Bad Liturgy: When Religion Becomes Kitsch

(This is Neil)

I’m relatively sure that a few basic web searches will yield lists of bad – perhaps even “the worst”- churches, religious music, and artwork. And, yes, many of the pictures will show cringe-worthy aesthetic and architectural disasters. But there is a problem if we assume that simply expelling what is strange and unusual is actual theological work. We might still be left arguing that good liturgical music should be “reverent” and “traditional,” whatever that means, and, for somewhat vague reasons, should not resemble “secular” or “profane” music.

But it can be useful to think about what really makes bad church architecture, religious art and music “bad.” This is not because we should be fascinated with the expulsion of heretics. In fact, this process should help us question ourselves, not imagine that we can escape self-criticism and be restored to purity by ridiculing obviously silly pictures and people from time to time.

So, what makes bad church architecture, religious art and music “bad?” I don’t think that I can present a comprehensive answer here. But part of an answer is, “They are kitsch.” The Reformed theologian Johan Cilliers cites the writer Milan Kundera on kitsch, “kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence … kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.” Thus, kitsch is an example of the theologia gloriae – a theology that marginalizes the Cross and suffering, instead of saying, in the face of death, “Where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). There is an unreality about this sort of theology.

This doesn’t mean that religious art shouldn’t be beautiful. But it can’t be the mass-produced pleasant sentimentality of – Cilliers’ examples – “pretty sunsets, artistic flower arrangements or snow-covered mountain tops.” The beauty of religious art must reflect God’s intentions with creation as it is, which, tragically, must include the Cross and a cruciform “strange beauty.” “A kitschified cross no longer drips blood but honey, no longer embodies pain but plastic, no longer mediates salvation but sentiment.” Cilliers says that this kitschified cross is not the sign of divine grace for our world, but a sentimentalized, domesticated, edgeless “self-generated healing.” Thus, it can’t penetrate to the real heart of things.

All of this might still sound vague and liable to manipulation. But Cilliers gives us six characteristics of kitsch. The key is that kitsch is a kind of generalized simulation of a reality which it actually means to bypass:

1. Kitsch uses endless repetition in a fruitless attempt to achieve “effect.” “The word alone is never trusted; therefore, words must be repeated endlessly.

2. Similarly, kitsch distrusts the power of a single, precise metaphor and strings multiple metaphors together.

3. Kitsch cuts and pastes different forms together. “Symbols and rituals are introduced, left out, shattered and fragmented without taking cognizance of the theological context, motivations, historical setting and theological and anthropological issues being put on the table via these activities.”

4. Kitsch “simplifies and trivializes complex ideas by reducing them to stereotypes,” thus oversimplifying life, handing out “how-to-do-it’s instead of wisdom and discernment.”  I suspect that we’ve all heard sermons, perhaps pietistic or just nostalgic, that do this.

5. Kitsch refuses to contextualize, and “excels in both superlatives and diminutives, linguistic structures that, in fact create realities ‘smaller or larger than life.’ Jesus is either the “little Lord Jesus who lays down his sweet head” or the “phenomenal and glorious manifestation of God’s glory.”

Here’s the question – and be honest: When do we see this sort of thing? And when does the liturgy become kitsch?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Bad Liturgy: When Religion Becomes Kitsch

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    I suspect that the best we can do is say that, like beauty, kitsch is in the eye of the beholder. If some building, piece of art, work of music truly draws that participant/observer into a more direct relationship with the divine, who am I, even thought I might find said thing to be execrable, to say that it isn’t good enough? And I am VERY particular about what I find liturgically appealing and what I don’t.

    Is a revival meeting kitsch? Is liturgy as performance art without allowing participation by the attenders kitsch?

  2. Liam says:

    Pace Jimmy, I would say that modern neurology and related sciences are increasingly showing there is very widespread hard-wired preference regarding beauty; it’s nearly as subjective as we used to think.

  3. Neil says:

    Thanks for writing. I would never say that any building or piece of art or work of music is completely incapable of drawing someone into relationship with God. This is not the sort of area in which we can deal in absolutes.

    But we can use language like “more likely” or “less likely.” Otherwise, we wouldn’t need liturgists, or at least we wouldn’t need highly trained liturgists who combine practical skills with theological expertise. It just wouldn’t be worth the expense.

    I would say that kitsch is “less likely” to draw someone in relationship with God for the reasons in my post.

    I have no problems with revivals. (There have long been Catholic revivals, too – see Jay Dolan’s book.) Revivals can become kitsch if a church has a revival just to have a revival, as an annual routine largely carried out for nostalgic purposes. I suspect that we’d see some of my characteristics – an increasing number of repetitions to recreate an “effect,” for instance.

    I would worry about liturgy as “performance art” because it might be directed towards some sort of “religiosity” instead of encountering the living God.

    I’ll have to check out neurology and aesthetics – I don’t know very much about this.

    Thanks again.


  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    Speaking of Catholic revivals, oops, missions:

    When I was a kid in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s we had annual parish “missions” conducted by the Passionists. They were a hoot! We all had to go and most of the kids got a good giggle out of the ranting and railing that one priest by the name of Flannon Gannon (lonnnnnnnnnnng dead by now).

    I do indeed, looking back at them now, think that they were the height of kitsch. I have no idea whether they made a change in anyone’s life, but they could have.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Jimmy,

    I suspect that preaching about hell can very easily turn to kitsch. This is because it is very easy for such preaching to be about something else. Hell becomes a threat to be used for social control (“Don’t do that, or you’ll go to hell!”) or a way to deal with present weakness and vulnerability (“They might think they’re winning, but they’ll see – when they’re in hell!) or something else.

    So preaching about hell becomes preaching about a simulation of hell. And that’s kitsch.

    Where in Wisconsin did you grow up?


    • Jimmy Mac says:

      Southwest Wisconsin, Grant County, Cuba City to be exact. 75 miles s/w of Madison, 9 miles south of Platteville, 8 miles east of Dubuque, IA.

      4th house on the left side of Cody Street.

  6. profling says:

    Get all of the women out of the liturgy–readers, singers, ushers, altar girls, liturgical dancers, and ministers of all kinds–and we will see the kitsch disappear.

  7. profling says:

    Yes, but only if the women are behind it.

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