Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale

The former Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Arnhem, Netherlands, one of hundreds of decommissioned churches, was turned into a skate park.

The former Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Arnhem, Netherlands, one of hundreds of decommissioned churches, was turned into a skate park. Photo credit: Merlijn Doomernik for The Wall Street Journal.


Wall Street Journal

By Naftali Bendavid

Jan. 2, 2015 7:36 p.m. ET

ARNHEM, Netherlands—Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints.

This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.

It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?


At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn’t sung in 10 years. A skateboard attached to a wall urges, “Ride the dark side.”

Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded. An old tire hangs on the statue of a saint.

Puck Smit, 21, a regular visitor, says the church ambience enhances the skating experience. “It creates a lot of atmosphere—it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” he says, between gulps from a large bottle of cola. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

Another regular, Pelle Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”


Father Hans Pauw, pastor of St. Eusebius Parish, confirms the parish is trying to sell the church, but says church leaders have no problem with skaters using it for now. He said the parish is talking to a potential buyer.

“There are some things we don’t want—a casino or a sex palace or that kind of thing,” Father Pauw says. “But when it’s no longer a church in our eyes, then it can have any purpose.” As for the painting of Jesus holding a skateboard that now adorns the interior, he says, “I can see the humor in it.”

Read the whole story at The Wall Street Journal.

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Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup

Official photographers of the 2014 Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup held in Dallas, Texas.

Official photographers of the 2014 Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup held in Dallas, Texas.

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The way of faith for Alice Cooper

By Steve Beard

Back in 2002, MTV announced that the biggest hit in its history was a program called “The Osbournes.” The half-hour show — complete with constant bleeping from excessive foul language — was a curiously fascinating docu-comedy starring the members of Ozzy Osbourne’s family — wife and two teenage siblings (the eldest child bowed out of the show). Ozzy, of course, is the British rock singer acclaimed for his ghoulish heavy metal performances.

CooperThe Osbournes had just moved into a new Beverly Hills mansion where they promptly bemoaned the loss of their former neighbor, Pat Boone. Ozzy dottered and mumbled around the house trying to figure out the TV remote control, his wife hired a pet therapist to get the dogs to stop pottying in the living room, and the kids screamed and chased one another around the Osbourne compound.

Truth be told, I found the show captivating in a strange way. Others, justifiably, hated it. The television networks were scrambling to tap into the newly minted genre of “reality” television. At that time, I recommended that the next MTV show should feature Alice Cooper’s family. That’s right, the spooky granddaddy of shock rock who festooned his stage with guillotines, electric chairs, and boa constrictors. Continue reading

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Wrestling disquietly with the Bible

By Steve Beard

“My new Bible study is really testing me. I have never studied the Bible or read my Bible and I really have no idea how to do it,” confessed my friend Tiffany on Facebook. “The language is still confusing and I feel like I’m not really getting the messages.”

grantfalsani_disquiettime_hc-2-1The 24-year-old roller derby girl, saleswoman, and mother recently began attending a new church with her husband and she joined a women’s Bible study. “No matter how you word it, the Bible still has very confusing parts. I promise you it is not the version I’m using that is the problem. It is that I am just new with this whole studying the Bible thing. I feel like a freshman that just finished basic math and got thrown into senior calculus.”

As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses to her post. Tiffany’s Facebook confession was made on the same day I received Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (Jericho Books). In their introduction, the two editors describe the contributors as “nonconformists and oddballs,” comparing them to the characters on the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the cowboy who rides the ostrich or the toy train thunking along the track with a square wheel on its caboose? The imagery is strangely fitting for this collection of ruminations on the Bible from a wide variety of faith traditions.

With nearly 50 different contributors, this isn’t an authoritative text on biblical interpretation. Instead, it is more like a funky theological jam session – no sheet music, brother riffing off of sister, guitar solos, tooting of the horns, banging of the drums, thumping of the bass – testifying about both estrangement and enduring love for the Bible.

As I delved into the book, faces popped into my mind of people in my life who could relate to certain chapters. My son and nephews would howl at the offbeat but serious treatment of the use of “dung” in the Scripture. My mom would probably choose to skip over that chapter.

In all honesty, there is much beauty and brokenness and vulnerability in Disquiet Time. The easy endeavor would be to collect testimonies of those who’ve left the faith because of disillusionment with the Bible, hypocrisy at church, and unanswered prayers from an invisible God who is often difficult to understand. Instead, Disquiet Time lassoed up writers in the throes of wrestling with the challenges that thoughtful faith provokes. Many of them lay out their struggles with great honesty.


Anna Broadway

Describing a crisis of faith while on a Christian retreat, Anna Broadway confesses to changing lines to songs they were singing “(such as ‘I’m so grateful’) to something that felt more honest (such as ‘I’m so confused’). When I sang the more truthful refrain, I almost wept.”

Jennifer Grant flatly admits that she feels more “at home with the doubters and the skeptics than with those people who march through life with unblinking certainty, whatever their faith practices, convictions, or ideology may be.”

“What used to seem so clear cut and focused now feels murky and muddled,” writes Bill Motz. “It’s like being in a love-hate relationship with a dear old friend: some parts of the text fill me with joy and an overwhelming sense of truth, others anger me and make me feel that there’s no way God could ever have intended them to be included. Though I try to keep the discipline of daily study alive, I’ll admit to more than a little trepidation when I reach for my Bible.”

At different points in my life, those could be my words.

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

For other contributors, it seemed as though the Bible was standing between their faith and their calling in life. “I am grateful that I grew up in a church that revered the Scriptures; but sometimes it created a wall between God and me,” writes Susan E. Isaacs. “I’m a comedienne: I’ve always seen life through the skewed lens of humor, but there was no room for levity in my church. My mom suggested I write Bible skits. Seriously?” As to be expected, she delivers a hilarious and insightful chapter.

For the Rev. Sarah Heath, a United Methodist clergywoman, the issue was slightly different. When she felt the divine nudge to becoming an ordained minister, it was one of her friends from a Bible study group that said, “But you’re a girl. And that’s not okay.” Heath’s chapter on dealing with her ordination pursuit is the kind of wrestling with Scripture that is so magnificently redemptive.

“The ongoing ‘disquiet’ I’ve felt when reading about Saint Paul’s admonition that ‘women should be silent’ has been vital to my faith,” she writes. “It causes me to question, look deeper, and not just glaze over what I read. Study is a deep form of worship, and even when I question God I am drawing closer to God. My faith is growing and being stretched. In the great rabbinic tradition of midrashic reading, asking questions – even the toughest, thorniest, most disquieting ones – deepens my faith. And for that, I am thankful to Saint Paul.”

IMG_2087One of the most engaging chapters springboards off the text in Genesis 1:2: “And the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” David Vanderveen interlaces his journey of faith with sailing and surfing. You can almost taste the salt water as he makes the point that it is deep and powerful experiences that transform our theology.

“Riding a wave fueled by an energy you cannot see, except for its effects, can be compared to Saint Peter stepping out of the boat and walking across the water to Jesus,” he writes. “You know it should drown you, as it does so many, but if you put your faith in the power of the universe and align yourself with its demands, miracles happen as tangibly as if Christ were standing next to you in human form, making the blind see and the lame walk.”

Another contributor, the Rev. Kenneth Tanner, is an old college buddy of mine. Many years ago, he gave me a small peculiar icon that has been replicated from one hanging in the chapel of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. It is believed to have been given in the mid-sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The uniqueness of the icon is that the right and left sides of Christ’s face are noticeably different, and one eyeball is larger than the other.

christpantocrator-sinai“The more time I spent in prayer looking at this unique image of Jesus – the Pantocrator [“Almighty”] – the more the asymmetry of the eyes troubled me,” Tanner writes. “I pondered why the artist would paint Jesus with a physical ‘imperfection.’ Eventually I realized this was not a problem with the artist or the image but rather a limitation of my imagination, a failure to see everything there is to see in Christ. After all, the word became flesh in Jesus (John 1:4) and was made like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17).”

My icon is kept next to my computer so that I might remember to try to see everything there is to see in Christ.

“God wants to be in a relationship with us, and in order to do that, we have to keep talking,” writes Cathleen Falsani. “The Bible is one of the ways the dialogue continues. And unlike dining etiquette, polite conversation with God puts no topics off limits. Go ahead and put your elbows on the table. Use the wrong fork. It’s okay. (Who are you trying to impress?)” God knows you, after all. There are no veiled secrets before the Almighty. “God loves us,” Falsani concludes. “Madly. Just as we are.”

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani

In the midst of all my questions and gripes about the complexity of the Bible, I was taught to find the redemption in the midst of the chaos and disarray and mystery.

“It’s true that if you haven’t stood before God and been confused, you’re probably not standing before the real God,” observes theologian Steve Brown. “But it is also true – and far more important – to realize that if you haven’t stood before God and been loved unconditionally and without reservation, you’re not standing before the real God, either.”

Make no mistake about it, not everyone in Disquiet Time is where I am – or where you are – on the theological continuum. With such a wide array of perspectives, that should be no surprise. Part of my faith is respecting the authentic testimonies, biblical insights, questions, and doubts of those who are also trying to reach the other side of the river Jordan.

We need to welcome the challenge of roller derby girls like my friend Tiffany when they venture into the sanctuary. Questions must be taken seriously, guidance needs to be offered with grace, and flashlights should be made available during dark nights of the soul.

Tiffany got a lot of feedback from friends on Facebook. Some of it was trite, but some of it was helpful. “I am so glad to hear you are muddling through it,” wrote one. “That’s pretty much what we all do, and believe it or not, the fact that you have to work at it is actually what makes those nuggets that reach your heart priceless.” I wouldn’t argue with that.

Steve Beard is the creator and editor of Thunderstruck. 

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East of Eden

2000__largeBy Steve Beard

Every morning I see a poster hanging in my home for a Triple Crown surf contest in Hawaii. During the last 25 years, I have been to several of the islands, but the small town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu has been my vision of paradise. We all envision paradise differently: The Mall of America, Fenway Park, Disneyland, Pike’s Peak, the Amazon rainforest. Mine just happens to include shave ice, pineapples, macadamia nuts, and crashing surf.

Several months ago, my family gathered in Maui to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before renewing their vows in a beautiful United Methodist sanctuary, I was invited to preach the sermon at the morning service before a congregation of Tongans, tourists, and my extended family.

Because of all the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded us, I took the opportunity to ask if it was easier or more difficult to find God in paradise. I take great comfort in knowing that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. The environment surrounding the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis (2:8-9) and The Book of Revelation (2:7).

I love knowing that God cared about creating “trees that were pleasing to the eye” in Eden and that it was his first choice, his first plan, and his heart’s desire. Our search for paradise is God-crafted. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because the everlasting soul craves an eternal kingdom.

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Eternity on the Sidewalk

By Steve Beard

When we are born we bear the seeds of blight;
Around us life & death are torn apart;
Yet a great ring of pure and endless light;
Dazzles the darkness in my heart.

staceSometimes poets drive me nuts. Despite my best efforts, poetry is not my first language. Nevertheless, my heart melts when the poetic swerve makes a complex matter sound wistfully sensible. The stanza above is from the late Madeleine L’Engle, the poet and storyteller behind A Wrinkle in Time, and it helps even a left-brainer like me to conceptualize the theological complexities of the human heart and our journey.

As I grow older, the more I love the image of eternity as a great ring of endless light. Perhaps it is because I am acquainted too well with the darkness and pettiness in my heart. L’Engle’s words conjure up the imagery of someone shouting “Hello!” into a dark cavern where the words are given the freedom to echo on and on.

Everlasting to everlasting is a mighty long time. That is a terrifying prospect to some, and sweet relief to others. Somehow foreverness seems to be etched into our DNA. “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing,” mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal observed almost 350 years ago. Is that what gives such lasting import to words such as Hope, Mercy, Grace, Love, and Resurrection?

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Fatherly advice

My son John Paul just turned 18 years old. I fired off my first letter to him when he was four days old. “All of this is to simply say that you were wanted and we are so glad that you have arrived,” I concluded back in 1996. When he turned 13, family friends wrote him encouraging notes of advice as he experienced a non-kosher version of a Protestant bar mitzvah. “I don’t suppose that anything magical happened when you woke up and had officially turned 13,” I wrote. “Nevertheless, this is an important time for me to tell you again how much I love you and how unbelievably proud I am of you.” As he packs up for college, this is some of the letter I wrote to him (shared here with his permission).

–Steve Beard

Dear John Paul:

Rolling Stone recently published a fascinating profile of Annie Clark (who performs her rock ‘n’ roll under the stage name of St. Vincent). When she was young, Clark’s grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini” in the other. Her parents were not particularly devout Christians, but the baptism meant a lot to the grandmother and her parents believed “it wouldn’t do any harm.”

Steve and John Paul Beard.

I laughed because of the similarities and dissimilarities between her experience and your baptism. Your mom and I wanted your grandfather to perform this ancient ritual because it is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace that brews within you. When your grandfather baptized you in the waves of Maui, those of us on the beach and the nearby sea turtles were witnesses to this sacred moment.

The difference between Annie Clark’s parents and your own mom and dad is that we actually believe that your baptism is significant, sacred, and spectacular. When times are tough, I hope you can remember your baptism. It directly links you to innumerable generations of believers before you from every culture and from every tongue around the globe.

This letter is not meant to be a trite rah-rah cheer for Jesus. You are now an adult. Your life is a runway before you. Take off. Fly. You can choose your own path, cut your own trail, and make your own decisions. Sometimes that will be sweet relief — at other times it will be exhaustingly miserable.

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Setzer Gretsch in Smithsonian

Brian Setzer RWS2014-03259Brian Setzer’s gorgeous Gretsch guitar has now been inducted into the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Setzer’s guitar – which is actually a replica of his 1959 Gretsch – will be part of the stunning collection of musical instruments at the museum that includes John Coltrane’s saxophone, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, Prince’s Yellow Cloud electric guitar, and Eddie Van Halen’s “Frank 2″ guitar.

As a lifelong fan of the Stray Cats and the big band sounds of The Brian Setzer Orchestra, I could not be happier for the innovative Setzer. As a young rockabilly musician, I lusted after that classic Gretsch guitar – that garish orange body with those two dice that he drilled to replace missing tone knobs and the Lucky Lady, skull and crossbones, and Black Cat stickers. As to the replica guitar that will be at the Smithsonian, apparently his original guitar began to age and became unplayable. A master guitar builder replicated every detail of the original and created an exact replica in 2006 that Setzer has been playing. Congratulations, Brian Setzer! Rockabilly rules!

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Happy Birthday Wanda Jackson!

By Steve Beard

At the age of 77, the righteous Queen of Rockabilly is still tearing it up with 60 to 80 concerts per year. Considered to be one of the first women to record rock and roll, Jackson is a sassy music legend who toured with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and, most recently, Adele. It was her boyfriend, Elvis Presley, who convinced Jackson to migrate from country music to rockabilly.

Wanda Jackson

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson growled out hits such as “My Big Iron Skillet,” “Tears Will Be the Chaser for your Wine,” and “Fujiyama Mama.” Ten years after their marriage, Wanda and her husband Wendall began attending church and dedicated their lives to Christianity in 1971. “We were headed down a pretty rocky road,” she told Smithsonian Magazine. “The main thing that God does for you when you really sell out to him and want to live for him is he sets your priorities up right.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and devoted their talents to churches and revival meetings.

When the rockabilly revival of the 1980s was launched, Jackson was recruited to tour all over Europe. With her legendary status as a rock pioneer, she was periodically invited to play at music festivals and to collaborate with other artists such as Rosie Flores and The Cramps.

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Lecrae, Imelda May, Southern Food Museum, Tiki Bars, and Sunday Mornings


• Lecrae: ‘Christians Have Prostituted Art to Give Answers.’ Thoughts on rap and God from the 34-year-old musician, who was the first to ever simultaneously land an album at the top of the gospel music charts and the Billboard 200 (The Atlantic)
Digging: Record shopping with Imelda May (The New Yorker)
• A New Museum To Celebrate Southern Food (And You Can Eat The Exhibits) (NPR)
• Reviving the Tiki Tradition: The 14 Best Tiki Bars on O‘ahu (Honolulu)
• Confessions of a Pastor’s Wife: I hate Sundays by Kirsten Oliphant


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