The Word made flash; the Word made kitsch; the Word made bland

Maybe I am a reactionary but I do get a bit fed up with some attempts to make Christianity flash (by which I mean cool and "relevant"). Of course, Christianity always has been and always will be contextualized; it is always encultured and always needs recontextualizing. So I am all in favor of that. But there are ways of allowing the divine Word to engage human culture and there are ways of obscuring the Word in our very attempts to make it known.

The Word made flash is sometimes simply kitsch. Take a look at the world of Christian gifts—T shirts, dolls, posters, etc.—and you'll see what I mean. Evangelicals are sinners here with our utter trivialization of the divine in our material culture but so too are Catholics (who can take kitsch to new heights). I remember seeing one T-shirt with a cartoon cute brain wearing glasses in a frying pan. It looked hot and its tongue was hanging out. Underneath were the words "This is your brain in hell." Really? Have we made Jesus' eschatological warnings of judgment "relevant" to teenagers in this way? Will they see the T-shirt and fall on their knees in repentance?

I recall a poster set out in Coke style with the words, "Jesus Christ—he's the real thing" . . . There's something better than Coke! No way! Please, tell me all about it. Mercy! What must I do to be saved?

There is a church I know that engages the local community with breathtakingly corny posters that make your heart weep with their utter stupidity. Not relevant! Stupid! Crass! Trivial!

Another way of making Christianity "relevant" is to reduce the tensions between the gospel and contemporary culture so that the gospel is seen to say the same thing as everyone else. I recall reading one book on film and theology which, if I may slightly caricature its argument, proceeded as follows:

1. Theology has much to learn from film.

2. Consider Film-X. Look—it communicates some ideas that are different from what Christians have traditionally said.

3. So theologians need to change what they have traditionally said and accommodate their theology to this (revelatory?) film.

Really? But surely the film might . . . be wrong.

And, of course, once we explain to the world around us that we are not so weird—that we really believe and behave pretty much the same as them—then they will understand that they are fine to stay as they are. There is no call to conversion here; simply a call to think and speak nicely about Christians. They ain't so bad; They're just like us really. The problem is that we often are. This is the Word made bland. Why would anyone want to hang out with people as bland as that? The gospel call is a call to the kingdom of God—a call to embody the story of the crucified and risen Lord. We are supposed to be different (though note that "different" does not mean "weird").

Christians are calling on each other to change all sorts of parts of their theology and practice in the name of cultural relevance. Now, I am open to such calls because Christian theology and practice are human affairs and are always open to judgment. But the judge is God and God's gospel and not any human culture, past or present. The gospel must be a challenge to cultures—all cultures—and not submit itself to cultures for judgment. It is not simply "trendy liberals" who fall foul of seeking to submit the divine Word to culture; some of the greatest offenders are conservative traditionalists of all stripes who oh so easily imagine that their culture best embodies the Word. For an example of this consider this picture—"One Nation under God" by Jon McNaughton. This is a gnat's whisker from idolatry.

I am not calling for all things traditional—not at all. Nor am I suggesting that the fine line between enculturation and compromise is easy to navigate. What I am saying is that we need to be ever-vigilant and ever-open to the judgment of the divine Word. We need to realize that to be relevant is not to be flash or kitsch or bland—it is to embody the story of Christ in our communities. It is to embody a divine challenge to culture and to be a vehicle through which the breath-taking and awesome God encounters people.


jmbonnett1 said…
I so agree with what you have to say in this post Robin. Hipster Christianity makes me cringe. If I hear one more person saying "awesome" every third sentence....I am distressed because this type of behaviour seems to me more about marketing than communicating. I don't like it when people wear masks and act in a way that reflects that. Give me someone genuine and true.
Anonymous said…
I was reading the paper this morning and the headline was 'Was Jesus mentally ill'. Shock tactics maybe to shock the reader into investigation of 'who was Jesus'. It didn't work for me as suggestions of St Paul having a mental breakdown and King Saul being bi-polar also made an apperarence.
I liked this article Robin. Having never been trendy myself I also have never been in fashion or out of it for that matter. Nor have I been much of a conformist, much to my detriment at times. I have found the most powerful of messages given in church are direct from the Bible and it is this that folk have responded to and delivered by normal folk who have themselves responded to the gospel message.

The question remains are Christians 'normal' and if 'normal' means to follow the norm that the cultural world we are surrounded by, then 'no'. The salvation offered is 'special' 'supernatural' and not baige or bland or boring. Often I find myself getting corss with the Church that seems to forget the basics at times and tries to 'move with the times'. If that makes me a stick in the mud or a tradtionalist then so be it but certain things remain either scriptural or unscriptual. Maybe I see things in very black or white terms. Or maybe it is just me? Maybe in my middle aged dotage I have become 'boring' (which is quite possible).
Young people can be related to but this is most suceesful when the gospel is presented and the hard questions are asked based on the Bible.
Robin Parry said…
Thanks Andy

We're can be grumpy old men together
Anonymous said…
Man Alive, to steal your expression as I have done for many years now to avoid my alternative Geordie self and it's many unfortunate lingustic proclivaties!

How on Earth did I become 44! How did that happen. Classes see me as an old flatuation and I do say: " When I was your age in 1746....."

I am a traditionalist at heart I suppose, some truths don't change and are unerring!
Anonymous said…
Haha! I love that picture Robin! I can see how that might appear unusually disturbing to you, but as a Red State American, I'm so used to these I had to double-take to catch the obscenity. This nationalist Christianity is on display even in highly devout pockets of Christian America; I listening to the proprietor of a small Christian store in Arkansas at once explain the pagan, un-Christian nature of the Christmas Tree, while stocking a variety of painting not far off from "One Nation Under God." It's a head-scratching indeed.

What, on the other hand, might pass as a certifiable and especially unnerving golden calf here today would be the American military, but that's for another day.
numo said…
fwiw, the artist whose work you've used here - John McNaughton - is Mormon. There are many Mormons here in the US who believe that the Constitution is a divinely-inspired document.

This painting is very charged, both politically and theologically. McNaughton has become very popular in some hardcore right-wing circles here for his recent painting of pres. Obama trampling on the Constitution.

so you can easily see what the imagery in *that* piece is saying.

I'm not here to promote any political views (though I'm fairly liberal), just to make note of this imagery and its meaning.

and btw, I deeply appreciate your work on a more "inclusive" view of eternity! am on the fence about full-blown universalism, though.

Robin Parry said…

Thanks. I did not know this. Interesting.

Kind Regards


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