Plastic and Piety: Can Christian Kitsch Constitute Legitimate Reverence?

We have all seen the bumper stickers, the rubber wrist bands, the suction-cup-footed nuns bobbing rhythmically on the dashboard of the next car over. Religious consumption is nothing especially new; consider the troves of biblical Renaissance paintings or the solemn, brass crucifix that hung for so many years on the wall of my childhood home. More than bibles and rosaries, Americans have expressed religious involvement since the early 18th century with material goods like home decor and jewelry (Park and Baker 501-2). In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, mass production of these goods swelled into a market that today enjoys multi-billion dollar sales. But who is profiting the most from all this consumer religion: the faithful, or the financially motivated? The aims of those who make and sell these goods are an important insight into the seriousness of the spirituality they trade. However, those who buy them, and why they do, are also critical in finding the merit applied to their religiosity. What is clear is that ours is a culture of consumption. Any religion is experienced under the auspice of the culture in which it is practiced, and it will be tinted more or less with the dominant characteristics of that culture. Christianity in America has thus adapted to the commerce-driven society of which it is a part. Indeed, there are those who capitalize on this interplay for profit; there always have been. Nevertheless, looking closely at material Christianity in America, it is fair to say that, despite the irony, humor, and disingenuousness sometimes seen in consumer religion, it remains a genuine expression of faith for millions of Christian Americans.

By far the largest entity of consumer Christianity today is the Christian Bookstore Association (CBA). Comprising in 2011 some 8,407 Christian bookstores, CBA offers marketing, distributing, and network support for retailers (CBA 2014). The vastness of this market alone attests to its popularity and success. These Christian bookstores, though, are not dealing only in books; CBA notes significant yearly increases in the sale of clothing, backpacks, kitchenware, Christian themed toys, games, novelties and even ties (CBA 2014). Modern Christian retailers thus compete in many ways with secular stores, yet almost 34% of Christian bookstores in America are non-profit (CBA). It can therefore be argued that a substantial, if minority, share of Christian business is done with ministry in mind before money. According to their website, CBA’s mission is to “diligently distribute Bibles, Christian books, curriculum, apparel, music, videos, gifts…and other materials to communities worldwide” (CBA 2016). Seen in this light, the proselytic value of the merchandise they sell is seemingly authentic. Still, though, material Christianity is not an industry untouched by profit-driven, secular mega-companies.

In his article “Selling Faith: Marketing Christian Popular Culture to Christian and Non-Christian Audiences,” Charles Brown concedes that, over the years, some Christian businesses have been gobbled up by secular powers as they recognize the profitability of religion in America. HarperCollins purchased the religious publisher Zondervan for $57 million in 1988; ABC in 1974 and EMI in 1992 took control of Word Records and Sparrow Music, respectively (Brown 2012). Critics point out that under the administration of huge secular powers like these, the religious message of the products is largely subverted by a model wherein sales margins take precedence over spreading faith (Brown 117). In an essay titled “Reconsidering Kitsch,” artist, professor, and Evangelical Christian Betty Spackman suggests that much Christian material offers no true religion, only the guise of its imagery (9). In a sense, this is probably true. For companies as large as Thomas Nelson and Family Christian Stores, who grew enough to go public in the mid-1990s, dollars probably do overshadow doctrine (Brown 114). But, as Brown puts it in his own study, much of this market growth may reflect less a concern with making money than with a “wish to form a community that competes…for social and cultural attention” (116). The desire to indoctrinate larger and larger audiences then becomes the primary focus of religious material production, and the increasing sales both a bi-product of and a testament to the dissemination of that message. More meaningful still, because it is how religious products are used which may ultimately determine their legitimacy, is the demographic of faith material consumers: the people who buy the stuff, and why they buy it.

“A five-inch-high plastic effigy with arms that move and with walk-on-water gliding action,” according to a 2002 description by New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla, may seem a comical and even satirical representation of Christ, but, in fact, religious action figures share a significant and growing share of Christian material sales (CBA 2014). A look at who is buying these goods can answer some questions about the seriousness of the faith they might express. Authors Jerry Park and Joseph Baker, of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, analyze the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey (a mailed questionnaire with 1,721 respondents covering a large breadth of topics), looking for trends in religious material consumption. They find, not surprisingly, that the religiously affiliated consume much more than those who do not identify as religious (Park and Baker 507). In addition, the survey data show that “Biblical literalism” and “attendance at religious services” both correlate strongly with consumption of faith-based products—literalists buying nearly 17% more than non-literalists, and regular service attendance leading to a 27.2% increase in reported purchases (Park and Brown 507). While it may not seem surprising that more religious persons buy more religious things, it does run counter to the view that faith-based merchandise—bibles and hymnals aside—is generally satirical in nature. Taken together, religious goods including bumper stickers, toys, t-shirts, and home décor account for nearly half of reported Christian consumption, meaning that items often seen ironically from a secular consumer’s perspective (i.e. Thomas Nelson’s “Bible Man” figure) are in reality being bought by those who identify most strongly with the faith. Naturally, the question is why and how a bobble-head nun, a posable Moses (complete with flowing robe and Ten Commandments), or a Virgin Mother tank-top can support a genuine religious experience.

Building religious capital through material consumption is one way in which people may strengthen their faith. Like cultural capital, which people seek in the effort to build a more cosmopolitan identity, religious capital can be thought of as explicit evidence that a person fits within the faith they profess—the skin they wear to show their strength of religiosity. Park and Baker suggest that “witness wear” and “Jesus junk” are prominent displays of Christianity, assertions of identity that “reflect mastery of that culture” (502). These kitschy goods tend to be particularly attractive to younger members of the church, who see them as a way of belonging to the religious community. The inherent sense of humor in some of the products shields them from being ostracized by their peers. And because of this existence and acceptance within the larger consumer culture, Christian kitsch often seeps into mainstream outlets as well.

Urban Outfitters, Wal-Mart, and Kmart are just a few stores that today sell consumer religion to secular crowds (La Ferla 2002). In these markets, Christian kitsch assumes the tongue-in-cheek nature featured prominently in news stories like the New York Times’ “Are You Laughing With Me, Jesus?” The religious symbol becomes an “object of ridicule” (La Ferla 2002). However, Park and Baker see this migration to the mainstream market as “soft peddling,” where religious companies knowingly produce and distribute goods with an appeal to secular audiences as a way of proselytizing (502). Therefore, what many see as an exploitation of religion for profit may simply be evidence of effective ministering. Books and films like The Da Vinci Code, Veggie Tales, and the Left Behind series, as well as television programs such as Seventh Heaven and Touched By an Angel, have mass appeal, beyond their religious fans. While these programs and products are already messages of faith to many, some secular consumers probably do develop religious connections to them, thus fulfilling the Evangelical mission of the companies which produce them. Yet, the criticism of careless, profit-hungry super-companies exploiting the images and names of Christianity persists.

In arguing for a more favorable criticism of kitsch art, Betty Spackman asserts that Christianity cannot be imbued into a product by simply “labeling” it as such (Spackman 9). “In an apathetic stupor,” Spackman says, “we choose to live a pseudo reality in the ‘simulacra of genuine culture’” (8). Her view suggests that religiosity is embedded in the actual material of Christian products, rather than the interpretation of them by consumers. Because a large and seemingly disinterested company is behind a particular item, that product’s claim to religiousness is illegitimate. Perhaps it is true that some Christian kitsch is produced and sold by faithless entities, perhaps even to exploit the faith of others. However, in the same vein, Spackman argues for a more generous criticism of kitsch art because art itself is subjective—each viewer appreciates it differently, its medium aside. From that perspective, one can also assume that the degree of religiosity found in any particular object is determined by its user. Indeed, Spackman goes on to say that having Christian material in the home (referring to Crucifixes, bibles, and more traditional, non-kitsch items) offers support for stronger devotion (6). Recognizing that this support is part of religious capital, and that different individuals will find meaning in different materials, it stands to reason that consumers ultimately determine the religious significance of the products they purchase. Should a person find expressions of faith in a mass-produced biblical action figure, it matters little whether the maker of that item is concerned with market share over ministry.

There is little question that we live in a materialist, consumer culture. What we wear, listen to, watch, read, collect, and play with form a significant part of our identity as individuals as well as members of a community. The Christian community (or any religious community for that matter) does not exist apart from this commercial culture. Corinthians 9:22 speaks of assimilating certain cultural traits in order to spread the word of God. It should not be surprising, then, for Christianity to adopt the prominent aspects of material culture in promoting their message. Likewise, the objects of faith that a person consumes, while no doubt profiting the markets that purvey them, nevertheless serve as reminders of one’s devotion. A Virgin Mary Jell-O mold might seem ironic to some of us, but to others it might hold reverence for the figure which it represents. It is impossible to remove oneself from culture; it is much more realistic to embrace the prevailing currents of that culture and use them in positive ways. We see in Christianity an adaptation of faith to fit within the larger culture. Because its products often find secular outlets, we see exactly how effective that adaptation really is. The devout can build religious capital with products as much as worship. Christian companies remain steady in their ministry, but they do not shun the income that makes that ministry possible. Instead of greedy commerce exploiting the trappings of Christianity, the Christian material market offers genuine and widely popular connections to an honest faith.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles. “Selling Faith: Marketing Christian Popular Culture to Christian and Non-Christian Audiences.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 24.1 (2012): 113-29. ProQuest. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.

Edwards, Dean, et al, CBA. 2014 State of the Industry Report. (2014) Web. http://cbanews.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/05/2014SOIReport.pdf. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

La Ferla, Ruth. “NOTICED; Are You Laughing with Me, Jesus?” New York Times, 9 June 2002. http://nyti.ms/2eczVNa. Accessed 8 Oct. 2016.

Park, Jerry Z., and Joseph Baker. “What Would Jesus Buy: American Consumption of Religious and Spiritual Material Goods.” Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion 46.4 (2007): 501-517. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.

Spackman, Betty. “Reconsidering “Kitsch.” Material Religion 1.3 (2005): 405-416. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.

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