emerge, but for Pete’s sake avoid the kitsch

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 10, 2005

Those of you who know me know that I am not a big fan of the
concept of "sacred space." And as much as I love the arts, I think that
they can become as much as a devisive tool (marginalizing the
aesthetically challenged and elevating those who go to arthouse films
and know what REAL literature is) as they can be an authentic aid in

When it comes to the role of aesthetics in the church, it may seem as
though I am an iconoclast (which in many ways I am, I suppose).
Nevertheless, I wish to offer advice to those of you lead, or desire to
lead, in bringing new approaches and styles into the church: if you are
going to base your worship upon a heavy use of aesthetics, make sure
you do embrace a solid aesthetic and avoid kitsch. 

You see, western culture (especially American culture) turns all of the
finer things of life into prostitutes…pawning them on street corners
for easy consumption.  One only has to watch television for about half
an hour before one discovers a catfood or burger or car or tampon
commercial that utilizes Beethoven or Motzart or Bach or the Beetles in
order to sell whatever that product happens to be. We Americans have
been trained to see almost everything through the lens of
commodification (that process by which object and services are packaged
and disconnected from their origins, thus creating a project that holds
meaning only for the consumer, instead of having its meaning derived
by, from, and for its creator).  Through this lens, it is easy to see
aesthetics and liturgics as nifty commodities to be used in accordance
with our evolving (and often traditionless) religious and spiritual

This is why one can walk into any number of evangelical mega-churches
on a Saturday night for Emergent? worship service and see Celtic
crosses, Greek icons, and Catholic candles.  Sure, many groups that
have such offerings do so reflectively–their leadership has studied
the traditions of the Church and has made an informed decision about
how their service will utilize the arts.  But my gut tells me that most
have left the realm of liturgics and entered into the realm of kitsch.
They are pastors of pastiche.  They have surveyed 2000 years of art and
culture and meaning and abstracted elements from that grand history
(ie, commodified it) and put together something that at first blush
SEEMS sacred, but is really a sort of disturbing Frankenstein.  It is a
freakish creature created by slapping together cool shite from the
ages, into an experience that seems sort of deep, but without its roots
in any distinguishable tradition.  The only common glue holding the
parts together is a sense of taste that has been shaped by an
upbringing in a consumerist advertising culture.

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7 Responses to “emerge, but for Pete’s sake avoid the kitsch”

  1. Trike on June 11th, 2005 5:45 pm

    Amen, and Amen, and Amen! I felt like I could have written this post myself - so therefore, I guess you were pretty inspired in writing it, eh? Or, did you do it after a few of Pat’s homeaid beers.

    Anyway, I too feel like one of the dangers of the emergent movement is a sense of actually being more FORMULA motivated than the boomers - especially when it comes to art, litergy, icons, etc. It seems like these things BECOME the reason the emergent is so “cool” - as opposed to being the MEANS to another end - being swept up into the glory of God. All the Authentic, Emergent, Inclusive, Incarnational, Missiological, Dialogical, Contextual and Ancient-Futural (new word, eh?) in the world doesn’t mean squat if it is an idol! The MEANS have become the ENDS to make my point clearer.

    Now, know this, I tend toward iconoclast as well - not because I am opposed to them, but because I can see how incredibly idolatrous our culture is with everything, especially religion.

    Just one man’s point of view. Thanks for the rich post.


  2. Trike on June 11th, 2005 5:47 pm

    BTW - nice word, shite. Is that the Bethel way of spelling it?

  3. todd h on June 12th, 2005 11:22 pm

    Great post! I loved the copyright on “emergent.”

  4. Van S on June 13th, 2005 8:28 am

    I was hoping someone would comment on that! I’m actually growing appreciative of many within emergent…but for so many the whole thing can be boiled down to a template. I suppose i could have just as easily written “Christianity?”

  5. timmer on June 13th, 2005 8:49 am

    Kitsch is a great word for how art often works itself out in the church. I’ve seen this in the music realm especially. I refer to it as the “evangelical trickle-down arts problem.” Now that’s a book title! Evangelicals in general tend take the best of secular art culture and then boil it down until it is palatable for almost everyone. What is left is sort of a beige, useless mass (think suburb house!). This leaves the art with only a faint echo of what it once was, with little or no semblence of what made it great in the first place.

  6. blorge on June 13th, 2005 1:14 pm

    I think you’re right, Timmer. I’ve long had an aversion to Contemporary Christian culture, and especially the literature that has been produced from the evangelical machine. Give me Dumas or Hemmingway over Peretti or Left Behind any day!

  7. timmer on June 13th, 2005 3:33 pm

    Haha…evangelical literature. I heard Mark Driscoll talking about that. He found it ironic that the two best selling books/series in Christian lit have been Left Behind and the Prayer of Jabez. Basically, he said, “The two biggest things that conern us as evangelicals is–how do we get more stuff, and when do we get to leave?” Evidence that Christians have their priorities straight….

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