Thursday, February 16, 2012

Essay: Sink or Swim

Currently I am taking the course Christianity in the United States of America at the University of Utrecht. It's a good course and part of it is writing some essays. Since these have to be in English and since (of course) my topic is reli-kitsch, I thought I might as well publish them here too.

Sink or Swim
The Competitive Nature of Christianity in America

 Precious Moments nativity set

The first time I saw this Precious Moments nativity scene composition I immediately wondered about how it was possible that something like this exists. Immediately after that I wondered why I wondered about that. I believe trying to answer both these questions might shed some light not only on my bewilderment(s) but also on the way Christianity in the United States has developed and how this has come to differ from its development in Europe.
            In order to do so, we must first go back in time, where our first stop might be the revivals in the colonial era. During the 1740s, the first revivals started to take place. These revivals were characterized by intense displays of emotion.[1] A key figure in these revivals, also known as the Great Awakenings, was George Whitefield. He preached to enormous congregations everywhere he could see fit, to people of all walks of life and from all kinds of denominations.[2] It was during the performances of Whitefield that people would experience a new “personal, inward, and heartfelt religion” popularly referred to as an evangelical type of Christianity.[3] Typical also for this type of Christianity was mobility. Whitefield traveled from place to place, preaching to the lost everywhere he came. Established religious practices of course were not all too happy with these itineraries as they came to be called, because they were a threat to their religious monopoly.[4] A certain disdain for established clergy with fixed dogmas and traditional ways of thinking was perhaps typical for American culture at large, preferring more classically liberal ideas such as “populism, individualism, democratization, and market-making.”[5]
            This then brings us to the separation of church and state, a fact of Federal life when after the American Revolution the First Amendment was accepted.[6] Perhaps ironically, as a consequence of the fact that no denomination could claim religious monopoly in the United States, all denominations were now free to develop themselves, which made this country a fertile soil for pluralism. Not only was there the opportunity though for all religions to develop themselves but since they were not assured of state support, they depended on popular support for their very existence. Churches in America became voluntary associations, resulting in what might be called a competitive religious market.[7] Religion in fact was no longer something that one was simply born into but it became a matter of personal choice.[8] This meant some changes in religious approach, at least changes from the earlier European model. Religion had to appeal to people. Religion had to appeal to popular types of sentiment. It had to adjust to cultural and perhaps even universal human desires. If it didn’t, it was doomed. For without anyone listening, a religion rendered itself obsolete. It was either sink or swim.
This is arguably why “religion has penetrated popular culture.”[9] This also brings us back to the picture displayed at the beginning of this essay. It can be argued that it appeals to popular sentiment – that it is sentimental. Subtlety, it might be argued, is nowhere near it, but perhaps only through things that might be said to approximate the parody a most popular form appealing to the many can be accurately expressed. Seen in this light, it might be better understood why such things exist at all.
            This might take care of the first question I set out to answer, but what about the second one: Why does this surprise me? Perhaps the contrast between the reality of religious and cultural practice between Europe – being myself a European - and the United States might shed some light on this. A difference of note between the two cultural realities might be the way in which “high culture” is regarded by both respectively. The idea that in order for something to be “high-culture” it must be secular - or, to turn that around, “high-culture” cannot be religious - has strong roots in Europe and is only relatively recently becoming somewhat of an aesthetic standard in the United States.[10] So, perhaps when I see something unapologetically and explicitly religious, I might be inclined to disqualify it as “high-art.” Moreover, intellectualism is differently appreciated in the United States than it is in Europe. The United States might be described as “a commercial and therefore a pragmatic society.”[11] This might not be an attitude that values “fruitless” reflection too much. An American might think that someone engaged in endless aesthetic pondering, focusing on something that might be called kitsch, is simply just missing the point. My imaginary American friend might ask: “Who cares if it’s kitsch, does it sell?”
If I chuckle when I see works like these [and leave it at that], it is with shame though, for I do feel such popular religious expressions deserve more serious attention.

[1] Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. New York: HarperCollins, 2000, 400.
[2] Noll, Mark A.. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2002, 51
[3] Noll, The Old Religion, 51.
[4] Marty, Martin E. Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America. New York: Penguin, 1984, 120.
[5] Noll, The Old Religion, 24.
[6] Berger, Peter. “Religious America, Secular Europe?” In Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations, edited by Peter Berger, Effie Fokas, and Grace Davie, 9-21. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008, 16.
[7] Berger, “Religious America,” 16.
[8] Berger, “Religious America,” 13.
[9] McLeod, Hugh. “Religion in the United States and Europe: The 20th Century.” Transatlantische Religionsgeschichte, 18-20. Jahrhundert (2007): 142.
[10] Berger, “Religious America,” 19
[11] Berger, “Religious America,” 18

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