Jesus Kitsch, My Lord and Savior

Photographs by Joanna Ebenstein

Photographs by Joanna Ebenstein

But the absolute is absolute…” — Clement Greenberg, “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch”

It doesn’t start all at once. This feeling, it builds bit by bit, tableau by tableau. In the beginning, it is only a slight smile as we descend the ridge behind the Franciscan monastery and see the first mannequins against the snowy West Virginia forest. With the brush from the car, I wipe away fresh snow from plywood signs to reveal hand-lettered Bible verses:

And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke…

And he beheld them, and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner? Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

The sultry ’70s mannequins portraying biblical characters stare just past me, frozen yet inviting. But these mannequins, designed to sell fashion from the windows of temperature-controlled department stores, have not held up well under the elements: Eve’s faux-fur covering has slipped down, revealing her cleavage; some of the prophets have lost their hair or clothing; disciples are missing fingers, noses, whole limbs; a couple of Old Testament Jews have completely toppled over. Every few feet along this trail its creators call the Bible Walk we discover a new catastrophe — some intended biblical punishments, some unintended, natural beheadings.

I try to take it all in and the feeling lightens my head, leaving me giddy. I want to run ahead and see it all at once. I want to stay and hold each Bible character, to keep them warm, to re-cover them in their garments. Am I having a religious experience?


Despite what suntanned youth pastors, overproduced Christian pop stars, and columnists from glossy Jesus teen mags told me in my evangelical youth, it has never been very cool to be Christian. Imagine telling your peers, “I’d love to go to a forthcoming concert / party / film with you, but I can’t because there is this kind Jewish man with long hair and soft eyes who loves me more than his own flesh and he wants me to remain pure so I can spend eternity with him in paradise.” There is no register available on this earth that could count this as hip.

And as if forcing me to carry the burden of personal purity was not enough, my evangelical mentors made it clear that the only sure way to truly win favor in the soft, loving eyes of Jesus was to bring more sheep into his flock. If I did not feel compelled to share Christ’s message with those around me, then there was something suspect about my own relationship with the Lord. These evangelical pressures only further confounded an already overwrought adolescence: Every creative impulse I had had to be run past an internal review to see if it was from Jesus or the Devil. And if the impulse was indeed perceived as of the Lord, it had to be carefully labeled as such so there would be no confusion for the outside world. Add to this distrust of impulse a general revulsion for things of this world (really all that artists have to work with) and loving Jesus does not make for great art. Although I cannot quite comprehend the devotion of the monks who made the Bible Walk, I think I do understand why their art sucks.

Art for Jesus is by definition kitsch. When Clement Greenberg wrote his famous 1939 essay, “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which introduced the term “kitsch” to the American art world, he made strict boundaries between good abstract art-for-art’s-sake and bad commercialized kitsch. Good art, Greenberg believed, takes as its inspiration the medium that the art itself is created in. “The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way that nature itself is valid.” But then, like the ancient Israelites with their golden calf, the makers of bad art, kitsch, take the true creation of the god/avant-garde artist, and water it down — they make a self-serving idol of the original, palatable for the masses. Using art for a purpose outside art makes it kitsch. The Franciscans responsible for the Bible Walk let their devotion to an outside Christian ideology get in the way of their art, not only copying commercialized products but using the icon of consumerism, the store mannequin, in their creation.

But don’t think that Christian kitsch fares much better with Christians than with art critics. For example, educated Christians from across the theological spectrum love to shake their heads and wring their hands at what has become of the Christian Booksellers Association. Once a quiet backwater of Bible and Sunday school book publishers, these days it is a multi-billion-dollar trade show so packed full of pendants, T-shirts, and CDs that it is now referred to only as “CBA” so as not to give the impresion that any actual books are represented there. Christians, too, worry that easily accessible slogans and trinkets are taking away the depth of the Jesus message. Like the avant-garde artists, they want to return to a pure form, a pure faith, untrammeled by messy trappings of pop culture or capitalism, which corrupts and decays. The Bible Walk should be as much rejected by Christendom as it is by the Artworld.

But then why am I so moved by what is so obviously bad art, bad religion, and even bad business? What is it about this site that makes me want to run out and tell everyone about it and yet keep it quietly to myself, close to my heart? Why do I love Christian kitsch?


Farther along the path, I see evidence that someone has been attempting to restore the Bible Walk mannequins. Clothes have been pinned back together; models propped back up; arms and legs have even been refastened with tube socks and duct tape. I imagine a monk from this backwoods monastery trying to keep up the mannequins’ appearances so that visitors might learn the message of God’s absolute power. I think of his devotion, his ineffectual efforts, taping back together nature’s decay. And then the religious feeling completely overwhelms me. My legs grow weak and a warmth fills my body even on this cold and snowy day. I want to run through the snow and dance with the disciples and weep and laugh and sing. I want to fall down and worship on the holy, holy, kitschy ground of the Bible Walk.

Churches, museums, temples do so little to move me just because they are so good, so complete. Their purity is a purity I can never share in. But here at the Bible Walk, I can see artists or monks in all their embarrassing nakedness. I can see their stupid attempts to make sense, to have control, to retain power in this vast world of decay. This touches me in a way that no good kitsch-free art or religion ever could.

Jesus Kitsch, have mercy on us all.

Erik Hanson, a contributing editor of KtB, was once the religion editor at AltaMira Press, but then he was laid off. He taught Math and English at a K-8 Quaker School but then he was laid off from there. He currently advises Anthropology majors at the University of Maryland, where he has not yet been laid off, although he is expecting furloughs.