Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, has died, and the Los Angeles Times just ran a lengthy obit on him. Schuller must be turning in his grave at this point.
After a short opening anecdote about his "Come as you are, in the family car!” era, complete with reference to his $83.75 offering plate take on the first Sunday in his old drive-in movie theater church, the newspaper of record in Southern California radically switched gears:
Schuller, who built the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove as the embodiment of an upbeat, modern vision of Christianity, only to see his ministry shattered by family discord and financial ruin, died Thursday at a care facility in Artesia. He was 88 and had esophageal cancer.
After a working life of great success and influence, Schuller was forced to watch from retirement as much of what he built was laid to waste. In October 2010, his church, then led by his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman, declared bankruptcy. That led to the sale of the cathedral and surrounding property to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in February 2012.
Changing tastes, financial overreach and squabbling over a successor were factors in the collapse. Schuller had turned over his pulpit first to his son, Robert A. Schuller, and then to Coleman. In March 2010, he and his wife formally cut ties to the ministry they had founded, bemoaning the “negative and adversarial atmosphere” enveloping the church's leadership.
It was an ignominious end to what had been one of the greatest success stories of postwar American Christianity. The silver-haired evangelist rose from humble beginnings to become one of the late 20th century's most recognized religious figures.
I agree that Schuller’s last 10 years weren’t his best. But did he deserve an obit front-loaded with all his mistakes?
I am guessing the double byline is a result of its former religion writer, Bill Lobdell, having prepared an obit on Schuller during his tenure at the Times. Reporters are often called on to write obituaries for major figures on their beats. Hence, there’s a Billy Graham obit sitting in probably every religion reporter’s files waiting for the day he passes. The current religion-beat staffer no doubt updated Lobdell’s obit once Schuller died, creating the radical transition at the very top of the story.
Back to the content. Now, Schuller was not a guy who did things halfway. Not only was he into drive-in churches (in an era when America was into drive-in movies), but his $20 million Crystal Cathedral –- finished in 1980 –- was a 3,000-seat, 12-story glass building filled with light. Its 10,000 glass panes made it the largest glass building in the world, and its pipe organ was the fifth largest in the world. Like Oral Roberts, who populated his Tulsa-based Oral Roberts University with unusual architecture, Schuller wanted the building to be part of the message.
The Times goes on to describe how Schuller influenced a generation of megachurch pastors and managed to avoid some of the problems that bedeviled other televangelists in the late 1980s. But then, the minister:
... did receive a steady stream of criticism from some Christians -- including those within his denomination -- for his downplaying of sin, tying popular psychology too closely to the Gospel and constructing a series of world-class buildings with millions of dollars that could have been spent on the poor.
The church's bankruptcy filing ultimately revealed a pattern of lavish spending, including generous salaries and benefits for Schuller family members on the church staff. With the congregation aging and donations dwindling, Schuller's ministry could not be sustained.
Is the money-should-be-spent-on-the-poor argument a legit criticism at this point? It could be noted that the Los Angeles Catholic Diocese’s gorgeous, and also controversial, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which opened in 2002, cost $189.7-$200 million (depending on which news account you read).
Next we learn that Schuller always made his services accessible –- via a giant outdoor TV screen -- to car-loving Californians who preferred to listen in from the comfort of their convertibles. There are a few things about this obit that are unusual, such as the following paragraph:
Away from the pulpit, Schuller was often quick-tempered and controlling. In a lengthy Times profile in 1983, Bella Stumbo wrote that privately the pastor -- “particularly among strangers but even around his faithful staff, friends and wife -- is often surprisingly aloof, stiff and uncomfortable, sullen and sour at times, defensive at others. In conversation, he is perpetually dominant, both condescending and pedantic. He displays not the slightest trace of spontaneous humor, rarely smiles and never seems to laugh.”
Here is that 1983 profile, which shows a vastly younger, more upbeat Schuller who, near the end of the piece, offers a pretty decent defense for why he built such an expensive house of worship.
I understand there’s a place for criticizing people, and the Times has run plenty of articles on Schuller’s final 20 years, which were a mess of family splits and bankruptcy. But is an obit the place to sing that tune again?
The New York Times also ran an obit on Schuller that in the third paragraph mentioned some of the evangelist’s failures. But then the fourth paragraph swung into a recitation of 40 years of his successes. Yes, there was mention further down of some of Schuller’s failures. But the obit ended -- like many of Schuller’s sermons -- on a positive note.
Maybe the best part of the Los Angeles Times’ obit was the sidebar; a piece by its architecture critic on why Schuller’s splashy church was a notable addition to Orange County’s architectural history. That article gave credit where credit was due in Schuller having the foresight to build a temple that appropriately mirrored the century and the place in which he lived.