-Christian religious organizations seem to be the only ones who can break out of this mindset. But other than their tax free status, they don’t really have much more reason for optimism than anyone else trying to keep a mall alive.

    1. The owners of shopping malls are all scrambling to adapt their properties to new profitable uses. In markets where there’s still a middle or upper class with disposable income and viable economic activity many malls have already been converted to “lifestyle centers” that mimic older traditional Main Streets – sort of. In places that are merely fair-to-middling economically malls are often turned in to “civic centers” with a library, Town Hall, Community College, etc. In other locations dead malls make perfectly good medical centers or office parks. However, there are a huge number of locations where the dead malls are in places that are so devoid of market demand of any kind that there simply is no financially viable alternative to rot.

  4. “Everything about respectable modern life is predicated on people spending a certain amount of money in a very specific way that is nearly impossible to achieve on a cash basis. And that set of arrangements is in direct conflict with the traditional virtues of frugality, saving, and self reliance.”

    That nails it.

  5. I recall reading a suggestion (in a post on The American Conservative website) that churches could have a role to play in building urban spaces. At any rate, it gives people a reason (community) to be in one place, rather than scattered all over.

    Perhaps, as thing start to really slide, congregations will begin clutering around their churches, trading in their suburban palaces for smaller townhouses that are within walking distance from their church and it’s school?

    1. Many years ago when I was about to graduate from university a friend and I were trying to decide where to live. We developed a set of short hand tricks – general rules and parameters – for what a good neighborhood would be like.

      We started to identify towns that had Orthodox synagogues even though neither of us were Jewish. Orthodox Jews are forbidden to operate machinery on the Sabbath so they’re required to walk rather than drive to Temple. It was a rough, but surprisingly accurate way to find compact, mixed use, walkable neighborhoods.

      Given our particular sensibilities we combined this litmus test with a few other items. As we like to say, there’s something profoundly wrong with any town that can’t support a respectable population of Jews, Chinese, and homosexuals… Other people have different requirements. Those were ours.

  6. I have been thinking of the end of Light Sweet Crude as a”bottleneck”, but lately heard it referred to as a “birth canal”. It was a YTube channel that reminded me of the Church of the Subgenius books of several decades ago, with ET’s and all. Kind of a Mythic Explanation of how things are, but then it’s simplified into “Good vs. Evil”, a fundamentalist construction one would think they’re trying to escape from; perhaps they’re just satirizing the dualism as well.

    I chose a life pattern with a small footprint, and a large handprint, and I’m autodidactic, even at this age. The building I live in, and the building I work in, I built myself, using local materials, while respecting their Ki. The Natural World is right outside my door, and blows in through the many small cracks which were never sealed. The stars are bright and clear at night when I take out the dishpan and wing it on the garden. I don’t claim to be sane, but living in a suburban environment would certainly make me insane.

    Would love to see photos of the schools as well, of this place, particulary the high school. I went to North Central HS in Indpl. IN four decades and more ago, and even then it looked like a prison. Maybe I’ll take a look at guglll street see how its changed.

    1. Did the guglle search, and the satellite view around NCHS, and west, shows the great expansion of suburbia in the past 40 years. The HS looks the same though. Surfing on, I find the power corp is still burning coal, and the corp that own’s that corp, owns lots of coal plants around the world, a bunch in China as well. Surfing on, I found:

      SOMO (Center for Research on Multinational Corporations)

  7. Fantastic. I was wondering what the hell I was looking at. Never saw a church look like that before. It’s odd, and yeah, kinda ironic at the message you were going to hear and what’s around it. Wonder how old that place is.

    That’s what I hate about McMansion neighborhoods springing up all over. Older homes have a lot more appeal for me, even if you have to get the foundation looked at every decade. Ooh, how horrible! But if you ask somebody (like i often did) who moved into a new house in one of those new neighborhoods, there’s something they just don’t like about them. I mentioned how much yard space they had, and how many trees.

    That’s what bothers people I know the most. It’s all small strips of grass, lot’s of concrete, and maybe a yard in back. Nothing that entices people to stay outside and be neighborly, and it feels uneasy. My mom lived in one of those neighborhoods, and she did all she could to plant more trees and really get the yard looking good, because it just felt wrong otherwise.

  8. First, your photos. They are simple, but they say so, so much more than your words, or than you could ever say. They always remind me of the working title of Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: “Why is America so F&&&ing Ugly.” Above all, they almost always illustrate the deadening distance between us, between our buildings, between us as people, distance foisted upon us by our cars. Is there a single image on this post that doesn’t show the sprawling distances foisted upon us in nearly everything? Cold-hearted houses that greet us with a garage door? I see that already decaying church on the hill and somehow envision a walled monastery or city, surrounded by acres of vineyards and terraced fields–community and food.

    Whoops, got that one wrong.

    As for the rest, I find it hard to see anything actually Christian in that church or its setup. Those people could give me the shirts off their backs, but I can’t see that. I don’t condemn them, either. The reality for all of us, Christian or other, is that we are all working for Pharaoh, and it’s devilishly tricky for any of us to really remove ourselves from the rat races you describe. At the same time it is crucial for our humanity that we do. This wasn’t easy in Jesus’ own time, evidenced by the repeated challenges to his followers to give up everything to follow him–give up money, give up status, give up that good job, let the dead bury their own. It’s harder than the proverbial fat man fitting through the eye of the needle, and I hope your readers grasp that better from what you presented today.

      1. “How things ended for Jesus”. There are, of course, two versions of that “ending”. One was crucifixion. The other was ascension (post-resurrection). Which ever one you believe, the message of Jesus hasn’t ended yet. I hope that you, as an author, may find some comfort in that, and that it encourages you to keep observing, and writing.

        You might also like to examine this web site: to see how an American Muslim community has developed a campus for their faithful.

        1. I lived as a Muslim, among Muslims, for many years. When SHTF after 9/11 and brothers got suspicious of me, the elders insisted I would stay among them and be treated as one of them, no restrictions. I’m used to seeing the world from angles others don’t. I know no one else sees it, but that page is a declaration of war, in such quiet and subtle terms that most non-Muslims don’t see it, but instead project their own images and illusions upon it. Prof. Senturk’s line, “People live under Islam in peace,” should be all it takes to set off the alarm bells, but only a little research will tell you all you need to know about DCA’s “peaceful” intentions. Let the DCA live like that in Turkey — oh, wait, even now the Turkish government can’t allow a group like to that to live in such a way. So much for living under Islam in peace.

          As for how it all turned out for Jesus, we’re not arguing the Resurrection, but that those who speak truth to power tend to end up dead. Myself, I refer to Socrates. Charged with corrupting the youth of Athens because he taught them to question things like foreign wars, indulging in debt and blindly following the Athenian gods, he was found guilty by roughly 280 to 220. The jury then convened to decide Socrates’ fate, and voted overwhelmingly, 390 to 110 give or take, just to kill the old bastard and be done with him. Interestingly, Plato “omits” the difference in vote tallies, one has to go to Xenophon to find that out. Truth is a damned inconvenient thing to regimes of all stripes.

          1. This post isn’t about religion. It’s about a larger cultural and economic set of arrangements that’s unlikely to persist due to debt loads that can never be serviced.

            1. In each of these developments (DCA, Jericho, and the Big Box you presented), a group of people have created a campus environment which implicitly focuses their attention within their own group, for many purposes other than what we typically think of a “religious”. The larger culture tends to regard with suspicion those who set themselves apart.

              I don’t have much insight into the role of debt in their financing. Regardless of how they were constructed, they have significant operating expenses, and rely on being able to draw generous supporters from a large area (hence, the large parking lots). Whether or not these facilities enhance or reduce the sustainability of their groups is an important but open question.

              1. Johnny, I do apologize, I realized last night after I signed off that I missed lathechuck’s point entirely, and was concerned that my hip-shot reaction took things way off track. I’m glad to see that it didn’t, and that lathechuck’s follow-up confirmed what I realized too late was his earlier point. No religious group has an exclusive claim to building these white elephants.

                That said, having lived yada yada, I would venture that very little credit was extended to build the Moslem center, vice what was done to build the Christian one. Islam bans usury (so did Christianity once), and Muslims are extremely good at saving cash and conducting large transactions in cash, as their religion binds them to do. You ask, is there an operating plan and are funds collected to maintain the roof, etc, and I would venture that the Islamic center, while still dependent on a dysfunctional city and economy, is probably much more capable of surviving economic shakedown than is the church on the hill.

                1. I should also clarify an earlier comment. When I referred to “the message of Jesus”, I didn’t necessarily mean that it would be understood as “the Truth”. I just meant that even an obscure rabbi living under Roman occupation could craft a message that has outlasted (in some sense) the Roman empire, the Ottoman empire, and the Soviet Union, for example. May your words also outlast our empire.

                  1. This is disingenuous. “His” words were compiled by a massive institutional structure (the Roman Empire originally, and its political successors, as well as the institutional church) and enforced over the centuries through state violence.

                    We are not really sure what “His” words really were, and what was compiled by competing groups of early church fathers in their internecine battles.

                    (Sorry…this is not the topic of the essay, but this kind of bland evangelism irritates me)

        2. Another version is that god switched out Judas Iscariot for Jesus so Judas got crucified. that’s the Syriac Christian / Muslim version of the story.

          Also there is this oddity: Pilate asked the crowd whom to free and the said “Barabbas”. In Aramaic that’s bar Abba, son or the father, and father is what Jesus called god (except in his dying words). So maybe he got away?

  9. Save 25 percent of what you earn. Oh, and on your way out, don’t forget to pick up an overpriced cup of coffee!

    1. I wasn’t criticizing this church or the people who attend it. I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these folks. I’m commenting on the larger society that makes it nearly impossible to live frugally as the church people recommend. Symptom vs. disease…

      1. I’m not criticizing the people who attend the church. But I am criticizing the church. This sort of prosperity gospel is rubbish and encourages people to consume beyond their means, even if it ostensibly preaches that people should save their money. “Put that new car on a credit card. God will enable you to pay the bill. God wants you to have that house with the jacuzzi.”

        1. I didn’t get that vibe from the speakers I listened to. But the overwhelming reality is that doing the sensible thing is either numerically impossible or culturally unacceptable in this environment.

          1. I hope (though without much evidence) that “doing the sensible thing” is a system of values promoted by that church as an alternative culture to the “bigger house, faster car, more exotic vacation, more exclusive education for the children” secular culture that surrounds us. Humility and thrift can be a source of pride, as long as it’s voluntary.

            On the other hand, I think I’ve read about churches where the members take pride in the wealth displayed by their leaders. “We have made him great” must be in the background there, somewhere, when the finest suit climbs out of the most expensive car in the church parking lot, and it has the minister/bishop/pastor inside. Maybe there’s an implicit promise that faith made him rich first, and will make the rest of us rich in due time.

            See also Jerico, City of Praise, another mega-church, near Washington DC. (

            1. The New England Pilgrims brought the Puritan work ethic with them from the Olde Country. If you’re rich God must be shining on you. The flip side of that philosophy assumes that if you’re poor you must be lazy, stupid, or undeserving. “God don’t like ugly.”

  10. to see where it all ends up, i need only to google my ancestral village and city..The city fares better as centuries of thick stone buildings have stood their ground atop hills–watching voracious development erupt and decay below precious steeples of power. The deeply disturbing facts of upward mobility are most evident in the hamlets where high speed trains rampage over frugal generations–i just saw my great-grands’ thousand year old structures being rolled over by giant machines to make way for greed masquerading as convenience. Yet another project to tax the anxious population with.( if you must know; south-west France).

  11. I was reading this article and looking at the pictures going “you know, this place seems oddly familiar…but nah, can’t be anywhere I know, everywhere looks the same now…” It took me about five minutes of looking at the pictures to realize “Oh shit! That’s Roseville! I grew up there, and lived there for 20 years before I was just recently priced out.” Amazing that I wouldn’t recognize my own hometown, but then again it’s just a copypasta of everything else in CA. I remember when it was all fields and deer, and now you can go to a hilltop like the one that “church” is on and it’s just stucco to the horizon. It’s sad.

  12. Thank you for the unique observations on suburban America. Many suburbs in Australia look very similar, even the occasional Big Box Jesus malls as well! Somewhat ironically, I feel a little of my soul dying looking at your photos of modern worship :p

  13. Love the German car collection. There is a 10 year old subdivision of mini Mc Mansions near me. About 25% are showing signs of decay, dead lawns and peeling paint. That does not stop the display of 15 year old German cars parked on the side yard or driveway. Some with no tags. I guess the prestige of your ride makes it ok.

    1. I’d bet the occupant of the house is running a de facto used car lot. He lists the cats on Craigslist as a private seller, but the paper goes through a licensed dealer. I don’t know about this one, but I’ve seen it done before. Explains a bunch of untagged cars.

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