Christian Kitsch #10: Barney Bear Out of the Woods!

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Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.

For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.

Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.

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Barney Bear. Age: young. Religion: take a wild guess.
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Parents. Age: middle. Property owners, concerned citizens.
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The Wild Bunch. Hobbies: delinquency, immiseration, squalor, and noise violations.

And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.

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Left to right: Church mouse, the owl, and the goat judge (Satanic affiliations unproven)

Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.

Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:

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Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers  are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.

The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.

After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:

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Basic plot outline: white (brown bear) suburban paranoia.

How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…

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Is “Rabeet” what frogs say, or is it labeling the pink fluffy thing in the bottom corner as a “rabeet?”
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Pictured: Rabeet’s fourth album cover.

To Ralph Bakshi animals:

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The Redwall books had less obvious racial profiling of animals.

Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:

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Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.

Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:

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Note the inexplicable day/night change, which suggests the rough part of the woods is in an eternal Gotham-esque night.   

Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.

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My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.

But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.

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On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.

So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.

The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.

But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.

And look who we have here:

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The owl with the wicked eyelashes.

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Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?

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I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!

Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.

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So the owl recognizes it on sight but apparently has never read it.

One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!

But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!

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“And I say that we should evict the purple gopher hobbits!!!”
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“Honey, get the pruning shears!!! We’re going to teach eminent domain a little lesson!!!”

Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.

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Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.

The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:

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Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:

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He’s got some gumption taking on the spontaneously combusting extension cord industry, I’ll tell you what.

It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.

Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:

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Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.

Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…

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rain.

Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.

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Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:

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Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps.  Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.

Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because  I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.

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Christian Kitsch #9: Archie’s World

Tigers keep large territories, but tend to be insular creatures, preferring the superior company of our own thoughts to the intrusions of others. This is why it’s hard for tigers to develop a cosmopolitan streak; why fantasize about pouncing on some poor sap on the Champs d’Elysee if there’s a stagnant pool right around the corner just waiting to be waded in? I, on the other hand, have acquired a taste for the exotic, the kind of wanderlust that pushed Marco Polo down the Silk Road and led to the hoarding fetish that produced the modern British Museum. Luckily, Archie is here to take us on an adventure that’s sure to satisfy that restless streak.

Where are the "We are not a costume" people when you need them?
Where are the “We are not a costume” people when you need them?

Well, this is no an auspicious beginning. Not only has Archie plainly appropriated other cultures’ hatwear, but has also paid the ultimate price––beheading. No sign of anything below the neck on this cover. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice that will carry throughout the entire issue. Possibly indicating something about how your physical form gets “lost” when traveling because of all the newness you have to absorb.

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Well, the first page seems to continue the trend, though luckily we are not going to be subjected with a cavalcade of Archie heads solipsistically chatting to each other about foreign cuisine. A few things stick out to me about this page. 1.) The globe is entirely covered in water, suggesting that Waterworld has become a reality and fish people now rule the universe. Either that, or we’ve been able to terraform Europa and founded submarine lobster-fishing colonies there. 2.) Big Ethel seems to have a startlingly binary view of both geography and morality. Luckily, the world is a sphere and not shaped like a gigantic sheet of notebook paper. I know Marx wrote that history progresses on its bad side, but I don’t think that’s what old Al Hartley, son of a union buster, had in mind when writing that. 3.) The Earth is smoking and has dizzy stars cascading off of it. Apparently, the oceans have become far more geologically volatile in the Archie universe. Enough with the first page! We have yet to scratch the racist surface of this issue.

The next couple of pages explain our plot: Archie and friends are going gallivanting around the world on a quest to visit missionaries and see them propagate the Word of God to the heathens all over the world. What is their first destination? None other than Travis Bickle hometown New York City! Naturally. Hopefully they can get to the poor guy before he, well, spoils the end of Taxi Driver for everyone. One of the flight attendants (?) on the plane hears their destination and gasps:

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Time’s Square had such a distinct flavor before Giuliani, I must admit. I honestly prefer the fedora-sporting thugs to the costumed kitsch merchants.

Apparently the writers of Jungle 2 Jungle actually had something. Not much, but something. After looking at the weird post-deluge globe on the first page, you might assume that Archie is referring to the fact that the world’s cities were mostly reforested in kelp and coral reefs after the Second Flood. But no, he mostly means that cities have become hives for heathens and dens of degeneracy. Archie could make Rorschach and Travis Bickle proud, now that I think about it.

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Archie’s whirlwind tour has already taken him from New York to London and to Paris in a single page. Despite all that jet lag, the jolly crew has managed to accost, encourage, and leer at multiple sinners. Though their sins seem restricted to looking like they take drugs and hanging out in somewhat Bohemian locations. Since we’re given no reason to believe that the orange-haired, black-moustached chap in the second panel has a good reason for speaking to the poor woman there, I have to presume that he’s offering her Jack Chick tracts or something. Those tracts and that hair are probably both grounds to be arrested as a public nuisance. At any rate, we continue with the cavalcade of urban locations before settling into the meat of the issue: short stories about exotic locations.

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I checked, and there are in fact crocodiles in Tanzania. You got me this time, Al Hartley.

Yes, we can expect a bonanza of cultural sensitivity from what follows, I am sure. Of course, this being the 70s, these kids would be familiar with the American-backed plot to overthrow the socialist republic of Zanzibar and forcibly unite it with the friendly regime in mainland Tanganyika to form modern Tanzania. Armed with such information, they just traipse into the rain forest with nary a bit of bug spray. Shame, that.

Naturally, Jughead has difficulty adapting to his new environment, leading him to pine for McDonald’s. The missionary gives the following retort:

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Have to wedge that panel of a toucan and a monkey right in there, don’t you, Hartley?

Of course nothing about American culture seeps through when American missionaries are allowed to proselytize an American religion to complete strangers in Tanzania. I’m against all forms of proselytization in public places, which I’m sure is a minority position in some places, but one has to agree that the naivety here is astonishing. Of course, the role of American missionaries in, say, getting bills that will execute people for being gay in Uganda hadn’t become an issue yet. Plus, this is for children and you need to whitewash the whole enterprise in order to make its subtle colonialism more palatable.

A couple of short stories later, we’re in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that has remained a semi-active war zone for decades. Suffice to say that they stumble into a nameless city during a “carnival” celebration and immediately set up a rock and roll band in the open. For some reason.

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While I’m not sure you would be able to openly set up a Jesus concert banner in the middle of a non-Christian (they never specify which religion) holiday, nor would I imagine the reception being so immediately warm, I am sure that this idea about people just attempting to buy random women with cow barter is complete hogwash. Cow-wash.

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Of course, the core message of the book isn’t hard to glean at this point. People who embrace Jesus no longer have any serious problems. Or, at the very least, they know that all problems can be solved with Jesus. Human trafficking could never happen in a Christian country, says this idea. Women are going to be enslaved wherever Christ isn’t. Of course, that last panel is meant as a direct jab at feminism, appropriating the concept of a liberated woman and tying it directly to simply converting to Christianity. Lurking in the background here at all times is the notion that the United States is a superior nation because of its Christianity, which is an idea that stretches far back in the colonial period. It directly fed the British idea of the “white man’s burden” and the French “civilizing mission” in Africa and India. Spanish colonization had an especially cozy relationship with conversion, that being one of the major justifications for forcibly interning native people in plantation labor and forcing them to work in the mines. Archie’s World might be a relic of a less judicious time, but that by no means implies that these kinds of attitudes don’t still contaminate all missionary work today. American missionaries work under the protective banner of the world’s most powerful military and a state that might mete out major punishments if these missionaries are forced out or not admitted in the first place. And there would be no point in being a missionary if you didn’t believe that you were somehow superior to the people you were coming to, at the very least by virtue of being Christian while they are not. It’s messianism of the most vulgar sort.

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This very well-educated man––he knows English so he must have had some schooling––has a point. Of course, he is a prop written by a conservative hack who has a blatant streak of paternalistic racism running right through his coronary artery. So I think we can safely put the rest of this issue to bed rather quickly. Oh, but first we have to discredit other religions with a catchy parable.

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Buddha and Confucius are just jerks. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone who knew a thing about Siddhartha Gautama or Confucius would know that they were models of ethical fortitude. If anything, Confucianism has a far more elaborate and sophisticated moral code than Christianity, the latter of which has tended to downplay acts of righteousness in favour of the idea of grace. That is probably the message here. What’s going on is that these people are metonyms for their religions. Christ for Christianity, etc. Confucius is a doddering old moralizer. Buddha just told people to think their way out of their problems––yeah, I’m sure that’s what Buddhism teaches. And Jesus, though divine grace, lifts the human race out of its predicaments. Let’s move on. I’m going to skip the anti-Communist tract about Hong Kong or the patronizing story about Myanmar and close out our discussion.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.19.38Luckily, the comic leaves its message crystal clear by the end. Namely this: it reaffirms the traditional Christian commitment to missionary work. The twist is that it argues that introducing Christianity to the world will be some kind of panacea for global problems. Accepting Jesus is the key to “the good life,” in their word, establishing a one-to-one correlation between conversion and life improvement. In many ways, it’s not too distant from the self-help and New Age craze the hippies inaugurated in the 60s. It’s a simple restatement of old Christian/American values with a groovy coat of comic printers’ ink.

Archie’s World is probably the most difficult of the old Spire comics to get through. It’s short on hilarity or absurdity except in short bursts, and its constant stereotyping and patronizing make it a slog to read. Unfortunately, the missionary industry is still thriving today, and you can hardly walk into a church, especially of a more conservative bent, without the requisite bulletin board celebrating junior colonizers’ escapades into the pagan wilderness. OK, I’m done. Time to gnaw on a deer carcass and reflect on the wonderful fact that, no matter how much filth he may have put into the world, at least Al Hartley is in a cold grave.

L’Odyssey de Cartier: Ad Kitsch Epic

I understand that I am lagging behind the times, and that this ad has been a thorn in humankind’s side for two years. All the same, most of the reactions I found online were hardly critical, offering up vague oohs and ahs. Comments on the ad’s Youtube page can be almost as overblown as this three-minute monstrosity. Since this ad took two years to make, it’s only fair for me to jab it two years after it lands on us. What makes this ad fascinating to me is how it dolls up its “sophisticated” and “elegant” imperialism,  offering us the same kind of jewel-encrusted finery we saw in Craig Thompson’s Habibionly this time it’s literally jewel-encrusted. Running a company that shills out shiny rocks extracted from semi-colonial countries is a wretched business at the best of times, but Cartier expends an astonishing amount of effort trying to make you buy into their colonialist dream world.

Basic concept of the ad: a French leopard escapes from its diamond prison and goes on a fantastic journey through the colonized world before returning to Paris on an old-timey airplane. On the way, he encounters a Chinese dragon,

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more sad-looking bedazzled animals,

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an Indian city speared into the back of an elephant,

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Anyone who wants to make Salvador Dalí jokes can keep it to themselves.

this white dude,

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here the ad reaches peak mist

and a mysterious woman in a red dress, just to push some last-minute sexist decoration into the ad.

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The entire commercial runs three and a half minutes, making it the Gone With the Wind of advertising in more than one way. You need to understand that I am a big cat. I have almost inexhaustible reserves of sympathy for the plight of cats in film and television roles. When our kind gets a big shot at fame like this, I am hard pressed to insult the product. At the same time, turning China and India into unpopulated fantasy worlds that exist only to lend false grandeur to your ostentatious mining products seems a step too far. Maybe two or three steps, actually. At the end, you pair the exotic cat with a vaguely exotic-looking woman (no one’s done that before, right?), and the wheel of clichés goes full circle. Children’s choirs that sound like they were sampled from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores don’t help matters much, being only slightly less ridiculous than the ad’s nostalgia for the French empire. I imagine the leopard didn’t go to Africa–where most of the diamonds Cartier is sticking to animals come from– because that would be a bit gauche. Must keep within good taste, eh?

Cartier is attempting to infuse its products with some exotic mystique, and at that they succeed. Everything in the ad is ratcheted up to the highest level of pretentious schmalz, making “L’Odyssey de Cartier” the ruling class version of those “every kiss begins with Kay” commercials. Suffice to say, I’m not impressed. This is Orientalism at its nadir, dressed up in ugly diamond coating and put up on a pedestal to inspire the awe of the masses and open the wallets of the nouveau riche. I’m sure if the Victorians had had the Internet, they would have dropped their monocles at it.

Christian Kitsch #6: Painting

According to philosopher Alain Badiou, the twentieth century was the century the arts went avant grade. He writes, “Painting was an avant-garde art and only ceases to be so at that crepuscular moment when it is introduced into museums.” Most of us know that painting was the subject of almost endless innovation in the earlier half of the twentieth century, which spilled over somewhat into the second half as well. Movements from post-impressionism to cubism to suprematism, abstraction, expressionism, abstract expressionism, Surrealism, and the like all attempted to push the medium to the peak of its powers, producing innumerable great works which now hang dead in museums. To think of the painting of the last century is to think of bold artists putting their brushes to the work of revolution, smashing what came before and redefining their art. Even today, when painting has fallen from its formerly supreme position as the most honored art form, works of oil on canvas continue to inspire, bringing the joy of beauty and the terror of decay to millions of eyes every day.

Of course, that is not what we are discussing here. We are going to be discussing Jesus in boxing shorts.

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He came here not to bring peace but to bring three rounds of pain.

 

Religious painting has a long and illustrious history, with many stirring pieces still being produced, albeit at a much slower clip than before. Consider most of the entire Western painting tradition, especially before the Enlightenment, was religious in nature. Even most of the great humanistic works of the Classical revival during the Renaissance were Christian. We have to acknowledge, however, that times have changed. High art culture is no longer a Christian culture, and the latter is now largely relegated to the production of terrible, terrible kitsch. This is kitsch that exists as a blasphemous outgrowth of a beautiful tradition–I find it hilarious precisely because it steals the solemnity and much of the iconography of good Christian art while completely destroying everything dear to good taste.

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Stephen Sawyer is the vandal responsible for both of the paintings you see above. His vision of Jesus is a mix of old and new, drawing on the white-guy tradition of iconography and sacred art while adding a few hypodermic needles’ worth of testosterone while he’s at it. Long flowing locks and steely blue eyes abound, along with those gym-toned muscles Jesus surely spent his years between infancy and age thirty sculpting and perfecting. This brand of “relatable” everyman Jesus is one staple of the age of Christian Kitsch. People need to see Jesus as one of the (white) people, a patron of the masses, if you will. But accomplishing that is difficult, since you also need to keep people fully aware that Jesus is G-O-D, possessor of immense magical powers and son of the Most High. Liberal application of halo lighting is required, along with the depiction of an ideal physique. As a wise pastor from Seattle once said, “I wouldn’t worship a God I could beat up.” Sawyer has just enough HDH in his palette to make this God worthy of obedience.

The two other major categories in the sacred kitsch genre are the Biblical illustration and the Patriotic Inspirational. For an example of the former, we go to dear Nathan Greene, whose work has become well-known because of a certain comedy website. Greene’s The Introduction is of particular note because it seeks to capture a pivotal moment in history–the moment of humanity’s creation. Of course, Adam is already there, but you need two to tango, as they say, and the modern dance scene would not be nearly as exciting without multiple humans to liven things up.

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My name is Jesus. You’ve tried the rest, now try the best!

 

Note that in the Biblical story, God brings all the animals past Adam before deciding on another human as a suitable companion. I have it on good authority, in fact, that in the Talmudic tradition Adam was involved with these other animals carnally before this scene took place.¹ That might explain that tiger’s sultry pose. After all, even Yahweh knows that you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it, though the thought of Adam attempting to couple with, say, a porcupine makes the entire story just a tad more wince-inducing. Luckily, Eve is right there, wearing nothing but odd green blotches because the fern the painter put in front of her nudity just wasn’t doing the job. Her hubby, meanwhile, has enlisted a fine-looking tigress as his cover. She reminds me of a friend I once had, other than that my friend was shot and skinned by poachers and her bones were pilfered for the Guangzhou medicine markets.

That brings us to the most critical question about this painting: what must the primeval couple be thinking of the weird cloth garments Jesus is wearing? Wouldn’t it have been more culturally sensitive of Our Lord to go naked as well? No wonder Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nudity when Jesus himself is prancing around in a glowing white robe everywhere. That’s bound to cause some fashion envy.

Finally, we come to Patriotism, the domain of painters with a more edgy and political message to bring to the people of greater Christendom. While ideas and policy aren’t their strong suit, artists like Jon McNaughton more than make up for it in sheer phantasmagorical, even transcendent ridiculousness.

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What McNaughton didn’t know was that when Jesus does come to Washington D.C. it’ll be to issue an eviction notice. Native Americans were supposed to be the chosen people after all.

 

Behold One Nation Under God, the work of a man possessed by pride in his country, faith in his God, and an unquenchable passion for gold lamé. In his extensive explanations and defenses of the painting found here, he states, “I wanted to create an image that would instantly be recognizable as Jesus. I am not painting an anthropological Jesus. Nobody would recognize him if I painted him that way.” My guess is that if you painted a clown in that getup holding the U.S. Constitution and ringed his head with a solar halo, people would get the idea. Of course, he’s got me covered here as well, talking about how blogs have distorted his ideas and denigrated his work unfairly. Guilty as charged, but I have no interest in being “fair” or charitable to work like this. And I don’t think I have to spell out just how horrifically this distorts Christianity into the foundations of oppression and nationalism and all that jazz. Let’s just call it here and let Mr. McNaughton continue painting, shall we? If we stay quiet enough, we might just get another blog post out of it.

Notes:

1. Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan 2012), 134.

Christian Kitsch #5: Apologetix

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Friends, readers, fellow denizens of the Internet. Recall my last post on the Christian parody industry, that most entrepreneurial arena of branding exploitation and forced, witless puns that would make James Joyce’s eyepatch flip in dismay. I have yet to thoroughly articulate the demonic terror-scapes of Contemporary Christian Music, mainly because I do not wish to tempt Death, but this post could serve as a mercifully brief introduction to it. The contemporary Christian culture industry has made its coin and notoriety by serving as a sanitized and anemic copy of the secular culture industry, which is then marketed to Christian youths and parents as a balm in a warped and corrupt worldly culture. From bizarro Archie comics to T-shirts to pop music vacated of all sexuality.

What makes Apologetix so objectionable, and therefore worth considering in isolation from the main stream of CCM is its intersection with Christian parody and “humour.” The band comes from a lovely city, Pittsburgh, and has built up a solid fanbase over a career spanning twenty years and nineteen albums. Ahem. It should be noted, however, that though the spirit of this band is lighthearted indeed, the point of their songs seems to me not so much to parody or satirize classic rock and pop hits but rather to purify them of anything verging on unacceptable to a radio-listening Christian audience. Their work is pitched straight at a fabricated demographic, that, sadly, I can confirm has some incarnation in the real world. Before discussing their style and substance–or what there is of it–let us listen to an example of their work.

Now, Apologetix normally covers crusty and ubiquitous white artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, and the like. They tend to avoid black artists, which I think is a good strategy. On the other hand, they have to appeal to the slightly edgier suburban crowd that loves “Gold Digger” and Eminem and the like (don’t get me started on their parody of a Limp Bizkit song), which means they need to rap and try to imitate Jamie Fox’s Ray Charles impression, thereby vampirically draining all soul and humour from the song and turning it into a desperately stupid polemic against evolution. Nothing in this song indicates that the parodeers have anything other than a basic aptitude for music, and their merits as wordsmiths are more than questionable.  There is nothing in the song’s soulful vibe and upbeat, slightly ironic bounce that would make it suitable for this kind of adaptation. Not only this, but unlike in Weird Al’s work–and I am dreadfully sorry for dragging his name into this–the jokes rarely land and when they do it’s with a heavy thump that can elicit laughter only from the most snide and juvenile creationists.

I think that is more than enough about this band at present. While you’re here, though, you might want to cleanse yourself with some life-affirming antidotes I’ve whipped up just for this occasion. Let no one say that tigers are inhospitable to their readers. Adieu.

Christian Kitsch #3: Parody T-shirts

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In this series’ first two entries, I discussed how the market for Christian kitsch is driven by two complimentary impulses: to reinforce and communicate religious identity and political or personal choices (think the purity rings), and to cloak evangelistic rhetoric in the guise of non-threatening secular products (like the weirdo Archie comics we examined). We will return to the beautifully surreal landscapes of the Archie universe next week, but for now I would like to investigate the phenomenon of Christian parody t-shirts. These products, which were commonly worn by members of my old middle-school youth group, reveal some particularly damaging aspects of Christian consumerist subculture as well as the difficult relationship that the church often has with clothing.

We’ll look at the latter first. It should come as no surprise that clothing is a topic that Christians in America tend to either neglect or address poorly. Clothing is intimately related to the body, that fleshy shell that most American Christians would rather discard for harps and lyres in heaven. Probably the best indication of this broken conception of clothing is the idea of “modesty.” Censuring and criticizing people, overwhelmingly women, for not being “modest” enough is an accepted practice in most churches. As many writers have shown in critical work on the subject, modesty both arises from and reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are in some ways common property, to be controlled by mostly male church authorities the same way they would manage their their children’s sugar intake. Worse, by making women responsible for drawing men into “lust” with their clothing, the church relieves men of their responsibility to respect women’s bodies as well as for inexcusable activities like catcalling and sexual assault. Most of the time, when mainstream Christians in the United States (a problematic generalization, but I believe this is borne out) address the problem of clothing, they will be saying that women aren’t wearing enough.

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On the other hand, women can never wear enough hats!

Accompanying this sentiment is a culture-wide bias in favor of “inner beauty.” People who think of wearing clothes as a craft or sartorial expression as an art form are criticized for being shallow. People who wear outlandish clothing or spend more for quality are admonished and told to be simpler in their tastes. There is very little appreciation of the potential beauty and pleasure to be found in wearing clothes. After all, beauty and pleasure are corrupting influences and lead people to spend too much money on pretty things and not enough helping the poor or paying the pastor’s salary. My contempt for this point of view should be evident by now, so we can move on.

Where do Christian parody t-shirts fit into this scheme? One fascinating aspect of Christian consumer culture is that it tends to condemn secular products, especially certain forms of music, dress, and art. However, the culture only needs to coopt and “baptize” these products in order to package and sell them to Christian audiences that are weary of not being as “cool” as their secularized adversaries. Parody t-shirts are to snarky online-store-bought apparel as CCM is to rock and pop music. That is, they are secular products with a youthful appeal and an aura of “coolness” that Christian kitsch companies hope will sell to young people who aren’t allowed to act out except in specifically church-sanctioned ways.

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I mean, Christians do eat Jesus, sometimes every Sunday. I almost wish communion elements were actually chocolate-covered with peanut butter.

These shirts tend to take brand logos and meme-friendly catchphrases and twist them in some way. The idea is that people’s eyes would be drawn to the shirt by the instant familiarity of the shirt’s imagery and, only at that point, realize what the shirt actually said. If the shirt works, the secular passerby will appreciate the wit of the message even if the content is unappealing. Even better, people might notice and ask about it, cuing up an evangelistic opportunity. In reality, of course, the parodies are almost all witlessly obvious, obnoxious, and unfunny. Some of them also cross over to become explicitly militaristic and nationalistic. These specimens seem to be marketed towards men, and some of their references for parody are a bit dated. Is C.O.P.S. that popular with the high school Christian set these days?

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Tiny type also means no one is going to know this is a parody unless they are uncomfortably close to you and/or do your laundry for you.

What’s truly entertaining about these shirts, though, is the way that some of the retailers package them. Their framing is often so out of touch that it far eclipses the comedic value of the products they’re hawking. For instance, read this explanatory bit of copy from Kerusso, one of the more prominent Christian kitsch retailers online:

“In using lighthearted tongue-in-cheek designs, parody T-shirts give readers the truth about the gospel and offer an easy way for them or you to start a conversation…which could be the beginning of a relationship with Christ, all because of the graphic on your parody T-shirt.

No matter what happens or how many conversations you have, you are making an impact. By wearing a Christian parody T-shirt, you have opened the door to conversations and are, at the very least, sharing the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world around you. And that is worth it every time.”

Why is this so funny? Because it’s taken deathly seriously. Evangelical Christianity can justify anything if it might save souls for Jesus, including these insults to graphic design. What’s truly sad is that there is more artistry and integrity in the original designs–which, I remind you, were solely created to sell consumer goods in the first place–than in these shirts, which are supposedly intended to do the work of God Almighty. What we have here, in a nutshell, are products that operate on stealing brand images and brazenly appropriating them, ultimately, to sell another product. Only in this case, it’s a trusted, ancient brand, Jesus, the only one who can complete me. And I thought “Jesus is my boyfriend” language was safely quarantined in CCM hell.

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Christian Kitsch #2: Purity Rings

Source: Stuff Christian Culture Likes
Source: Stuff Christian Culture Likes

I admit that I struggled over what kind of Christian kitsch to examine after my inaugural post on Archie’s Sonshine went so well. There is such a grotesque excess of these objects in existence that deciding on a second post proved more difficult than I imagined. Spending some time contemplating Christian kitsch with less innate humor, however, has proved productive since it requires more delicacy and care in the composition and editing processes. I relish a challenge, and thus elected purity rings as my next subject. The practice of wearing purity rings originated in the 1990s among evangelical circles. In my estimation, it’s another outgrowth both of Christian right social “values” policing and their growing obsession with youth. People in their teens have been having sex since ancient times, but through most of history were usually married by the onset of sexual maturity, especially women. Youthful marriages are, of course, not just an ancient relic but a living reality today. In Western countries and others that have reached an advanced stage of consumer capitalism, however, marriage tends to be delayed if it is ever enacted. Marriage has become a status symbol for middle class economic stability in the United States, and that means people are waiting until they have completed their educations and attained stable career jobs before marrying. By implication, this means that many people in the working classes are not marrying at all, contributing to higher rates of single parenthood and births in non-married relationships. These are neither good nor bad social shifts, but they are indications of a society that seemingly cannot conceive of marriage and family apart from class and economic achievement.

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The upshot of this is that young people are going through their lives without marrying until their late 20s and even early 30s. The average age of marriage in the United States is now 29 for men and 27 for women. Puberty now begins in girls and boys sometimes before they reach double-digit ages. That means young adults are living as sexually mature bodies for over a decade or even two before they get married. In a conservative community where [heterosexual] marriage is seen as the only proper sanction for sexual relations, this presents a conundrum. Young Christians have to deal with “temptations” for a far, far longer time than their parents and especially their grandparents did. One way of coping with this social evolution is the abstinence pledge, which is essentially a vow of celibacy until your future spouse and you are married. Unsurprisingly, these pledges, and the kitsch rings people wear as a sign of them, are only marginally effective at delaying vaginal intercourse and not at all effective at stemming sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. It’s well-known that abstinence-only education is utterly useless and those states in America which practice it also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. However, people continue to buy them, and there are numerous apparently thriving markets for them on the Internet.

As a tiger, it would seem the solution would be to recognize that prohibitions on sexual relations before marriage originated because they had detrimental consequences for mother and child, and now that these can be easily avoided with birth control it should be reevaluated and probably dropped altogether. Not teaching people about effective means of birth control only compounds the problem of unwanted and damaging pregnancies, and marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient in my eyes for moral sexual expressions, though it can certainly be helpful. Sermon over.

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Because purity rings can serve as a worn symbol of a (purportedly) sincere religious vow of chastity, their status as kitsch might at first seem ambiguous at best. Just because something is a purchasable commodity does not, in itself, designate it as kitsch. Communion wafers used in Catholic Eucharist are not kitsch, though companies undoubtedly profit from supplying them to the Roman Church. With that noted, however, I believe that purity rings qualify under my  general criteria for kitsch. They do not in any way resist easy consumption, serve as markers of an identity, and serve as an uncritical and self-assuring reminder of one’ belonging in a certain community without challenging any norms of the people around them. One could argue back that a Christian abstinence pledge can generate conflict and challenges some aspect of the status quo, but my suspicion is that those who purchase these rings have children who are involved in some kind of church community. Since I suspect it is largely parents to whom these rings are marketed and sold, I believe that these are also prime gift items, especially for sixteenth birthdays and other cultural “coming-of-age” occasions. So here we have items that are purchasable commodities, heavily marketed and stylized, replace secular jewelry products, and broadcast a compressed “Christian” identity marker (abstinence) without requiring a real commitment. Therefore: kitsch.

Another notable aspect of purity rings is their totemic quality. Their function is at least in part analogous to that served by lucky rabbits’ feet and horseshoes. The ring is not purchased so much for its beauty or intrinsic or economic value but rather for a certain symbolic and even magical value they are supposed to have. Protecting (largely) young women from perceived sexual temptation is a primary motivation for many people to buy them. The ring is meant to be an easily-worn, relatively inexpensive symbol of God’s omniscience. Big Brother God is watching you from heaven, dear one, so you had better keep in line. It’s a form of indirect divine, and parental, supervision. Now, if the rings could actually give you an electric shock, they would be practical. And if you’re that worried about the status and position of your offspring’s genitals, you should find a solid chastity belt with a GPS attached.  It would at least let your children know how much you care.

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Purity rings are fairly unremarkable as objects. They tend to be inexpensive–around $20-$30–and relatively inconspicuous, so the only way most people are going to know what they are is if the wearer lets them in on it. Sterling silver is a popular material, and engravings tend to be pro-abstinence slogans like references to Bible verses or pithy phrases like “true love waits.” Other popular engravings include flower buds and more generic Christian symbols like the ICHTHYS fish, crosses, and hearts. They are sold to both genders, and reflect their intended gender rather directly. You won’t find floral inscriptions on guys’ rings, and the male rings tend to be simpler, lack stones, and emphasize black. Rings for men often feature phrases that include references to the “armor of God” or war and conflict. Women’s rings emphasize patient endurance and a more passive posture, which is unsurprising given the regressive sexuality and gender norms at work in the entire idea of a purity ring. Even worse, organizations that distribute these products, such as the Silver Ring Thing (which got federal money to promote its message), promote the idea of abstinence until marriage with promises that sex after tying the knot will be so perfect the Marquis de Sade would be blinded by the sheer heavenly radiance of its pleasures. Of course, this is nonsense, but as we discussed earlier, part of the culture that produces Christian kitsch is its willingness to say anything to promote its message and sell product. If someone doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, they should not be subject to undue pressure. Making it an iron moral requirement for “purity” seems a recipe for personal disaster, however, and creating a market around exploiting paranoid Christian parents’ worries about their daughters’ vaginas is especially pernicious.

Next time, we’ll be covering something slightly less depressing: Christian parody T-shirts. More jokes incoming, I promise.

Links for more on purity culture:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sarahoverthemoon/2013/08/you-are-not-your-own-unmarried-women-belong-to-their-parents/

http://diannaeanderson.net/blog/1288

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/print/2013/05/why-some-evangelicals-are-trying-to-stop-obsessing-over-pre-marital-sex/276185/

 

Christian Kitsch #1: Archie’s Sonshine

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For the first proper entry in this series on Christian Kitsch, I’m going to take the digital/textual time machine all the way back to 1974. I was remiss as a scholar in that year, since I failed to come into existence until almost two decades later. A quick Wikipedia search, however, should go a long way toward making up this unfortunate miscalculation on my part. I now know that Portugal’s fascist regime collapsed that year, UPC scanners were first used to check out products, Pepsi started selling sugar water to the Soviets, and plenty of great music was released. King Crimson’s Red, Miles Davis’ Dark Magus, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway all hit shelves that year. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the theatrical release of Phantom of the Paradiseprobably the greatest film ever made about rock and roll music.

At the same time, though, it was a sobering time for Archie comics. I have never patronized the Archie publications, mostly because my parents never had any tatty copies of them lying around in dark, child-friendly crawlspaces and I never showed any interest while passing them by in the impulse purchase section of the grocery store. Despite this, I did know to be surprised when I found out that the Archie brand had been coopted for Christian propaganda by a publishing company called Spire Comics. Spire itself was just one arm of the Fleming H. Revell Co., whose founder and namesake had been a friend of famous Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The comics themselves were written by Al Hartley, whose father was the Hartley of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which critically weakened organized labour in the United States. His son was evidently not the rebellious type, at least where political alignment was concerned, and a cursory reading of any of the Christian Archie comics produced by Spire in the 1970s is evidence enough that Al Hartley was just as invested in conservative advocacy as his father.

Archie’s Sonshine, our Spire showcase for the day, is a curious mix of the banal and the batty. It tells a loosely plotted story about Archie going to a beach that has been overrun with sanctimonious white people along with their deluded, freedom-loving counterculture adversaries. While the different parts of the book all appear to take place during the same day and even in chronological order, the only overarching point any of them have is that Jesus is a cosmic panacea for all of your first-world irritations. Shortage of available hetero male flesh for romancing? Jesus can play substitute until you find your soul mate.

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On the very next panel, our Very Special Guest for this comic shows up.

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Yes, Jesus himself comes down from the Throne of God to deliver his all-important message to the beachgoing youngsters of this bizarro alternate Archie universe. Or, that’s what I believe the comic intends us to believe. If, like me, you find that Jesus’ Second Coming taking place in this manner is a physical and theological impossibility, you have to assume that this is some kind of uncannily savvy and sickly youth-oriented pickup artist in a “Love” van. The feathered hair, the curious lack of a navel, and his all-denim getup strengthen my confidence in that conclusion. Well, this acid-washed facsimile of the Messiah, having shown up at the beach with all the sober dignity of Archer’s Dr. Krieger, proceeds to preach a hip new version of the Sermon on the Mount that’s more suited to the comic-reading youth of 1974. The older version, found in the book of Matthew chapters five through seven in the Bible, certainly has its moments. But surely we can all agree that it lacks a certain something in the leering campiness department.

Watch Archer. Watch Archer. Watch Archer.

For instance, while the original referred to the legendary King Solomon, the greatest king and walking marriage-industry subsidy of ancient Israel, is replaced with a more contemporary reference. This gives us the following glorious panel.

Liberace in a field of flowers.
Liberace never threatened to cut a baby in half for the sake of Justice, though.

That, in turn, is followed by this rather unsettling pair of drawings.

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Krieger-Jesus reassures us that human lives are more important than those of plants. I am unsure as to why that required an uncomfortable scraggly-revealing closeup panel, but I appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, when I look into Betty’s eyes in the second panel I see nothing but a Hall of Psychotic Mirrors, endlessly reflecting maniacal evil through an infinite chasm,. Everyone else in the audience seems to be paying close enough attention to Krieger-Jesus (let’s call him Kriezus from now on), but she is clearly enraptured by a brief glimpse through the very fabric of the Fourth Wall. The material of her being, the ink and paint from which she has been crudely fashioned, yearns for human contact, and yet, lacking all empathy, can only smile outward at us in an attitude of becalmed despair.

After this, Kriezus continues his pitch to the ladies, showing his chest at every turn–and no, his navel never makes an appearance, suggesting that he is a laboratory fabrication and more closely connected to Dr. Krieger than I first imagined–to emphasize just how hot your time in heaven will be. Well, at least he’s better at maintaining this façade than Fritz the Cat, though the latter did actually convince a pair of his listeners to join him in a bathtub escapade. After a few panels, we get another gem.

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What’s truly amazing about the panel is that we can see what an Archie character looks like with a tongue. There’s a little splotch of red in their mouths. Reg, on the other hand, has nothing but a black hole, suggesting that Kriezus has indeed absconded with his tongue to bring it back to his mad scientist master. Also, Betty still only has eyes for you, reader. Bleak and black as ever. The next several pages cover short plot points about how Big Ethel is enthusiastically sharing the Good News with sand sculptors and Jughead is appalled by the wasting of food meant for a luau. These are comparatively less interesting parts, so I’ll just skip to the final three panels of this masterpiece.

Kriezus leaves the beach after no one agrees to get to know God in the back of his van.
Kriezus leaves the beach after no one agrees to get to know God in the back of his van.

Thus, in a puff of exhaust and a cloud of dust, the impostor disappears. He will spread his message of unsettling good will from beach to beach for as long as he evades the authorities.

Jokes about the squicky subtext of this comic aside, I find it one of the more redeemable and entertaining pieces of Christian kitsch floating out there in the camp-o-sphere. There’s enough eyebrow-raising weirdness involving the pseudo-Jesus and his groovy van, the alterations to the Sermon on the Mount, and  sundry other curiosities to keep me laughing most of the way through. As I wrote in my introduction post, though, this mostly innocuous obscurity is a symptom of deeper and potentially more disturbing cultural forces at work in American Christianity. When evangelism and outreach are the most important work you can do, when the sole purpose of your Christian mission is to get as many people out of hell and into heaven as possible, you can justify this sort of surreal propaganda. Absolutely nothing about this depiction of Jesus makes him look like an actual historical person. If you were a casual Archie reader and came upon this comic not knowing anything about Jesus, I’m not sure what kind of impression you would get from this depiction. Of course, I doubt that many people other than conservative evangelical Christians bought this in the first place. That, in many ways, is the ultimate puzzle of Christian kitsch like this: if only the people who already agree with you are buying it, what’s the point of making it other than to pat yourself on the back for being oh so right? 

If you are interested in reading this comic in its entirety, you can find them with some quick searches. I’ll be doing more of these as part of a series, but I’ll try to space them out because I suspect they will always tend to generate long articles. For a history of these comics (the accuracy of which I cannot guarantee), see here.

Editor’s Note: Christian Kitsch Series Intro

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Unoriginality and trite “parody” are hallmarks of Christian kitsch.

Every once in awhile, Alexius feels down and out, and the words don’t come as readily as he wants. This happens to all of us. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to fill in for him, as I have been trolling the Internet and found just the subject from which to fashion an ongoing series. While most of the culture Alexius and I address on this site consists of art objects from accepted categories–music, film, painting, etc.–much of popular culture is not so elevated. “Christian Kitsch,” as a series, will be oriented around relatively lighthearted reviews of kitsch objects. Focusing on Christian T-shirts, mugs, toasters, jewelry, and the like is natural since it’s the area of kitsch culture with which I am most familiar and qualified to comment on.

For this first post, I want to offer a definition what Christian kitsch is and come up with a couple of reasons why it exists. Kitsch itself is a somewhat nebulous concept, befitting the ephemerality of the objects to which the label applies. The term is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well. According to this analysis, cultural critic Walter Benjamin notes that kitsch “undermines the distinction between art and the utilitarian object,” and, rather than creating a critical distance to allow itself to be an object of sublime observation or intellectual challenge, it is instead superficially intimate and warming.

One of the best examples of this is coffee mugs plastered with phrases like “Best Dad.” They’re objects intended to be utilized for some practical purpose–to hold coffee, for instance–but they also convey easily digestible and “cute” messages that never disturb or cause undue personal reflection. After all, you don’t want the person who receives your coffee mug to be so paralyzed by the messaging of their avant-garde coffee mug that they can’t sip their caffeine in peace.  According to Benjamin, kitsch, unlike art that you see in museums, has “100 percent, absolute, and instantaneous availability for consumption.” There is nothing about kitsch that resists or critiques mass production and commodification. Rather, the very nature of these objects is that they offer no barriers to purchase. While you could say with ample justification  that “high” art is just as commodified but with a more blue-chip clientele, I think we can still hold up a useful distinction between “real” art and kitsch, even if the line between the two has been intentionally blurred by many artists from Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami to Jeff Koons. Kitsch aesthetics are often fascinating because of their innate appeal, and there is a great deal of critical work to be done in visual art by parsing and screwing with our attraction to such objects.

Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton bag on sale at eBay
Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton bag on sale at eBay

When considering Christian examples of this phenomenon, one could well ask: if Christianity is supposed to be anti-materialistic, or in some way opposed to or at least aloof from the capitalist order, why is there so much Christian kitsch? Well, Christianity in the United States is, in general, successful in large part because, rather like kitsch objects, it readily identifies with and succumbs to the values of the culture around it. That’s in large part because, as the privileged religious/cultural order in America for centuries, Christianity has had a huge hand in creating American culture as it is now. If Christians want to be critical of American culture, they must be self-critical. But kitsch, as we have established, is not self-critical, and is a material symptom of the wholesale succumbing of Christianity to capitalist values.

This identification is easily justified since, after all, Jesus followers are supposed to spread the message. What’s wrong with letting people know about Jesus with sandals that leave inspirational messages on the ground as you walk? So there’s a utilitarian ethic underpinning much of the marketing and production of these objects. And one could look at Christian kitsch as just another manifestation of religious folk culture, just with a whole new set of amulets, totems, and icons. Rather than warding off evil spirits or winning material favours from a spectral realm, the “rational” consumers of today’s folk objects derive comfort and affirmation from their purchases. Objects made by humans are extensions of the human body, and so these products are basically physical manifestations of how they want to feel on the inside. They reinforce the hormones and neuron pathways that make them feel tingly. They’re doing good work by buying this junk, because anything that uses Jesus’ name in some vaguely “nice” way is good, right?

Issues with idolatry and capitalist exploitation of easy emotional payoffs aside, my fascination with these objects comes from the fact that they are unaware of just how disjunctive the marriage of message and medium is. Because we’re culturally conditioned to see kitsch objects as passive and “innocent” there is a trove of humour to be mined from these objects when they exceed a certain strangeness threshold. These coat hangers, for instance, take a graphic, theologically-loaded act of violence against Christianity’s central figure and transform it into stuff you throw your clothes on after walking in on a cold day. If there were any ironic distance to these, I would call it a good attempt at high art. As it is, though, I can only laugh and shake my head at them because they’re marketed and contextualized as sentimental and innocent. The graphic violence of the crucifixion is so tame and absorbed into the cultural ethos of America that it has lost all inherent meaning except as a signifier of the vaguest “Christian” emotion. I could spin this into a much longer critique about how evangelical Christianity has so emotionalized the Christian narrative to make Jesus palatable and intimate that it’s lost all meaning other than as a false banner for conservative politics and insular group therapy “worship,” but I don’t have the time for now.

While I will certainly be harsh on the kitsch objects I examine in this series, remember that I wouldn’t be writing about these items at all if I didn’t have some kind of gut attraction to it. Manufactured, plasticky knickknacks appeal to me in the same way as they do to other people, because they’re designed to be attractive. It’s only through ironic distance and intellectual consideration that I can summon up the energy to truthfully hate on them. And, even now, laughing at them brings me pleasure. What I want to end on is that simply condemning kitsch doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to understand it, like scientists trying to defeat a sea monster in a B-movie. Without looking at the material conditions in society that produce the desire for these things, we won’t be able to see them for what they are and proceed to comment on them.