Attractive Christmas Kitsch or Authentic Christian Icon?

Chris Alford:

Cat NativityWhat with this month being chock full of Christmas spectaculars of all kinds, sacred and secular (or something in between), my mind is spinning with questions about artistic taste. Whether your own church’s Christmas celebrations fall more toward the sacred, or secular, I think churches of all stripes, and perhaps evangelicals in particular, would benefit from asking more and better questions about taste. Why? Because the questions and answers may reveal much about our theology— and maybe something about our communities of faith, too.

Not too long ago I re-read Robert Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals and was especially thinking about one of the characteristics of 20-somethings— that  illusive, highly-prized, much-sought-after demographic— when it comes to the arts. Someone has been quoted as saying that bad theology leads to bad art. I’m wondering if our desire to attract people to church, especially if it’s a first priority, has ill effects on our art and theology.

So let’s ask a difficult question: This Christmas season, are we giving people good art and theology, or might we be giving them “kitsch”?

kitschYou know what kitsch is, don’t you? Webster’s defines it as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.” Kitsch has also been called the “optimistic fantasy of pessimistic modernity.” This latter description particularly intrigues me. Could it be that we are unwittingly designing and presenting Christmas celebrations that appeal to the masses and deliver a false, optimistic fantasy? And, if so, how might that affect our art or, more important, our theology? What effect might it have on our community of faith?

J.M. Cameron, in a review of The Historical Jesus for the “New York Review of Books”, writes about kitsch: “I think [it] presents us with a serious theological problem and stands, far beyond the formal bounds of theology, for something amiss in our culture, as, for example, when well-washed fat babies…evoke disproportionate cries of delight. Kitsch is a form of lying, and religious kitsch lies about what is, for the believer, the deepest reality.”

By the way, the content of our Christmas celebrations are shaped not by what we do in the weeks that precede Christmas, but rather by what we do in the weeks that follow. How can that be? Churches that observe Christmas as a stand-alone event may find it difficult to get past the sentimentality of seeing a cute, mild-natured baby in the manger— the deepest of any of the religious images that the world “allows” us this time of year— and go much deeper in the weeks to follow.

But the Incarnation involves much more than the drama of Christmas itself; it brings a vision of God’s glory to all the nations of the world. Though Jesus came to earth as a tiny baby, He also came as Messiah— a conquering King— and Lord of all. And, thanks be to God, He will come again in glory and in power just as He promised.

One of the things I’ve noticed about 20-somethings is that they are keen detectors of things insincere, shallow, and tacky.  Thank goodness.  Know what else I’ve noticed about them?  They are anxious to live in authentic Christian community and walk out their baptisms in the world around them. They want depth. They want good art and good theology.

One more thought: If bad theology can lead to bad art, I also wonder if it works the other way around, too: Can bad art lead to bad theology? Can a kitsch-y kind of art lead to bad theology?  And can it lead to shallow community? I think the answer is yes. If it is true that the way we worship shapes what we believe— and how we live our faith— then we need to be very careful and discerning about what we put into all of our worship, including our Christmas celebrations.


La Nativite: Marc Chagall

Let’s strive to make great art. Let’s build it from, and let it be reflective of, great theology. Let’s tell the whole story. Let’s don’t go for the easy, kitsch-y moment, but deliver instead a truthful message right to the heart of the modern pessimist’s dilemma.

Great Christian art doesn’t lie about deep realities. It points to something beyond itself. That notion of “pointing to” is important, I think, and reminds me of icons. So, maybe it would be helpful to think of Christian art in the same way we think about Christian icons: An authentic icon won’t allow the viewer to stop there, to camp out, and think they’ve arrived at complete understanding. An authentic icon might not appeal to the masses. It might not evoke disproportionate cries of delight. But rather than being a static, “stand-alone” event— rather than appealing to the common and describable— the authentic icon, and great Christian art, moves and directs the viewer to an uncommon and ineffable truth.

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