Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Suckers for Jesus! Or, Holy Kitsch!

 

I can’t call it “only in America,” because kitschy and silly, though harmless, religious trinkets seem to be a universal phenomenon. Still, there is something endearingly American about this online Christian storefront, selling Testamints, crucifix-shaped lollies, gourmet Scripture suckers, chocolate tulips (must be for the Calvinists), and little gummy Jesus “footsteps”: show that you walk in His footsteps by eating His feet!

“Take and eat… do this in remembrance of me.” In a religion based on the Eucharist, I suppose it’s not exactly blasphemous to consume Jesus in gummy form, though I doubt my grandmother would have agreed: she would have seen candy shaped like all or any part of Jesus as blasphemously irreverent, even if abstract religious symbols were commonplace in eats where she came from. Part of the wider Christian culture in America is to downplay aesthetic differences: high church or low, contemporary or old-fashioned, why argue adiaphora, huh? At the same time, aesthetics go to the heart of worship: whatever we think “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” means, it only seems fitting to give of our best (whatever that is) in acts of reverence. Religious kitsch occupies a funny place, not just strange, but amusing — and not just amusing to snobs who wish to disdain the rubes. The Babylon Bee, a favorite site of many of us here, often pokes fun at Christian kitsch, and it could hardly be said to disdain American Christians: it pokes fun at the kitsch because it’s run by American Christians.

What even counts as kitsch depends on your background. My grandmother, raised very Lutheran, had pretty exacting standards for what wasn’t kitschy. Were the sanctuary and music too contemporary and informal? Kitschy. Were they too ornate? Kitschy. Most religious statuary and paintings? Also kitschy. That she was Lutheran may have had less to do with her severe standards than the kind of Lutheran she was: she came from a place where Lutherans and “Papists” (Catholics) didn’t quite get along, and when she arrived in America, she was (mostly) eager to assimilate. More eager, she thought, than her Italian neighbors, who might plant a bathtub Madonna in the midst of their front lawn.

Modernist severity in religious art and architecture probably won’t strike many as kitschy, on the other hand. More likely inhuman and cold — and perhaps more wrapped up in the designer’s minimalist cleverness than wrapped up in divine adoration. I’ve seen beautifully minimalist worship spaces, quite effective at fostering an atmosphere of awe and reverence. And then I’ve seen… others. Minimalism minimizes, minimizing tackiness, too, if only because it leaves less stuff be tacky with. But some manage to do more with less, anyhow.

For a conservative Christian, I’m probably fonder of bad vestments and liturgical dance than I should be. Oh, most bad vestments are indeed eye-clawingly awful, and it evidently takes more skill, planning, and restraint than many churches have to offer dance as worship in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, due reverence. But a little flamboyance in worship, a little excess exuberance? At least that’s better than chronic under-exuberance, or so I hope.

Garish vestments and incongruous prancing through the sanctuary aisles may aim a bit high to count as true kitsch, though. Kitsch ideally offers easy gratification, not sights so unbefitting you’re left uncomfortably shifting in your pew. That makes Christian candy, as opposed to higher-falutin’ efforts to make worship “fresh” and “relevant,” ideal as kitsch. As @skipsul wrote this Easter,

This year I was horrified to discover “The Jellybean Prayer,” which seeks to sell jellybeans in a cross-shaped tin by convincing you that by eating said beans in a certain flavor sequence, you are “praying” some misbegotten sugary missive to the divine. My eldest received one of these tins, noted that licorice (her favorite and mine), being black, was the sinful bean, leading her to quip “Mmmm … delicious licorice sin beans!”

On the one hand, I share Skip’s horror at this phenomenon. On the other hand, I look back on my Sunday-School days and ask, were the Sunday-School projects we did any less absurd? Some of them were, of course. But others were not, if less sugary.

I can’t remember the point behind stringing glitter-macaroni necklaces for Jesus, but I’m sure whoever had us do it thought there was one. The same grandma who found well over half the Christian world far too kitschy for her comfort was the grandma who took me to Sunday School, to a church whose aesthetics she could stand, and it was full of snobs. I don’t mean that in a mean way, just that the congregants, including Sunday-School teachers, tended to be fairly cultured and sophisticated, the kind who thought of themselves as shrinking from kitsch. And kitsch still was the driving force behind their offsprings’ Christian education.

Perhaps that’s inevitable. Children aren’t supposed to be sophisticated, and if Sunday School lessons made them more so, many parents would likely become alarmed. Sunday School’s where you go to learn to be good and stay innocent, and if kitsch helps with that, why look a kitsch horse in the mouth?

Though some of the candy on offer at this online shop is clearly marked for “Harvest” — that is, for Halloween fests minus the “satanic” fun, I’m guessing the main use of Christian candy is for children’s Christian education. Why else would you purchase “Fruit of the Spirit” fun packs, which repackage ordinary fruit gummies in a Jesus-happy wrapper? Or “Hooked on Jesus” gummy worms? And repackaging candy corns as “promise seeds” is really rather sweet. Tooth-rottingly sweet, in fact. The owl-shaped suckers and dice-shaped lollies I’m having more trouble figuring out. Are the dice… meant to represent casting lots for Jesus’ clothing? Heavens, that’s morbid. So is the “Palm and Cross Candy Fun Pack”, if it conveys the usual Holy Week message that the same crowd shouting hosannas on Sunday was the crowd crying, “Crucify him!” on Friday. I hadn’t thought of candy as a way to learn about my faith’s darker side, and now I’m wondering, does it work? (And does it come in dark chocolate?)

What’s your favorite religious kitsch? Love it? Love to hate it? Is harmless and really rather sweet, or does there come a point where it’s sacrilegious? Or should I say sacrilicious?

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  1. Guruforhire Member

    It took my wife 15 years of work but she finally got me into a contemporary church service. I like the pastor a lot, but boy oh boy do I miss a good hymn.

    • #1
    • July 24, 2018, at 4:51 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. RightAngles Member

    I don’t care if it’s dark and scary
    ‘Long as I have my plastic Mary
    Sittin’ on the dashboard, the dashboard of my car.
    I don’t care if it rains or freezes
    ‘Long as I have my plastic Jesus
    Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.

    • #2
    • July 24, 2018, at 4:56 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    By the way, does anybody know about the owl lollies? Is OWL some Christian acronym I just don’t know about (or remember)?

    • #3
    • July 24, 2018, at 4:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  4. Guruforhire Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    By the way, does anybody know about the owl lollies? Is OWL some Christian acronym I just don’t know about (or remember)?

    I know of an Owl city that had a hit a long time ago and makes mostly christian songs these days.

    • #4
    • July 24, 2018, at 4:59 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My grandmother had a sort of small table top grotto, a tall, tough-looking Jesus inside a Hollywood Bowl-type dome with one arm on the shoulders of a white worker in coveralls, and the other arm on a Black miner. It was Thirties-looking, vaguely communist or fascist in style. I think it was meant to draw on the then-current power of proletarian art to divert it to religious purposes. My brothers and I always irreverently called it, “Okay boys, shake hands and come out fighting”. 

    • #5
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:00 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    There can be only one! And that one is Archie McPhee’s religion department. Buddhism? Check. Judaism? Check. Christianity? Many forms. Read ’em and weep, ye lesser outfits.

    • #6
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:01 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. RightAngles Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    There can be only one! And that one is Archie McPhee’s religion department. Buddhism? Check. Judaism? Check. Christianity? Many forms. Read ’em and weep, ye lesser outfits.

    That is hilarious. Here is one of his offerings

    The Punching Nun Puppet

    • #7
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:05 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    Of course, if one wants to go higher end, get your loved one a Stanhope. It’s a primitive microscope created in the Eighteenth Century that allows one to see a very small image, such as of The Lord’s Prayer or psalms or other works, or customize it as a locket with a photo, even a photo of your favorite version of Jesus.

    • #8
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:07 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Arahant Member

    I seriously did get one of these for my niece with the Lord’s Prayer inside. That small crystal at the crossing point on the cross is the Stanhope. If one looks within it, one can see the picture/verse.

    • #9
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:13 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Stina Member

    I know FROG, but not OWL – Fully Rely on God.

    I like crosses and wall decor with verses or hymns. I think that is the extent of my faith-based paraphenalia. 

    • #10
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:14 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. RightAngles Member

    We didn’t have any of that stuff at home, as my parents took a dim view of what they considered to be “graven images,” but Mom did have a porcelain reproduction of Durer’s Praying Hands drawing.

    • #11
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:19 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. JoelB Member

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    It took my wife 15 years of work but she finally got me into a contemporary church service. I like the pastor a lot, but boy oh boy do I miss a good hymn.

    I am beginning to wonder if the message of many hymns regarding God’s faithfulness through trials, injuries, and sickness becomes more meaningful to those of us who have been around long enough to experience them. I like much of the contemporary music, but I find myself more appreciative now of music that I thought was boring when I was younger. I am thankful that my church seems to have a good blend of contemporary and more traditional music.

    • #12
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    …as my parents took a dim view of what they considered to be “graven images,” but Mom did have a porcelain reproduction of Durer’s Praying Hands sculpture.

    Sounds so much like my grandma!

    She said “graven images” were unbefitting, but what it really seemed to mean was kitschy graven images. She had a few pieces of tasteful religious art among her things — stuff that seemed arty enough people wouldn’t suspect, if you know what I mean.

    • #13
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    She had a few pieces of tasteful religious art among her things — stuff that seemed arty enough people wouldn’t suspect, if you know what I mean.

    I have a few of those, too. Picked ’em up right at the museum. They’re cheaper that way.

    • #14
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:26 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    It took my wife 15 years of work but she finally got me into a contemporary church service. I like the pastor a lot, but boy oh boy do I miss a good hymn.

    I am beginning to wonder if the message of many hymns regarding God’s faithfulness through trials, injuries, and sickness becomes more meaningful to those of us who have been around long enough to experience them.

    I had never thought about that. Did I like the old hymns because I was a sickly child?

    I found them quite meaningful, especially in my teens.

    • #15
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:26 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. RightAngles Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    …as my parents took a dim view of what they considered to be “graven images,” but Mom did have a porcelain reproduction of Durer’s Praying Hands sculpture.

    Sounds so much like my grandma!

    She said “graven images” were unbefitting, but what it really seemed to mean was kitschy graven images. She had a few pieces of tasteful religious art among her things — stuff that seemed arty enough people wouldn’t suspect, if you know what I mean.

    I do know what you mean! I was only about six when my mom got the Praying Hands, and I remember her sort of muttering a disclaimer of some kind, saying well okay it’s a statue-like thing, but it’s taken from a fine art drawing etc etc. It was plain white porcelain, though, no gilt or anything like that. Oh listen to me, now I’M giving a disclaimer Early training never leaves us.

    I remember some Catholic girls showing each other their prayer cards or whatever they’re called, and one of them was Mary with her heart outside of her clothes, with blood dripping from it. I was totally horrified. My eyes must have widened because the girl explained that it was the Sacred Heart of Mary. (Also they were discussing how Protestants are all going to Hell)

    • #16
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:28 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Christian candy? Meh. It doesn’t offend me. Neither does it speak to me. About the most I can muster is a half-hearted eye-roll.

    Leave the music alone. You hear me? Don’t make me come over there and go all “Deus vult” on you. There are over six hundred hymns in the Lutheran hymnbook. Do some of those.

    There was a jazz ensemble at my parents’ church this spring while I was visiting. It was distracting, especially when they performed “And the Angels Sing” during Communion. My brother and I were poking each other and snickering all the way up to the rail.

    I’m going to hell for that. I just know it.

    • #17
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:42 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  18. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    My brother and I were poking each other and snickering all the way up to the rail.

    I’m going to hell for that. I just know it.

    For that particular one? I find it difficult to believe that’s the only time you’ve ever done that.

    • #18
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:45 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. RightAngles Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Christian candy? Meh. It doesn’t offend me. Neither does it speak to me. About the most I can muster is a half-hearted eye-roll.

    Leave the music alone. You hear me? Don’t make me come over there and go all “Deus vult” on you. There are over six hundred hymns in the Lutheran hymnbook. Do some of those.

    There was a jazz ensemble at my parents’ church this spring while I was visiting. It was distracting, especially when they performed “And the Angels Sing” during Communion. My brother and I were poking each other and snickering all the way up to the rail.

    I’m going to hell for that. I just know it.

    I cannot stand these newfangled “praise songs.” Spare me. Just give me the Doxology and the Gloria Patri.

    • #19
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:48 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I cannot stand these newfangled “praise songs.”

    It depends. Mostly I’d rather the traditional music, but in the right time and place — with the right song — I’ll actually enjoy the contemporary stuff.

    • #20
    • July 24, 2018, at 5:51 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. Arahant Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    I’m going to hell for that. I just know it.

    Well, we all knew that, but hardly for those little things.

    • #21
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:03 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. Fred Cole Member

    I find most of the above items to be profane.

    We’re talking about Jesus Christ, the only son of the almighty God, the creator of the entire universe, who died to save all mankind.

    Turning that into a candy or any other above described kitsch trivializes the whole in an unbelievable way. For crying out loud, have a half of ounce of humility before the creator of the universe.

    The exception is bathtub Madonna which I consider to be a perfectly normal and acceptable expression of piety.

    • #22
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:11 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Of course, if one wants to go higher end, get your loved one a Stanhope. It’s a primitive microscope created in the Eighteenth Century that allows one to see a very small image, such as of The Lord’s Prayer or psalms or other works, or customize it as a locket with a photo, even a photo of your favorite version of Jesus.

    That is truly high-end kitsch! For those who like their kitsch discreet… ;-)

    • #23
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:12 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    For those who like their kitsch discreet… ;-)

    Doesn’t discreetness kind of detract from the kitsch effect?

    • #24
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:15 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Arahant Member

    Fred Cole (View Comment):

    I find most of the above items to be profane.

    We’re talking about Jesus Christ, the only son of the almighty God, the creator of the entire universe, who died to save all mankind.

    Turning that into a candy or any other above described kitsch trivializes the whole in an unbelievable way. For crying out loud, have a half of ounce of humility before the creator of the universe.

    The exception is bathtub Madonna which I consider to be a perfectly normal and acceptable expression of piety.

    I thought you were an Atheist. Has that changed?

    • #25
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Matt Balzer (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    For those who like their kitsch discreet… ;-)

    Doesn’t discreetness kind of detract from the kitsch effect?

    That’s the brilliance of it! 

    • #26
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:18 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. Kozak Member
    KozakJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    • #27
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:19 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  28. Fred Cole Member

    Arahant (View Comment):
    I thought you were an Atheist. Has that changed?

    Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have opinions on Christian aesthetics, a subject on which I’m an arch conservative.

    • #28
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:19 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  29. Arahant Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    That is truly high-end kitsch! For those who like their kitsch discreet…

    But in its way, the Stanhope is kitschy.

    • #29
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:19 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. Arahant Member

    Fred Cole (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    I thought you were an Atheist. Has that changed?

    Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have opinions on Christian aesthetics, a subject on which I’m an arch conservative.

    Whatever, Fred.

    • #30
    • July 24, 2018, at 6:21 PM PDT
    • 2 likes

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