Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: Visual Piety

David Morgan. Visual Piety : A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998.

In literature I often find this book mentioned alongside Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity, R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God and Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus as a cornerstone in the field of researching the material reality that helps shape religious practice. Mr. Morgan is a very productive man but this book seems to have been a trailblazing one. Be that true or not at the very least I think it was breathtaking, and even at times unsettling.
            The first thing that makes this book stand out is method. I love both McDannell’s and Moore’s books, but there is still something that lacks. Both perform historic research. That’s fine of course and they do go to great lengths to try and reconstruct what all the material goods actually meant to people living at the time. But testimonies can only tell you so much about what people actually did with all these things (a limit McDannell in her book in a moment of honesty actually laments). This is however something that Morgan actually looks into by means of a modest research. He asked people about their personal experience regarding Sallman’s Head of Christ. This yields some interesting results that go beyond merely looking at the products and the testimony of its users from the past only. In a way one might say it’s even more real, because instead of having to second guess about what people meant when they wrote about their experiences in an unreachable past, you can just ask them. Of course you might still get it wrong, but at least you can go straight(er) to the source. Morgan is the first one I encounter that makes use of sociological method in addition to historical research in trying to understand better the reception of popular religious material culture.
            Another thing that struck me in this book is that it sometimes chilled me. This should really only mean two things: The world is a horrible place and Morgan is a damn good writer. I got the cold shivers running down my spine reading about the way that Christianity is turned from a lovely ideal of how to raise your children teaching them values of kindness, solidarity, forgiveness and compassion to a nazi-esque ideology of exterminating all members of the human race that aren’t “really” Christian. The reasoning goes that what starts as a good idea about raising your kids quickly turns into the idea that you can only make sure people turn out okay if you start from birth. If you don’t, it’s already too late. What does that mean? That you should be born into Christianity and if you aren’t then there is no hope. Therefore, it is reasoned, Christians should focus on raising good families and little by little try and exterminate all other rivaling people that are supposedly beyond redemption. It turns religion into family and tribe and takes away the idea of Christian by choice and turns it into Christian by birth (seemingly a very un-American idea by the way, usually preferring believer’s baptism over infant baptism, emphasizing personal choice over fate). Driving this point home both intellectually and emotionally is not an easy task and certainly in my opinion Morgan managed to do this and it hit me hardest since reading Jon Savage’s Teenage where he talks about the horrible and lonely death of Anne Frank.[1]
            Morgan’s ideas are innovating. His sharp observations, clever use of research results and his ability to tell stories like the one above and others, like that of Muscular Christianity, make this book a standard on the theme of material Christianity in the United States and in fact one of worth in its own right.

[1] Might I add to this that it took a good English writer like Savage to finally break my native Amsterdam shield of cynicism about the fate of Anne Frank, making sure I actually heard it for the first time after having heard it already told uninspired by bad teachers a thousand times before.

Friday, March 30, 2012


So there you are, an ambitious evangelical Christian, that wants to preach the Word to the youth. What do you do? You could create an animated series. That is difficult though, because you must first learn to understand the idiom and the technique, which doesn't always work out that well. But what other options are there? Well why not just buy the rights to some cheap Japanese cartoon series and dub it over in the native language of your country cramming it full of Jesus? That is what the local Evangelical Broadcasting Network here seems to have done with the Japanese series Katri, Girl of the Meadows, that they renamed Nathalie. This story is strange anyway and somehow very modern and international. The 1980s series is Japanese and based on a Finnish book set in Finland during the First World War. So already the series is culturally somewhat of a stretch. But then the Evangelical Broadcasting Network here in the Netherlands bought up the rights and made it into a Dutch series with a strong Christian message. This is not on a Golden Rule do-unto-others level, Jesus was invoked himself. It was quite explicit. I am amazed now (although perhaps a bit naively) that the series wasn't evangelical at all to begin with. In a way, just buying some secular series and then dubbing it into sanctity is quite cunning. If you can't beat them, rob them blind?

 Katri, a.k.a. Nathalie.

Dutch DVD front.

Dutch intro song.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Veggie Tales

So in line with my recent entries on Christian kid's shows (like SuperBook and Davey & Goliath) today let's talk about the one to end all others: Veggie Tales. This is one of the few crossover success examples of evangelical popular cultural products being picked up in the secular market too, not just remaining in the evangelical subculture, according to Heather Hendershot. It's pretty much your cutesy series about anthropomorphic vegetables (a divergence from the usual animals) that go out on adventures. Subtle certainly for evangelical Christian standards is the embedded message that doesn't focus on Jesus but focuses more on proper behavior and interpersonal (intervegetable?) contact.

 Okay maybe they aren't always that subtle.

Source: Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Atheist Stickers

Yesterday I was at a punk show in Belgium. Good stuff. Mohawks, loud music, a lot of shouting, singing and dancing, the works. One other thing that was also there was an anarcho punk merch table. They were selling a lot of stuff, promoting vegetarianism and saying that the state should be abolished, but what caught my eye were some anti-religion stickers.

It did make me think about the phenomenon of merchandise. This is somewhat my specialty. I always wonder why people buy and use merchandise. A lot of times it seems to me that it has to do with identity. You wear shirts, put stickers on everything and get a whole bunch of fridge magnets to let other people know who you (think you) are. Ironically, most of the time it doesn't matter what it says, as long as it says something. In the case of atheism arguably things even get weirder, because the identity construction revolves not around what you are, but what you aren't.

 I love the primitiveness of this one.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Davey and Goliath

So after yesterday's SuperBook, more on kids shows. Another one that I see popping up in literature every now and then is Davey and Goliath. This is somewhat fascinating. If SuperBook seemed to still match the standards of its genre, this does not seem to be the case with Davey and Goliath. It's somehow very stiff. First of all in a technical sense. The stop-motion animation isn't smooth. It's crude and uneasy. Perhaps this is inherent to clay-animation itself, but even so, this just looks and feels clumsy. I wouldn't say heartless because it seems the people did actually care about what they were doing, they just didn't really know how to do it. It looks amateurish. This shows even more in the stories though. I've watched a few episodes now and... there isn't really a story. Just some morals in sequence that are so big you sort of gasp for air every time they punch you in the stomach with one. No plot or script or nothing - and a gruelingly slow tempo to add. No suspense either. Which brings me to another striking feature: where is evil in this world? The most evil things seem to get are only a suspension of good, after which a quick restoration of good follows to underline that ultimately all is fine and dandy in this here lovely God's creation. Postman Pat, although twenty years younger still the secular series that Davey and Goliath remind me of primarily, also doesn't have evil, but somehow it's different. In the lovely sweet universe of Postman Pat the creators seem to have consciously suspended evil although they damn well know it's out there in the real world. In the case of Davey and Goliath the creators seem to want to illustrate that evil doesn't really exist, giving it a feverish quality because they don't seem to convince even themselves of this fact. With Postman Pat it's a game, with Davey and Goliath it's dead earnest.

Friday, March 23, 2012


So this is an old pre-animé type Christian animation series. I remember this kind of series, they always looked rather cheaply produced (probably because they were). Endless shots of heads of two altering frames to cut costs, that sort of thing. Brought home probably by the Pokémon series. But I know it more from the old eighties series like Nils Holgersson and the Wizard of Oz animated renditions (oeh and that terrible one where they wanted to teach you about the human body. It was awful. No matter how young you are, you automatically react allergically to educational-purposes animated series). It wasn't very good but hey I was ten, it moved, that's all that mattered, I was happy with it. Even though the Evangelical Broadcast Network did have some series of its own, I don't really remember this one. Only vaguely perhaps but given that I was hardly even in my double digits of age my mind is likely to play tricks on me and fill in blind gaps with lies. Anyway, since there were secular animated series, of course there were also evangelical counterparts. This one seems, given the standard that it emulates, not bad though. The premise seems to be your average computer-gone-bad because of which some kids are sucked into another reality type model. Of course in this case they end up in the many stories of the Bible. Probably this series isn't so bad because the Bible stories do beg to be turned into an animated series... well okay perhaps not all books and stories but still quite a few of them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bloody Bloody Bible Camp

Not a spontaneous product from a religious culture, but quite like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, this one is too good not to mention. The idea is already genius but Jesus Christ makes a quick appearance, played by none other than porn clown Ron Jeremy. Now thát's what I call casting!

I bet they included a "don't you hate it when people try and stuff their religion down your throat?" joke.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Christian Art: Corbert Gauthier

Once again all is well and good in Jesusland!

 Smile! It's Jesus!

Love that "Golly gosh darn it would you just look at that folks!" pose of Joseph there.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Left Behind: The Movie

So, it's been a while now that I've been wanting to talk about this. But the day is here. That dragon of a movie: Left Behind. My latest experience with this movie was in class recently where a good chunk of the movie was shown. This was for a Christianity in the United States class and everyone was paying close attention, scrutinizing for religious symbols, scribbling down notes carefully. But... nobody laughed? The poort acting, the weird story twists, the crippled dialogue? Nobody noticed?
Perhaps I'm biased about this movie, having read what especially Heather Hendershot had to say about it. The team behind it was all psyched about making the very first crossover movie success, thinking they'd take Hollywood by storm. With a movie based on a best-selling book, appealing not only to the evangelical subculture from which it sprang but also to the broader public, they did have reason to expect it.
Yet nothing more than a gush of wind it turned out to be. Or in fact, according to the reviews, a very smelly fart. A by now infamous description of the movie by the critic Desson Thomson writing for the Washington Post that reads "A blundering cringefest, thanks to unintentionally laughable dialogue, hackneyed writing and uninspired direction" pretty much sums up the common sentiment about this movie amongst reviewers. Not even the own team was all too wild about this movie, where didn't have too much praise to sing for it and even the evangelical periodical Christianity Today sighed out a quiet "ahem."
Granted, in the long (long long) run, it did generate some money with video sales. However, it was meant to shine at the box office. 17 million going in, just over 4 million grossed... that's a far cry from the spectacular success that the makers had anticipated. The idea that they could live up to the Hollywood norm with this movie is beyond naive. But why did the team behind this movie think it then?
Hendershot touches on a couple of reasons. One is that the producers thought this movie was quite subtle because they cut back on all the “Jesus”es flying around. Still, for any outsider watching this movie, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. It’s a good bit of end-times propaganda. You almost watch it not as a fiction movie but as a scenario for what is about to happen according to its creators. Also to me it seems these people had no critics at all. They sort of just... went along with it. I know that bands sometimes tend to think they made the greatest record ever because they convinced themselves of this fact in their isolated bubble and not because they critically compared their product to other ones out there. Usually also then, cold harsh reality tends to prove such bands wrong. The feel of this movie very much reminded me of such bubble-reasoning. Whatever the reason might be though, it presented us with a pearl of oblivion from the evangelical subculture!

PS: I do remember now, that when I did finally see the movie after having heard so many bad things about it, I did think: Was that it? I had somehow expected to see the very worst movie ever. In fact, I was looking forward to this. Give me the worst movie to end all worst movies! It was bad, sure, but that bad? I didn't really think so. Could it be then that there was a little bit of politics involved? Secular media cranking the critique dial up a notch or a few to punish the unrealistic expectations of the high-and-mighty evangelicals? The production team did present itself for target practice going on and on about how great this movie was and how it would show all people the way of movie-making of the future, but I don't know if it deserved quite the all-devastating criticism it got. I for one have seen worse. Far... far worse!

Source: Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Aimee Semple McPherson

So lets talk about the fierce Sister McPherson. She was an active evangelist in the early twentieth century. She was an itinerant revival priest as they are called, roaming the world and preaching the gospel. Her services were quite something alright, hailing from the more expressive side of the Pentecostals, extravagant even for Evangelist norms. Tongues swinging, drunk on the love for the Lord, letting out some of that good old glossolalia. And of course bodies dropping to the floor everywhere and people getting up dancing, shouting and of course an occasional faint here and there. Du religion spectaculaire mesdammes et messieurs! Also, McPherson was a pioneering spirit in that she made use of the all-new mass-medium, the radio, to reach her audience everywhere. Her persona was an inspiration for a lot of fictional characters too, like for instance the preacher boy in the movie There Will Be Blood and I'm pretty sure she was a source of inspiration for the character of Sister Shara in the movie Elmer Gantry. Good movies by the way. But back to Aimee then. She was, in short, one hell of an entertainer, be it for the heavenly cause.

 Preach it Aimee!

 Screw the Batmobile. This Gospel Car is my kinda ride!

Drop it like it's hot!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

George Whitefield

So see if you know this one. You're sitting in class and the topic is on George Whitefield, an eighteenth century Anglican preacher. The teacher talks about how influential he was in spreading more of an Arminian type of Christianity in the United States than the Calvinist one that was already manifest, which allowed more room for personal choice. You are told about his impressive sermons that even the religious skeptic Benjamin Franklin thought were remarkable. You hear about how he is able to command an enormous crowd of thousands, all hanging on his lips in a time when there was no microphone around yet. He invented the gesture of heaving your arms into the air, he introduced the outdoor religious gatherings, he was, in short, a figure of note for Christianity in the United States. And then they hit you with this:

It's not even so much the fact that he's squint-eyed - in fact the teacher was quick to add "blessed are the squint for they get to behold God twofold." But it's just that after all that pep talk you just don't see this coming. It's very hard to keep a straight face. This is supposed to be a serious class right, with serious people, bright minds that are not distracted by frivolous detail but keep their eye on the intellectual ball... oh how hard it was to hold in my laughter! To you, dear reader, I confess.

Whitefield was a man of note though, so let's not keep it at his cross-eyedness and add some more artwork. With him raising his arms on high for example.

 Bring 'em to their knees, Georgie!

 Put your hands up! This guy invented it.

 At times Georgie could be a bit of a pouty face. Nice Princess Leia hairdue though!

Friday, March 2, 2012


Probably the central symbol of the commodification of religion: the bobblehead! Lets see what we can dig up.

 Some Jesuses first then.
 Swing it, Jesus!

 Add a little bit of Moses.
 Add a little bit of pope.
 This Rabbi looks like he had a hard day at the synagogue.
 Buddha? Buddha!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Christian Art: Sandra Kuck

More art that flirts with a Victorianesque 19th century ideal of never-was those-were-the-days. It adds to create an idea of a time that is longed for today, an ideal of a past that is presented as a hope to aspire to for the future. It reminds me in this of the A Life of Faith dolls. There are in fact numerous artists who follow this idea.