(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?