The Evangelicals & Catholics Together gang have worked their way through a number of key doctrinal areas in recent years: salvation, Scripture, pro-life issues, Mary, etc. Their thoughtful interactions have consistently shed light on the areas of agreement and disagreement between evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
I don’t think ECT is scheduled to consider kitsch any time soon, but it has always struck me as a point of great convergence and conflict between these two communities.
Both groups generate distinctive material cultures of devotion, or to use the title from Colleen McDannell’s book,we exist in popular culture by generating different forms of “Material Christianity” (I took the image in this post from one page of her book).
Both groups are prolific in producing terrible, terrible religious artifacts for popular consumption. As an evangelical with an art major, I came of age with an acute sensitivity to the ghastly tackiness of evangelical religious paraphernalia. The wall plaques, the T-shirts, the bumper stickers, the knick-knacks and night-lights and whatnots: they were all sources of embarrassment for the artsy young men and women of the subculture.
The first time I heard somebody (I think it was Keith Green) call those mall bookstores “Jesus Junk Shops,” I felt an unaccountable wave of relief. It hadn’t occurred to me before that I was allowed to dislike things with Biblical content slapped on them. My secret shame absolved, I catapulted to the other extreme, casting thunderbolts of disdain on the benighted masses from my Olympian height of aesthetic superiority.
But one glimpse over the fence at the Roman Catholic side of things is also sobering. Roman Catholics have a schlock-generating capacity that far outstrips anything I ever encountered in the tschotschke pages of the CBD catalog. Any page of the Leaflet Missal Company’s catalog trumps any page of the CBD trinkets mart. I don’t want to confess anybody else’s transgressions; I speak from sympathy with what I’ve heard Catholic friends lament over. Because of the Roman Catholic church’s official endorsement of a range of visual and physical expressions of the faith, their devotional-industrial complex is far vaster than anything I’ve seen even at the Christian Bookseller’s Association annual meeting.
Of course the two visual cultures are radically different from each other, with only a little bit of overlap around images of Jesus and that “footprints” poem (which we should probably just re-open the canon to make room for, since it’s already in everybody’s Bibles on laminated bookmarks with braided strings attached).
Last week I spent a few minutes in a Roman Catholic religious paraphernalia mart, and had that uncanny feeling that I was in a parallel universe where all the Christian knick-knacks are the same but different. Like Bizarro Family Bookstore. There’s a different aesthetic, a different visual culture, more crucifixes, fewer quilted Bible covers. But it felt like home, in the pejorative sense of the term “home” that teenagers use.
Two corollaries: First, aesthetically sensitive souls in either tradition share a highly developed sense of irony, and they employ it skilfully in navigating the visual cultures of their churches and subcultures. Kitsch, camp, and nine kinds of understated eye-rolling are their second language. These “way too cool for grandma’s sentimental picture of Jesus” people are certainly annoying as they contort their faces and postures to transmit their signals of disapproval and superiority. But they are not entirely motivated by pridefulness. Their ability to generate layers of ironic distance from sentimental religious kitsch is a survival mechanism they developed as they struggled to maintain some scraps of aesthetic integrity.
Second, those same aesthetically sensitive souls are also subject to devotional guilty pleasures. That is, they have plenty of testimonies about standing in front of a terrible piece of art, whether an evangelical billboard or a Catholic lawn statue, and feeling a pang of spiritual force that the art itself is not worthy of having provoked. If you’ve caught yourself crying over a sentimental portrait, or choking back a lump in your throat over a cheesy scene, or remembering that God is merciful to you while trying not to sing along with a song you love to hate, you know the devotional guilty pleasure. Nobody is safe from them. At least not the evangelicals and Catholics together in kitsch.