In one of my recent Google searches I came across an object relevant to my research on ritualized habitual consumption. My first reaction was gratitude, and maybe a giggle or two. But then I noticed with disappointment the site on which I found the object: The Museum of Idolatry, Artifacts of Apostasy.
Now, I must give props where props are due; this website has, in fact, sussed out more than a few disturbing contradictions within contemporary Christian culture here in the USA and beyond. Arguably, that’s the intent of the site. It’s thought provoking, in a way that will likely make you giggle, too, before deeper reflection, and perhaps horror sinks in. I don’t want to try to defend or refute the site’s intention or inclusion of different objects/ artifacts. You should check out the site and decide for yourself.
The object I was looking for that led me to this site: a Jesus Pez Dispenser. Lately I’ve been exploring images that address the commodification of spirituality, and a contemporary theological fallacy that seems to have taken deep root especially in the US. I refer to the fallacy as the “God=Candy Dispenser” syndrome.
Other, more erudite thinkers than myself have also noticed this trend. It’s the idea that allows us to approach the mysterious, majestic, and infinite being of God as though he is a kindly, perhaps teensy bit senile grandpa whose sole purpose is to dole out to us whatever we ask for every time we ask. Because I want to comment directly on this idea through visual media, the idea of Jesus Pez seems apropos, and I was looking around to see if someone beat me to it.
Finding a similar item labeled as a sign of apostasy rattled me a bit. Not long after my web discovery, a friend and colleague listened to my brief description about my current work, and then asked point blank, “What’s up with all the sacrilege?”
sac·ri·lege noun 1. the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred. 2. an instance of this. 3. the stealing of anything consecrated to the service of God.I find it hard to imagine Pez candy, or any vessel for distributing it, ever being consecrated to the service of God. At least not in the context of genuine worship. So I think I’m safely not committing the 3rd infringement. But I might be guilty of the first. Jesus is sacred; is conflating him with candy an act of profaning him?
pro·fane verb (used with object) 6. to misuse (anything that should be held in reverence or respect); defile; debase; employ basely or unworthily. 7. to treat (anything sacred) with irreverence or contempt; violate the sanctity of: to profane a shrine.
See, here’s the catch—I am not profaning Jesus, or the name of God. I am using a representation of Jesus as my subject matter—the person/ place/ thing (noun) that I’m going to contextualize in order to convey content (meaning—in this case that to think of God as a supernatural candy machine is actually profane). My obvious and pointed comment is not mocking God. If anything I’m mocking consumerism as it conflates with our theology. But as a viewer, you have to look, AND reflect on the implications of the context in order to reach that understanding. If you dismiss the work based upon a superficial sense of “secular vs. sacred” you’ll miss the whole point.
My specific example is anecdotal. But it describes what I hear many artists and writers, who are also people of faith, describing. We encounter the question of legitimized subjects and content on a regular basis. We ask the question of ourselves, or we have the question imposed upon us by various cross-sections of Christian community. Certain subjects become taboo—regardless of the content we intend to convey. Alternatively, if our work doesn’t directly reference God or Jesus in an overt and/or socially acceptable way, it can be categorized as “secular,” and then relegated to the category of “not pertinent to the matters of faith.”
Dividing artifacts—some captured candidly, and others crafted by the creative energies of artists and artistic directors—into categories such as proper, improper, sacred, secular, and apostate is problematic. It begs a larger question regarding how we as artists comment not only on the state of the world—beautiful and tragic—but how we might also reflect the beautiful and tragic realities of the Church universal, and the church local of which, like it or not, we are a part.
Discernment is an absolutely necessary discipline as a maker of and reader/ viewer of art. But categorizing something based upon subject matter alone, or the superficial reading of the content is not discernment. Rather, this type of spiritualized taxonomy is a practice of maintaining a status quo. It runs the risk of dismissing thoughtful, beautiful, grotesque, and even prophetic voices from people making excellent work that could help us encounter the presence of God . . . sometimes when they are not even aware of trying to do so.
My invitation: chime in! I’d like to know your thoughts about the issue.
Celebrating the fact that material objects and articulated ideas have the capacity to help us encounter the ineffable, sometimes when we least expect it,
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,