In his insightful book entitled Contending for the Faith, Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, describes a sweatshirt on sale at an annual Christian Book Fair designed by a Christian T-Shirt company called Living Epistle. Labelled “The Lord’s Gym”, it depicts Jesus Christ as a muscle-bound body-builder. He presses himself on a pile of rocks, with a huge cross on his back and a caption that reads “The Sins of the World”. Beneath him is another caption that challenges anyone to “Bench Press This!”
On the other side of the sweatshirt is a picture of Jesus’ nailed-pierced palm and a caption with the words: “His Pain, Your Gain”. Wood describes other interesting pieces of paraphernalia like a bumper sticker that declares “Real Men Love Jesus” and a soccer ball keychain with the slogan “Jesus Is My Goal”.
For many years, theologians have noted with alarm what may be described as the kitschification of Christianity – the barbaric debasement of the Christian faith by pop culture. Webster’s dictionary has a rather pedestrian definition of kitsch as “shoddy or cheap artistic or literary material” that fails to bring out its corrosive nature.
The word “kitsch” is probably derived from a German word coined in the 19th century which means “simulation”. Kitsch is therefore a crass imitation of the good and the beautiful. It is a substitute pretending to be the real thing. But kitsch is not just an illusion of the original – it is its perversion.
With reference to religion, especially the Christian faith, the insidiousness of kitsch – its ability to corrupt – should never be underestimated. Religious kitsch is the disease of faith that reduces Christianity into “Kiddyianity”, a sugary stereotype. It is the profanation of Christianity’s highest values.
Boorish and superficial, kitsch is unable to cope with the complexities of reality – its paradoxes, contradictions and ironies. It thus simplifies our varied experiences by reducing them to stereotypes, and in the process it trivialises reality itself. In the same way, kitsch is incapable of grappling with the vicissitudes (changes of circumstance) and struggles of life. It glosses over that which is part and parcel of human life – suffering, pain, and betrayal – and presents a sentimentalised and manicured version.
Milan Kundera writes provocatively in his celebrated book, The Unbearable Likeness of Being: “[K]itsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” Kitsch has manufactured a souvenir faith that is pleasant, undemanding and very marketable.
More importantly, kitsch reduces God to a docile and domesticated deity, emptied of his mystery, wonder and terror.
In his remarkable book on beauty, Roger Scruton describes how the cancer of kitsch has caused the widespread degradation and desecration of art. Religious kitsch has done the same damage to our religious imagination by reducing the splendour, beauty and glory of God to sentimental jargon.
In the same way, religious kitsch could not deal with the brutal barbarity of the cross, its bloodiness, gore and violence – its sheer ugliness. By replacing the beautiful with the cute, kitsch is simply unable to discern the strange beauty of God revealed in the ugliness of the cross – the beauty of his sacrificial love.
Thus, this souvenir religion resorts to what it does best: it kitschifies the cross. The blood-splattered cross of Calvary is willy-nilly transformed into a piece of sparkling costume jewellery or a decorative kitchen plaque. In its inability to appreciate divine beauty, kitsch has vulgarised the cross and perverts its profound meaning.
It would be a mistake to think that religious kitsch is associated only with the items like T-Shirts and key chains found in our Christian bookshops. Kitsch can infect every aspect of the life of the Church – its spirituality, worship, music, theology and preaching.
Kitsch is religious junk food that dulls the spiritual appetite. Kitsch obfuscates the sacramental nature of reality by sugar-coating the true essence of things. Souvenir religion can cause cataracts to develop in the eyes of its adherents so that they can no longer perceive the presence, beauty and majesty of God in the world.
Make no mistake: kitsch is an enemy of the Christian faith.
This month, we begin a series of essays called “Soundings” that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.