Thursday, August 31, 2006

Christian Kitsch (with images!)

In the most recent Sojourners there is an excerpt from a book called “A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch.” In it, author Betty Spackman asks some great questions. “Why is it that so much of the imagery used to express Christian faith can be considered ‘kitsch’? Why is such profound meaning visualized in such feeble ways?”

Defining kitsch might be a slippery endeavor, but it falls into the area of something trite, cheesy, tawdry, or vulgar. Something created to appeal to an unsophisticated, indiscriminate taste. I consider kitsch to be surface level art; it never gets down to anything profound, substantial, rough. And as far as Christian images in the public milieu, it seems to me that a whole heck of a lot of it is kitsch.

“How do I, as a professional artist and a Christian, reconcile (or not) the continuing consumption of things my aesthetic taste and my personal faith reject at so many levels?” writes Spackman.

GREAT question! Especially when you consider how much meaning such items seem to have for so many people. There seems to be an enormous volume of material out there that offends both my artistic and my theological sensibilities, and yet seems to hold a deep influence over many, many people. For me, it is not only visual “art,” but also “music.” (Yes, I put quotes around the word music, because a part of me refuses to call what passes for “music” in some churches truly music.) Tinny, two- or three-chord, repetitious, melodically monotonous, repetitious, rhythmically unimaginative, repetitious, and “let’s-just-crank-up-our-amplifiers-so-they-won’t-notice-how-bad-it-is” so-called “music” may very well be the downfall of the worship style formerly known as contemporary.

Another category to consider = kitschy Christian email forwards. Why do people insist on foisting such drivel unbidden upon their friends and loved ones? Puppy dogs and rainbows and pink clouds and doe-eyed Jesuses gazing with vapid emptiness off into the sky make me want to hurl. And apparently, if I fail to foist the drivel immediately upon ten of my friends whose email addresses have the bad luck of residing in my address book, God will condemn me to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. Give me a break! I’m much more concerned with what those ten friends will do to me if I DO foist than with what God will do to me if I don’t.

Why is it that, for some people, Christianity, a 2,000 year old religion whose roots are grounded in a 5,000 year old religion and whose complexities have been explored by the greatest minds of history for generations upon generations, can be expressed in a snow globe with a figurine of a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus surrounded by fluffy white clouds?

Though I am writing this article with a bit of humor, it really isn’t that funny. The trend in Christian “art” shows a clear degradation of both theological and artistic integrity. This is more than a matter of personal taste. I cannot with good conscience just write this off as a simple issue of preference, wherein a mousepad with a rendering of the poem “Footsteps” and a Cornelis Monsma painting are considered just two options among many in the genre of Christian art. Christian kitsch is theologically shallow stuff, and represents an immaturity of faith that I fear has become alarmingly widespread. I suppose that such material affords us an opportunity to reflect on culture, art, and faith. Betty Spackman writes that objects of Christian kitsch “demand my attention, begging questions about the relationships between consumerism and desire, art and faith, accessibility and elitism.”

And so there I am, caught between the latest cheesy email in my inbox and my churning stomach. Part of me just wants to laugh at all of this and go on with life, thinking that these things are harmless trinkets that are more indicative of the shallowness of pop culture than anything about Christianity. But another part of me is truly worried that some people really do think the doctrine of incarnation is best expressed with a nativity set comprised of ceramic kitties. And all I can think is, “Yuck!"

To see more kitsch click these sites.

12 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Oooh, love the cat nativity. One of my pastor friends collects Christian Kitsch - she has a clock with the last supper on it that plays the Hallelujah chorus on the hour!

Donna said...

Andy, you're blowing my mind here! Jesus isn't a blond-haired, blue-eyed skinny guy??? I suppose you think the Bible wasn't first written in English, too.

Seriously, in 1999, The Lutheran magazine ran a cover on its December edition which showed a thirty-something Mary (looking suspiciously like a mom from suburban Minneapolis), holding a beautiful, very white, baby. I was on internship at the time, and my supervisor used the cover as a sermon illustration, to talk about how we want Jesus to conform to our own conception of him.

I think that desire is what leads to Christian kitsch. We want to live in a Precious Moments world. (Yes, it is necessary to invoke Southern Missouri's most precious [NPI] tourist destination in a discussion of Christian kitsch.) We want Jesus to be sweet and kind all the time, or we want him to kick ass all the time. The Bible won't help us sustain those illusions, so we just invent our own images.

Good topic. Great article.

Love,
donna

Larry Epke said...

You asked:
"Why is it that, for some people, Christianity, a 2,000 year old religion whose roots are grounded in a 5,000 year old religion and whose complexities have been explored by the greatest minds of history for generations upon generations, can be expressed in a snow globe with a figurine of a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus surrounded by fluffy white clouds?"

I'd suggest it's because those people to who such things are marketed aren't interested in complexities but in certainties! Such jimcrackery makes them feel good.

Now the picture at the top, the one I've named "Hercules Jesus" must illustrate the Jesus of the "Left Behind" novels!

Brad said...

Older and wiser, that's more like it. That was almost, look out, a rant. Congrats and doesn't it feel good. The other day I found a new Jesus action figure, he had wheels on the bottom, like the original, but this one's hands glowed! Apparently, Jesus isn't too far off from the Green Latern.

Younger and better lookin', Brad

Stephen said...

Had a wonderful preaching professor in seminary who collected Jesus Bobbleheads. He used them as both humor and as stab at those who would try to reflect God incarnate.

Mark Winter said...

Boo-boos are no match for Kitsch Jesus!

Kansas Bob said...

About this ...

"Tinny, two- or three-chord, repetitious, melodically monotonous, repetitious, rhythmically unimaginative, repetitious, and “let’s-just-crank-up-our-amplifiers-so-they-won’t-notice-how-bad-it-is” so-called “music” may very well be the downfall of the worship style formerly known as contemporary."

... I have often been lost in and caught up in worship singing these simple choruses. The mocking tone of your comments tells me that you don’t understand this type of worship and how people are touched and moved in worship singing these types of songs. I refer you to the book of revelation and the simple "Worthy is the Lamb" choruses that are sung in heaven.

On the flipside lets talk about the old hymns … 2-4 stanzas sung “only once” … because that is the way we have always done it. Most of the churches that I have attended where hymns are sung exclusively have a “frozen-chosen” atmosphere. People are frozen in time and icily cling to the hymnal because they are afraid to try something new … might offend the old-timers. The people who sing … if they sing … do it in a passionless fashion. These churches often worship the choir as they entertain the congregation instead of entering into heartfelt passionate worship.

As for me, whether it is from a hymnal or overhead projector, give me passion over tradition ... even if it is judged as kitsch by some :)

Rereading this I think that maybe you hit a button for me Anndy. Thanks for the chance to opine at length.

Andy B. said...

And Kansas Bob, I would humbly suggest that there is something in between the two possibilities, something with theological depth that also catches the worshipper up in the experience of the living God. I'm not mocking the experience you describe, having experienced such phenomena many times.
Trying to balance,
Andy B.

Kansas Bob said...

Agree with you Andy about theological depth as long as passion is involved in the singing - atleast once in a while.

Your church may be different but usually the total exclusion of choruses equates to passionless singing. Services go like this:

+ People enter and sit down
+ People stand up
+ Someone says a prayer
+ People sing a hymn
+ People sit down
+ Someone reads a scriture
+ People stand up
+ People sing a hymn
+ People sit down
+ Someone reads a scriture
+ People stand up
+ People sing a hymn
+ People sit down
+ Someone says a prayer
+ Someone does a sermon - sometimes wih passion
+ Someone says a prayer
+ People stand up
+ People sing a hymn
+ People leave

Seems that Sunday mornings in someplaces are the the most lifeless places - unless it is in the fall at Arrowhead ... the passion in that places shames most chuches :)

Anonymous said...

I have wondered from time to time why it is unacceptable to have a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus but it is perfectbly acceptable to have an African or Asian Jesus. Christ comes to us where we are, as we are, and move us to higher ground. At least that's the theory.

Christian art and music today reflect society at large. Art and music are generally terrible and Christian art and music are generally terrible. In our attempts to attract society at large we end up moving toward the lowest common denominator. We aren't trying to elevate art and music so much as we are trying not to offend anyone and make certain no one is bored.

That isn't our job. Our job is to spread the good new of Jesus. It isn't to come up with Christian art and music that wins prizes. On the other hand it isn't to follow the world's idea of the best dance music in town either.

Personally I like a good Gregorian chant. I wouldn't push it on anyone else but to me it's passion filled. To each his own. But let's not say the Church is dead because we fail to understand what others find inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I was just complaining to Rob along similar lines...

The local library is carrying more "Christian" fiction titles, but I'd rather it wasn't. When I've glanced through some of the books, I've wondered whether their purpose is to provide "safe" reading alternatives for Christians or to inspire non-Christians to join "us". If the former, thanks, but I'll pass. If the latter, we need to find more discerning publishers.

Beth

Tracy Crowe Jones said...

okay..I've got to say I agree with most of what you have said on this subject, but I'm still not giving away my Nativity scene made out of Moose. I mean, baby moose Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes is just too adorable!