Encounter is a Sydney-based radio documentary feature program that seeks to explore the connections between religion and life. Two weeks ago they aired an episode, hosted by Allison Chan, that includes interviews with religious gift shop workers, Christian and Hindu clergypersons and lay practitioners, and artists—all of whom had something to say about the use of religious objects, from statues to bread stampers, in daily life. Click here to listen to the audio. I highly commend it to you—it has really reshaped my attitude toward kitsch and has given me a better understanding of Hindu spirituality.
Here is an annotated outline with guest names and time stamps.
1:10: Noni Daniels, joint CEO of the store Holy Kitsch!, explains the appeal that devotional objects have for her, even though she’s not religious.
2:21: Sister Christine Pisani of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master in Sydney talks about the artwork of Sister Angelica Ballam, for sale at their Liturgical Center, and about the Catholic theology of images.
Sensory Experience in Protestant Church Interiors
4:30: Bishop Robert Forsyth of the Anglican Diocese of South Sydney comments on Protestants’ justified caution toward images.
5:18: Rev. Dr. Rod Pattenden, pastor, art historian, and Chair of the Blake Prize, reflects on the church’s history of violence against religious images. He describes the sparse, white-walled churches that came out of the Protestant Reformation as “utterly boring” and a hindrance to experiencing transcendence.
9:16: Forsyth discusses the stripped-down aesthetic of St. Barnabas Anglican Church on Broadway in Sydney, rebuilt in 2012 after a fire destroyed the original building, and what defines it as a sacred space.
12:22: Pattenden on the need to move beyond the children’s storybook image of Jesus: “I’m a little bit suspicious of traditions that say they don’t have images, because I think everybody in the pew is living with a rich image vocabulary. As I’ve questioned people in that conversation, often I find that people in the pew have very Sunday school-like images of Jesus or of God. They’re actually living with a very early developmental idea of who God is and how God acts: Jesus with long hair and blue eyes and a little blond beard . . . a very feminine-looking Jesus who loves us and walks with us. . . . If you talk to a lot of people in the pew, when they close their eyes, that’s the kind of image they’re thinking about.”
13:31: Forsyth on the primacy of hearing over seeing in Protestant Christianity
The Role of Idols in Hindu Devotion
14:25: Pandit Rami Sivan of the Australian Council of Hindu Clergy discusses the Hindu practice of darshan, or seeing. Communicating to deities with the eyes, not the mouth, is very important in Hinduism, he says, and is the means by which blessings are bestowed.
15:34: Pandit Jatinkumar Bhatt, priest of Sri Mandir Temple in Sydney, describes the appearance of Krishna.
16:25: Sivan says that when preparing food offerings for Hindu deities, the aesthetic component outweighs any consideration of taste. He also responds to the question “How can the Infinite be contained in a material object?”
19:10: Udaya Spices is the largest Indian supermarket in Australia, and it sells not just groceries but idols. The host asks Prathiba Ravishankar, a worker there, why their Hindu section places statues of Jesus Christ beside ones of Lord Ganesha, Lord Rama, Lakshmi, etc.
21:31: Dr. Meenakshi Srinivasan and her husband, Karthik Subramanian, show the host their puja room. “Most human beings need something visual to connect” to the Divine, says Subramanian. “Not everyone can be in a state where you can focus on Infinity and then experience it; you need a focal point.” Their young daughter, Manasvinee Karthikeyan, explains how she interacts with and benefits from the deities on her bedroom shelf.
25:57: Tess Mclean of Koorong Christian bookshop in Sydney shows off some of the store’s inventory: Scripture candies, “Pick Jesus” guitar picks, and “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (John 14:3) posters.
28:48: Colleen McDannell, Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Utah and author of Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, doesn’t really like the term “kitsch”: “Kitsch is a term which refers to a certain style of art perceived from the outside. So kitsch is always someone else’s. You have kitsch, but I own art. . . . I talk about Christian retailing in my book. In my sense, they’re not producing kitsch; they’re producing objects to help people solidify their religious beliefs. . . . These are material expressions of religious commitments.”
31:25: Christianity in the high arts of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods
33:36: Betty Spackman, an artist and author of A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, warns Christians against judging religious objects from other cultures as kitschy: “I think it’s very important as Christians that we don’t have to like, we don’t have to understand, but we have to respect one another’s expression of faith, whether it’s from another faith base or whether it’s from our own faith base.”
35:29: Pattenden, a minister, laughs about all the Christian kitsch he’s received as gifts from his friends and parishioners. He sees kitsch as having some value but hopes that Christians don’t sustain their spiritual imaginations with it, that rather they strive to develop a more robust understanding of God and to discover more interesting ways to relate to him—that is, beyond Jesus night lights and bread stampers.
36:47: Spackman: “I love kitsch—I have this love-hate relationship—because it’s free of having to be something more than that. It’s not needing to be fine art. It doesn’t have to stand up to the hierarchy of value judgment. And that’s how usually it’s talked about—it’s talked about in comparison to fine art. And it’s not fine art, it’s something else. And I think for myself and for artists of my generation, it was a challenge and a problem and almost an enemy for a while, because it was the only representation of the arts that the Protestant church had. But they [kitschy objects] are also fun and they are also free, and I call them a kind of a renegade art that is free of the church and free of the art world, and people can use the cheapest materials but have the strongest meaning and personal connection to them.”
37:41: Pattenden reiterates that kitsch is a great first step to connecting with the holy but that he would encourage people to go further.
38:20: Spackman refers to kitsch as “faith in drag” and notes that no matter how garishly it’s dressed, it is nonetheless expressive of a longing to manifest a deeply felt truth. In contrasting it to fine art, she says, “Kitsch is about closure and not about openness. Kitsch is about comfort and not about challenge. I think that’s the appeal—that it comforts people and it expresses for them in a very easy way the things that they believe.”
39:28: In responding to the question “Is kitsch embarrassing?” Spackman cites H. R. Rookmaaker’s concept of “beautiful meaninglessness.”
41:21: McDannell says that to call something “kitsch” is just another way of saying that it is not fashionable at the time.
42:16: Sivan says that oriental people don’t regard kitsch as inferior—temples and ashrams are full of it!
The Appropriation of Religious Imagery by the Non-Religious
43:09: Dr. Yadu Singh, President of the Indian Australian Association of New South Wales, responds with displeasure to the 2013 incident in which Brookvale Union Brewery printed labels for one of its beers depicting the head of Lord Ganesha on the body of goddess Lakshmi.
45:03: In 1999, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras committee organized a Sleaze Ball with the theme “Homosutra,” during which attendees performed various acts of “carnal queer karma” before Lord “Gay-nesh.” Though the Hare Krishnas protested this offense, Sivan laughs it off.
Dual Traditions within Christianity
49:48: Pattenden identifies two different Christian attitudes toward images, both with ancient roots: The one says that God, who is mystically Other, can be apprehended only by dispelling all images from our hearts and minds. The other says that we are seeing creatures, and so to apprehend God we must use that sensory ability. Pattenden says that these two traditions are not necessarily contradictory: sometimes we need to scale back and just sit with nothingness, with unnamable, uncircumscribable mystery; other times we need to use our eyes to feast on the richness of God.