Magazine article The Christian Century

Embracing 'Bad Taste': In Defense of Tacky Theology

Magazine article The Christian Century

Embracing 'Bad Taste': In Defense of Tacky Theology

Article excerpt

THE ANGLICAN archbishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, recently argued that evangelical liturgical and spiritual tastes have tended toward "fast food rather than haute cuisine." To be sure, he concedes, there are at least some "solid missionary reasons" in favor of the evangelical approach: "More people go to discos than to high opera, and one of the courageous things about evangelicals is their ability to embrace bad taste for the sake of the gospel." But evangelical bad taste is, in spite of its missiological value, based on a weak theology. As a corrective, Holloway points us to the Catholic tradition, whose "incarnational approach" has "bred in Christianity, at its best, an affirming and generous attitude towards human beings, their struggles, their joys, their tragedies and their sorrows," which has led in turn to "the emergence of a Christian aesthetic in worship, art and architecture."

At first glance these remarks seem to make good sense. Evangelicals are so concerned to rescue people from their sins that they are willing to tolerate--even enjoy--bad taste in order to succeed in evangelism. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, has a deep appreciation for the value of the creation, as evidenced in its theological emphasis on the integrity of nature and the centrality of the incarnational ministry of Jesus. Therefore, Catholicism has developed a "high" aesthetic which has celebrated the dignity of created reality.

But things are not quite this simple. Are popular tastes not a part of "nature"? Who is really being more "affirming and generous" of our human struggles, joys, tragedies and sorrows--the lovers or the despisers of fast food and discos? And what "Catholic tradition" is the archbishop thinking of when he lauds Catholic aesthetic sensitivities--is it, for example, the same tradition that accommodated folk magic in the sixth century?

Most interesting, however, is the archbishop's appeal to incarnationalism in stating his argument. A very different case is suggested by Patrick Ryan, in one of his delightful lectionary meditations in the Jesuit weekly America. Father Ryan describes how he has come to have second thoughts about his own early disdain for popular Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:

Much as I once reacted against the kitsch in these images of Jesus, I have come to recognize in them a modern folk tradition that crosses cultural barriers. The inoffensive, even weak Jesus with His heart exposed says something to those who might be mystified by a Rouault image of Christ mocked or Rembrandt's justly famous "Head of Christ." Jesus subjected to the humiliation of bad artistic presentation pours Himself out even for those with little or no aesthetic sensibility... How often does the Son reveal the Father in tasteless posters and plastic statues that glow in the dark? More often than I once supposed. The humility of the Messiah who followed the royal style of entry suggested by Zechariah, "meek, and riding on an ass," continues to touch us in the popular imagery of the Sacred Heart.

This is a very different Catholic use of incarnational themes than Holloway's "haute-cuisine" aesthetic. Ryan sees the incarnate Son as affirming and generous toward glow-in-the-dark figurines. Here we encounter a theology of the "natural" that is able to recognize dignity in kitsch.

Ryan's comment is an evangelicaltype endorsement of bad taste -- and in the name of the very incarnationalism the archbishop thought could rescue us from a low aesthetic. This should not surprise us. Appeals to the incarnation as such will not settle these issues. We need to be clear about how the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ relates to various cultural contexts and phenomena.

Ryan's understanding of the incarnation is obviously grounded in biblical motifs. This is not as obvious in Archbishop Holloway's case: it would be interesting, for example, to know how he, from the perspective of his "good-taste" incarnationalism, would assess Mother Teresa's oft-expressed testimony that she sees in dying bodies on the streets of Calcutta something of the beauty of Jesus, hidden beneath his "dreadful disguise. …

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