Christian Kitsch – We Are Not Immune

February 24, 2004 | 23 comments
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A new fashion statement – crucifixion spike jewelry?

A Reuters article from February 20th says, “Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” is ringing up sales for tie-in products ranging from “witness cards” with prayers on them to “nail” pendants that signify the spikes driven through the hands and feet of Jesus Christ….Along with the cards, [a] company is selling a cross pendant, bracelet and a key ring via the “Passion” Web site and in specialty retailers like Christian bookstores. But it is the nail pendant that is among the best-selling items. “If you see someone wearing a nail, that is really going to cause someone to ask, ‘what is that,” Dwight Robinson said. “It gives the wearer the opportunity to share their faith.”

So, what do we think of this? Before any of us start getting too huffy about other traditions merchandising the sacred, let me tell you about a trip I took to Nauvoo during the temple open house period in 2002.

I traveled from Chicago with some gal pals for a women’s gathering which included attending the temple open house and eating dinner at the Catfish Bend River Boat Casino. An interesting mix. The streets of Nauvoo during that late spring/early summer were festooned with welcoming banners and sidewalk kiosks selling candy, hot dogs, t-shirts and trinkets. I walked by one storefront and saw something in the window that took my breath away: a T-shirt with a profile of Joseph Smith and some of the historic Nauvoo buildings with this motto across it:
I Walked Today Where Joseph Walked.

Obviously this was a morphing of the famous song, “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked.” Its lyrics are meant to move us closer to Christ and His, well, passion for us. But here was this outrageous t-shirt doing the very thing other Christians lambaste us for – nearly deifying Joseph Smith. Why do we give them such fodder!? I’m grateful for the prophet, surely, and I’m beholden to the Restoration. But let’s keep First and Last things first.

Maybe it’s my Protestant heritage. I was reared on the understanding that God – The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost – is the ultimate authority. I still believe this. Any humans – however righteous or called they may be – are not divine and to treat them as such rubs raw against Commandment #2 – Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

I knew I had to do something on the streets of Nauvoo. If I bought it – as some kind of witness to a crime – would I in fact be aiding, abetting and funding the (at best) misguided folks who don’t see a problem with the line they have crossed? But could I let something so egregious pass without taking some kind of stand?

I finally decided to buy the image in canvas bag form. In fact, I determined to buy all of Nauvoo’s most disturbing merchandise. (I turned the bag inside out and use it to store these other items.) This decision was with the promise that I would use them as visual aids to discuss the exploitation of the sacred. Here’s my collection to date:
The canvas bag with “I Walked Today Where Joseph Walked” on it.
A key chain with the same motto, including a tiny plastic footprint filled with dirt from Nauvoo
Fingernail clippers with the Nauvoo Temple on them.
Tiny toothpick holder in the shame of a beer stein with the Nauvoo Temple on it.
A shot glass with the Nauvoo Temple on it.
A misting fan with the Nauvoo Temple on it (to cool you in the Mississippi malarial plains?)
Temple trading cards.
A golf ball with the Nauvoo Temple on it – (so you can whack it into the wild blue yonder?)

I have expanded this now to include a Salt Lake Temple shot glass and a battery-operated hamster wearing a missionary suit and “Elder Rodent” name tag with a whirling Book of Mormon. It dances to “Kung-Fu Fighting.” Someone offered me a “Jesus Action Figure” once but that was too far over the line to include in my collection. I have seen the Book of Mormon action figures, the Angel Moroni antenna topper, the CTR faux beanies but somehow they don’t carry the same horrific punch for me.

So just when you think I’m on some snooty, humorless high horse, I’ll confess that on my nightstand is a glow-in-the-dark cross which I treasure. It reminds me of a similar item given to me by a childhood Sunday School teacher. Each night when I go to sleep in the glow of that goofy little souvenir I associate it with God’s love and a teacher’s care. Call me a hypocrite, but to me that’s pretty sacred.

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23 Responses to Christian Kitsch – We Are Not Immune

  1. Nate Oman on February 24, 2004 at 12:02 pm

    I have CTR socks which I dearly love!

  2. Renee on February 24, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    I volunteered to work a few days at the Nauvoo temple and was surprised at all the merchandizing. I wasn’t surprised seeing the shot glasses in gift stores by local merchants who are likely not LDS. But I am surprised at things I saw in Latter Day Harvest there and some things I’ve seen in Deseret Books everywhere.

    Do we really need Hawaiian print t-shirts that say Johnny Lingo on one side and “Mahona you ugly” on the other?

    I struggle with all the merchandising by members because I have a few things I really like – a small sunstone replica, some Greg Olsen prints, and a couple of CTR rings. But I canceled my subscription to LDS Living Magazine because of all the ads for expensive products and ads for “exclusive” vacations, communities, and cruises. I don’t think it jives with gospel principles to separate people from LOTS of money for material things. The reality is, however, that very few occupations these days are about basic needs (medical, agriculture, plumbing, electrical, etc). Most of us have jobs that provide “nice to have” stuff. So it goes with the peddlers of religious merchandising.

    Where to draw the line? I’ll have a print of “O, Jerusalem” in my living room. But I doubt I’d buy my kids BoM action figures (which you can find at your local LDS bookstore).

    All that said, I’m fine with The Passion tie-ins like a nail or cross. Those things seem more meaningful. Now if they market plastic figures in Happy Meals, that’s not cool. :^/

  3. Dave on February 24, 2004 at 12:28 pm

    Ah, the splendid knick-knacks of our faith. This attachment to little tangible things that remind us or others of our denominational affiliation certainly isn’t limited to Mormons, it must speak to some deeper aspect of human nature. Even Jews, supremely opposed to images and icons, have their share of knick-knacks. I suppose books (the kind we buy but don’t read, i.e., most books) are just a literate example of the same thing, displayed on the family-room bookshelf rather than dangling from the rear-view mirror.

  4. Blake on February 24, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    I, too, am disturbed by LDS Living magazine. I received my first issue last month (the subscription was a gift from my mother), and it truly was an eye-opener for me. I generally shy away from Mormon popular culture, avoiding most of the merchandise available at LDS bookstores, but it’s not hard to imagine what drives the merchandisers. The Mormon population is a demographic which is a prime target for niche marketing. That’s why there has been such a rapid proliferation of Mormon movies (“God’s Army” and its progeny) and so many CD’s and books. But I’m uncomfortable with these things, and when I enter an LDS bookstore (a rare occasion), I generally confine myself to the shelves of books written by the General Authorities. If I look at the other products, it’s only to remind myself of the horrors of Mormon popular culture and the opportunistic entrepreneurs who have exploited it.

  5. Bob Caswell on February 24, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    “I struggle with all the merchandising by members because I have a few things I really like…”

    Renee, you’ve just proven that this will never go away. Everyone has merchandise they love (like Nate and his socks) but almost all of us “draw the line” somewhere.

    It’d be interesting to have the “where do we draw the line” conversation, but it would so incredibly subjective that only the word “pointless” comes to mind.

    Thus, we just talk about it in jest.

  6. Matt Evans on February 24, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Linda,

    It sounds like you assumed the t-shirt was produced by Mormons, but the temple shot glasses and golf balls sound like run-of-them-mill souvenirs unlikely to have been made by Mormons.

    This is an interesting question — which media are inappropriate for images of temples, prophets, Jesus, etc. The temple on fingernail clippers doesn’t bother me. Actually, I can’t think of many uses that do seem blasphemous to me — maybe my sense is that everything that can be conveyed in an image is, by definition, not “the divine”. And if it makes some lady feel good to have the temple on her toaster, why not?

  7. cooper on February 24, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Funny, I have had this conversation with my sister for a long time. We are very creative people so we thought why not do a Mormonthemed “something”. Each and every time we attempted, we ended it quickly. Something jsut wasn’t right about the exploitation of sacred things. Even the simple CTR ring has gotten out of control It was a learning tool for 8 year olds, and has become a huge industry. Not that there is anything wrong with “Choosing the Right”. We really don’t need to market it. And don’t even get me started on the cost of LDS art. It’s nice that Greg Olsen is a good artist, but good grief how many of have to build that house for him? It’s just too expensive for prints.

    My favorites LDS Living product: Temple Checks. Put a picture of the most sacred palce we all can go and combine it with the filthy lucre of the world. Amazing!

  8. Kristine on February 24, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    I saw a painting of President and Sister Hinckley on (you guessed it) black velvet this summer at the fair in Provo. It took me a couple seconds to decide whether to laugh or cry. (I opted for laughing, long and hard.)

  9. brayden on February 24, 2004 at 2:33 pm

    Nothing is more disturbing than paying twelve bucks to attend a Christmas concert of Michael McLean’s The Forgotten Carols and then finding one’s self surrounded by crying young people who are holding hands and singing their little hearts out. I thought I’d died and woken up in a Dallas Christian revival. Never again.

  10. William Morris on February 24, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    One of the highlights of a trip down the California coast with my priest’s quorum was stepping into a small shop in Tijuana and seeing up on the wall just below Elvis and next to Janet Jackson, a black velvet painting of Joseph Smith.

    The Hinckleys on black velvet is just plain weird — mainly because they are still alive [and old people just don't work on black velvet, imo], but Joseph Smith fit among all the other iconic figures — James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna. There’s bad Mormon kitsch and good Mormon kitsch. I’d say a black velvet painting of the Prophet Joseph is good Mormon kitsch.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on February 24, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    I agree that there’s something iconic, something earthy and charismatic, about Joseph Smith that lends itself to the sort of base, black-velvety appropriation for which American kitsch is famous. And actually, I’m convinced that Elvis and Smith would have gotten along famously. So much about their fundamental experience of spirituality in the world seem similar. Smith would have gotten Elvis to kick the pills and sing more gospel tunes. Elvis would have taught Smith some dance moves. Would have been a very productive relationship all around.

  12. clark on February 24, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    Out of curiosity, why is Mormon kitsch worse than regular kitsch? Seems like the problem is the “aesthetics” of this art more than anything. As for price, well I’m not sure supply/demand is somehow inappropriate simply because of the Mormon setting.

    Heavens, if they act as an icon to keep more religious themes in people heads, more power to them. I can’t stand them on aesthetic grounds. I remember a big discussion on this because my wife wanted such art in our house, whereas I’d have preferred some classic artistic master’s paintings. But she hates those about as much as I hate kitsch. But realistically is one “objectively” better than the other?

  13. William Morris on February 24, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    Clark:

    With aesthetics, as with all things, us Mormons feel like we should be better than [or at least as good as 'the best'] the rest of the world — Miltons and Shakespeares of our own, being able to create under the influence of the spirit and in the light of the restored gospel, etc. It creates a tension and anxiety that I find fascinating.

    Also: perhaps since we feel our symbols and tropes and teachings are ‘more sacred’ [because they are true] and are unique, to reduce them to kitsch is more of an act of condescension or cheapness than with your more generic Christian symbols.

    Finally: Of course Mormons need our own shot glasses. I use mine to down shots of Dr. Pepper.

  14. Bob Caswell on February 24, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    I’d like to second William’s comment about “us Mormons feel like we should be better than [or at least as good as 'the best'] the rest of the world”.

    It’s as if the Church is truer if we Mormons are way “above average” or the best in every aspect of society.

    This example may sound like an exaggeration, but there have been Mormons I’ve known who would love to invite an investigator into their home just so she can see the Mormon artwork on the walls. As if the artwork is just as true as the Church itself.

    The poor investigator has to keep her “weirded out” feeling to herself.

    To take it to the next level, we all wonder why BYU doesn’t win more football games. I mean, the Church is true, right? :-)

  15. William Morris on February 24, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    The BYU football team could win more games, but the Athletic Department received a special directive from the Brethren asking that they go through a rough period for awhile to keep the priesthood from becoming bloated with pride.

  16. Alaska AKA Shameless LDS Consumer on February 24, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    We have all the shot glasses we need, but where can I get the action figures? Do they look anything like this? http://lehi.com/images/nephi8.jpg

    Look! It’s Nephi Osmond!

    Linda, I totally get what you’re saying and I will keep this conversation in mind the next time that I’m at the LDS bookstore. On the other hand, the second I can find one of those white oval CTR stickers (that look like the country of origin decals), I’m snapping one up.

  17. lyle on February 24, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    I prefer shooter glasses. They are taller/thinner than shot glasses. I’m actually collecting them. did they have any of those? Would any of you buy a complete LDS collection of shooter glasses? i can take advance orders if you’d like…

    Why should they be associated with alcohol only and not with the sacred instead? no coke of course… ;)

  18. cooper on February 24, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    Bob – There was that one Uof U/BYU 1999(?) game where we all knew who He was rooting for… Last minute field goal, hits post, falls in instead of out. hehe

  19. Adam Greenwood on February 24, 2004 at 10:17 pm

    Um,
    these are all terrible, but I actually like the idea of a nail pendant, especially if it were worn underneath some clothing. For every kitsch, there is a consumer.

  20. greg.org on February 25, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    I am oddly fascinated with Christian merchandise, which is far, far more advanced (ie., commercialized, consumable) than LDS merch.

    For example, the whole Prayer of Jabez fad, which turned an obscure OT name into a major blessings-oriented brandname.

    But it’s almost purely a business strategy/anthropological interest. This stuff is designed to leverage peoples’ religious feelings and desires to make money. Market share, units sold, profit margins, distribution reach–these are the measures of their success. And by next week, Passion Nail necklaces’ll be more true than CTR rings, which already took a hit from the WWJD bracelets.

    I’d like to see LDS culture/business develop a different model that reflected more than our being a captive market for wheat grinders. A more community- and spiritual objective-driven, and less profit-driven ventures. More linux, less Microsoft, if you will. (This, from an ex-banker MBA. oy vey.)

  21. Bob Caswell on February 25, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    greg.org,

    “A more community- and spiritual objective-driven, and less profit-driven ventures”

    Nice thought, but dream on! We Mormons generally go into business for the same reason as the rest of the world.

  22. lyle on February 25, 2004 at 10:39 pm

    Dear Bob:

    So…does this mean you don’t want to invest in any of my 501(c)(3)s that seek to replicate profit-driven businesses; but in the interests of the consumer? Yes, I’m driven by money…keeping individuals and families hard earned money in their own pockets and hopefully dedicated to building up zion…one individual/family at a time.

    I wrote about this in a type of blog today…

    If I had 10 Million dollars, I would have earned it (I don’t have rich relatives or play lotto)…and many other things would have had to have happened first. I’ll list them before getting into what to do with the $10M itself.

    1. I would already have payed tithing on it, as that happens first. Tithes are an ongoing expense, so they aren’t treated here; although they wouldn’t likely increase due to increased expenditure on food…but on increased capacity to give.
    2. I would already have paid off my 50k in student loans, my 25k 2004 Toyota Prius and my 20k 2003 BMW R1200 CL.
    3. I would already have bought a small wharehouse in Camden, NJ or Philly, PA and converted it into a 2,000 sq home + 2,000 sq homeless shelter/travel hostel + 4,000 sq feet warehouse for my chocolate shoppe
    + 2,000 sq Legal/Political Office.
    4. I would already have distributed enough money to pay off the debts of the various members of Stamps Family, Inc; who would know be making payments at 1% over prime towards the Stamps Family Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit/social capital venture fund. This would not only provide a tax-write off to family members, but also decrease the amount they are paying in profit-based/greedy interest rates.
    5. I would already have started ZionBuilding Banks, Inc. which would issue credit cards [with interest rates that increase every 30 days on the portion of the balance not paid off to encourage individuals not to carry a balance/go into too much debt] and whole auto insurance [a slightly more pricy auto insurance, but one which gives you equity in your policy based on how much you have paid in, and where claims are made against this equity first, any remainder to come from guaranteed prime rate loans from the Bank to be paid off by the insured], etc. These progressive financial policies would enable individuals to become financially independent and be capable of Building Zion instead of Building the wallets of those motivated by filthy lucre instead of doing good (see BoM and D&C).
    6. Would already have started a venture capital fund for individual member-entrepreneurs, similar to the Perpetual Education Fund, but geared towards providing seed money, to be paid back in the form of equity in the company’s profits/earnings. Hm…say Perpetual Entreprenurial Employment Fund? I like the concept of members who are their own bosses and can thus control their work schedule; i.e. not work on Monday nights, never work on Sunday, and spend quality and quantity time with their families.
    X. I could go on, but I think it is obvious by now that if I had ten million dollars…I would be investing it in people and returning about 50% of any future increase to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the building up of the kingdom of God. And…the increase would be small, because profits would be designed to be small in the first place.

  23. Bob Caswell on February 26, 2004 at 1:04 am

    “seek to replicate profit-driven businesses; but in the interests of the consumer”

    Um, what exactly are you going to do different here? Corporate America is way ahead of you on this one. We already have more businesses than, dare I say, ever before in the history of this world that are “profit-driven” and consumer oriented. Many of your ideas have merit, but others need to be reevaluated. Such as the credit cards that “encourage individuals not to carry a balance/go into too much debt”. How exactly is that idea “profit-driven”?

    Hopefully you’ll think of me as a realist rather than a pessimist… but 50% of any future increase to the Church? I’m afraid your last line, “because profits would be designed to be small in the first place” contradicts your first line, “If I had 10 million dollars…”

    I’d like to keep tabs on you, Lyle, if you don’t mind… to see if your business methods work better than those I learned in Economics 101.

    I think this could be a thread on its own: How to be a Capitalist and a Mormon at the same time and still make money.

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