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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?