Saturday, November 1, 2008

Christian Kitsch and Jesus Junk - It's Just Not Funny

The increase of seasonal kitsch catalogues coming in the mail this time of year, coupled with the unavoidable fact that I am on several Christian retailers’ mailing lists calls an ugly trend to my attention that keeps getting uglier every year. It is the trivialization of Christianity and Christ Himself by turning the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” into a commercial marketing opportunity.

In an excellent paper discussing this disturbing cultural phenomenon, author Jared Bridges relates an incident that occurred a few years ago when he accompanied two Eastern European students to a Kentucky Christian bookstore.
“One of the two, Andrei, was a Christian who wanted to visit the store while in America to purchase some Christian music. The other student, Sasha, was an admitted atheist who was merely along for the ride. While Andrei went to a “listening station” to peruse the latest D.C. Talk album, Sasha and I walked around the store, looking at such products as “Bibleman” videos and “Testa-mints” candies. It was then that the atheist Sasha made an observation that is particularly damning to the contemporary evangelical subculture. He said, “Christians in America market God just like everything else. In my country, Christians take God more seriously.” I couldn’t help but sadly agree with him, and I could offer no defense.”

The same has occurred to me, more than once, and my reaction at times has varied. Some of the merchandise marketed as “Christian” is so absurd that my immediate response is to laugh; it appears to satirize itself. The culture war of the Jesus and Darwin fish is one example of this. I remember walking with my family past the window of an upscale boutique in Maine a few years ago and laughing hysterically at the hand-painted, porcelain mouse Nativity set. The idea of portraying Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child as furry mice dressed in period clothing seemed so ridiculous that, at the time, I didn’t stop to ponder the spiritual implications of it.

In the meantime, I have seen Veggie Tales Nativity sets, rubber ducky Nativity sets, Precious Moments Nativity sets, and much more. It gets worse.

Bible action figures? Talking Jesus dolls? That one I had seen in a Christian catalogue; still, seeing the doll “live” in Wal-mart a few weeks ago added a new dimension of creepiness.

Forget purity rings. There are entire lines of abstinence-promoting “Christian” underwear targeted at teens now. Here’s where it gets really weird: there’s stuff like this marketed by atheists, specifically for the purpose of mocking Christians (which I will not link to). It’s getting hard to tell which is which.

Product description:
"Blessed are the shopping list scrawlers and the test takers when their pencils are topped with one of these replicas of Jesus. Handsomely detailed with a red robe and arms outstretched in blessing or prayer. Five 1-1/4 inch tall, soft vinyl Jesuses on each illustrated blistercard."

Last year, a colleague showed me a Catholic site that sells porcelain knick-knacks depicting Jesus playing soccer with kids, hockey with kids, etc. It made me cringe – I seriously couldn’t believe anything that stupid could exist. That was before the yearly deluge of evangelical-oriented catalogues arrived – now I can buy anything from Jesus Band-aids and flip-flops to rubber Jesus pencil-toppers. Banal stupidity evidently knows no denominational bounds. However, what’s interesting is that the patrons of businesses which market Jesus Junk (I did not invent that term; do an Internet search), tend to be Protestant Evangelicals.

This is, by and large, the same group that criticizes iconoclasts. I do not know a whole lot about Eastern Orthodox iconography, but I do know that the artwork is not supposed to be realistic – the images are seen as symbolic, rather than representational. More importantly, God looks at the heart behind any kind of tangible object made for His glory. The icons, at least, are created with an attitude of awe, reverence and respect. The same cannot be said of T-shirts and posters that attempt to cleverly link Christ with well-known product lines. Since when did Jesus Christ become a name-brand product to be marketed?

Again, Evangelicals will be quick to criticize the Catholic tradition of displaying the crucifix (“leaving Christ on the Cross”) and turning the symbol into an object of devotion. While there may be some legitimacy to this charge, it is a fact that Catholics are worshiping the crucified, resurrected and living Lord. But more importantly, it is impossible to look at a crucifix, in church or elsewhere, and not recognize the solemn meaning of the symbol. By definition, the crucifix forces one to confront the horror that our Savior endured, and does not seek to obscure or sugar-coat the reality of the atonement. Can the same be said of cutesy Precious Moments cross figurines (as popular with Catholics on First Communions as with Protestants), cross maze games, cross bling-bling, or cross lollipops? (I’m not making this stuff up. See here for some of the cheesiest examples of American evangelicalism gone awry).

Am I the only one who sees this as seriously sick? It’s not funny. Actually, satire is funny. There is much about our American evangelical sub-culture that is rich fodder for insightful comedians, and we deserve to laugh at ourselves. Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” on SNL and Seinfeld’s “You stole my Jesus fish” episode are examples that come to mind. Charlatan televangelists like Mike Murdoch and Benny Hinn SCREAM to be made fun of, and Christian as well as secular comedians cleverly profit from knowing where and how much to skewer the fundies. But here’s where it ends. Marketing God’s Name, much less in such a crass and tasteless way, is beyond disrespectful – it is blasphemous.

Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and His death on the cross is humanity’s only hope of salvation. Sticking His image on car dash boards and air fresheners is to lose sight of that in a uniquely irreverent way – because these items are ostensibly bearing the label “Christian”. Really? I’m a “Christ-follower” because I wear a WWJD bracelet? In predictable fashion, “Christian” pop-culture annoyingly apes secular pop-culture by coming up with a “spiritual-cool” alternative for every worldly trend – including Twister-style digital dance games. Who cares about living a God-honoring life when you’ve got the latest digital toy – only with CCM tunes? As blogger Jason Janz writes, ‘we have created a subculture’.

Analyzing this appalling trend, Janz cites three reasons for the mass appeal of Christian kitsch: 1) many people trust that wearing Jesus Junk will result in conversions (it won’t); 2) many Christians seem to believe Jesus Junk promotes Christian community (it doesn’t); and 3) many people seem to be in the business because of pure commercialism (true). See his excellent essay here.

Janz writes:
“Does the joining of the holy with the common compromise the message of the cross? We can knock out about half of all Jesus Junk if we just decide not to purchase anything that blends two worlds. Budweiser beer and gambling have never been a friend to grace and to endeavor to meld them into cutesy clich├ęs harms the credibility of the Gospel. You can now purchase poker chips with John 3:16 on one side that says “Don’t Gamble With Eternity.” Then you flip it over, and it quotes Mark 8:36 with the phrase, “Accept Jesus Before You Cash In Your Chips.” This is compromise.”

Yes, it is. But it’s also treading the Name of God underfoot, and in a sense, “pimping the Lord”, to paraphrase a courtroom TV judge. Can you imagine Muslims plastering Muhammad’s likeness on coffee mugs, or carving it into Jack-o-lanterns? And remember, Muhammad was a human prophet. THIS IS THE DIVINE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE AND SAVIOR OF MANKIND. This trend is wrong on so many levels that old-fashioned idolatry actually looks more benign when compared to the cross water ring-toss games and Jesus sweatbands and boxer shorts. One Midwestern seminary professor keeps a collection of Jesus Bobble-head dolls to underscore this point.

It could be argued that I, also, am not innocent of this and have supported the Christian kitsch industry with my “Luther is my Homeboy” t-shirt purchase. Truth be told, it was an impulse purchase and if I had really sat down and thought about it, I probably would not have spent $22.00 on a joke that most people don’t even get anyway. (Besides, the historical Luther had an anti-Semitic streak that holds no comic appeal). However, there is a fundamental difference between the theo-geek humor inherent in “Luther is my Homeboy” and the more crass “Jesus is my Homeboy” shirt which I have also seen. The former was a well-meaning, beer-enjoying, passionate guy with his own flaws and failings, just like everyone else. The latter was the sinless Son of God Who died for my sins and deserves my eternal gratitude, reverence and worship. See the difference?

Bridges said it well when he concluded:
“The truth is that kitsch does trivialize God. It is a taking of his name in vain that makes the label “Christian” just another brand name on par with any other. Rather than being transformed, Christians who use kitsch conform to the world by marketing God in the same way that the world does.”
(see full essay here).

And that, my friends, is the bottom line: trivializing God, diluting the Gospel message, and commercializing our faith is the net result of all this junk. Clearly, someone is buying it, because the manufacturers keep churning it out and the catalogues keep coming, year after year. It is a sad commentary of the frivolous times we live in, when truly nothing is sacred anymore.

These guys are both pastors themselves (as well as sons of pastors) and are being ironic, not mocking:


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

WOW! Marie, that was an outstanding wake-up call. I have been preaching the same complaint for years, and that's why I call "Christian" book stores, "Religious junk stores." Not only are their book selections usually more false and aberrant teachings than good stuff (and why I say the stores are really spiritual minefields), but the crass commercialization of the faith that they propagate is abhorrent.

Thank you for that thought-provoking article.


Marie Notcheva said...

Thanks! Oh, the content of the bookstores - THAT is a whole separate post! A deeper and even more serious issue, and reflective of today's church's gradual slide into apostasy.

A few years ago, I naively thought anything published by a "Christian" publisher or sold in a "Christian" bookstore was, by definition, doctrinally sound. Then my eyes were opened to the deception of the charismatic movement and soon thereafter, contemplative spirituality (accounting for much shelf space). One day, about 2 years ago, I noticed a T.D. Jakes book prominently displayed and I was still naive enough to be shocked. Wide-eyed, I explained to the clerk that he was a "Oneness" proponant, or modalist (rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, and as such is promoting heresy -- I really broke it down for this kid), and he just sort of mumbled something about the manager not being in. I also noticed the New Age "God Calling" there that day. Suffice to say I don't really trust "Christian bookstores" anymore.....

Hadassah said...

You've nailed it Marie. I got one of those catalogues the other day. Rage. That was my reaction. Simple rage.

The worst T-shirt I've ever seen said, "My relationship forbids a religion." Ugh.

And although this isn't what the whole post is about, the whole "Jesus follower" thing kinda annoys me too. I always wonder what that means exactly. Cause you can follow Jesus as an example of a "good" man and reject Him as God and Savior. You can be a Buddhist and follow Jesus as a moral teacher. Plus it just smacks of a self-righteous distancing from "those people who call themselves Christians, but we all know what hypocrites THEY are."

Anyway, good post.