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Christian Kitsch

In response to:

The Historical Jesus from the February 13, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

My grandmother, who sat devoutly and joyously through more Baptist prayer meetings and sermons and revival services than I would care to imagine, would have been profoundly shocked by the learned Dr. Cameron’s scornful denunciation of one of her favorite hymns, “I come to the garden alone” [NYR, February 13]. She would have understood mere aesthetic distaste; she knew that better educated people might find her tastes too simple. She would not have understood the assertion, apparently expressed also by the learned Dr. Pelikan, that her hymn was un-Christian.

Throughout a long life of selfless devotion to other people’s needs, she never complained. Her faith never wavered that Jesus, the son of God. would welcome her to heaven, and that he would remember her, and that he would console her. Far from believing that her faith was excluding others, she prayed for every lost lamb, so that each of them might also feel the comfort of such faith.

What Dr. Cameron calls kitsch, a word my grandmother certainly never heard, he may find aesthetically distasteful. But it is pharisaical to call it un-Christian.

As many old jokes have it, surely in heaven there will be different meeting rooms for the different faiths, and the learned doctor will not have to listen to my grandmother’s congregation singing away, “while the dew is still on the roses.” Maybe that’s what the different mansions are for.

Herbert McArthur

Albany, New York

J.M Cameron replies:

My scorn was for the text of “I come to the garden alone,” not for those who sing it and, singing, like it. Mr. McArthur’s grandmother’s “selfless devotion to other people’s needs” and her faith in God are of the essence of what it is to be a Christian. All the same, what we see and handle and listen to, even at the aesthetic level—I wouldn’t ordinarly write “even” here, but this seems to me how Mr. McArthur thinks—must surely have some religious importance. I set beside “I come to the garden alone” the noble hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and the former simply falls away from the world of authentic religious discourse, as do the holy pictures that used to—perhaps still do—punctuate the lives of Catholic children. I think kitsch presents us with a serious theological problem and stands, far beyond the formal bounds of theology, for something amiss in our culture, as, for example, when well-washed fat babies or puppy dogs presented on the cinema screen evoke disproportionate cries of delight. Kitsch is a form of lying, and religious kitsch lies about what is, for the believer, the deepest reality.

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