Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fire and Fraud: Touchdown Jesus Meets the Cult of Palin -- Sightings

Having worked at a Christian bookstore during my seminary years, I learned a lot about Christian kitsch, what we called Jesus Junk.   One thing that conservative Christianity figured out early on was how to sell itself.  It didn't just champion capitalism, it embodied it.  No one was better at it than Aimee Semple McPherson, whose talents gave birth to a whole number of imitators.  Well, as Jeremy Biles notes, Sarah Palin has caught the bug, and has combined piety and entertainment and politics together in a way that is almost cultish.  Jeremy Biles takes up the Sarah Palin event and discusses it together with the burning of the TD Jesus in Ohio.  It's an interesting piece, so read and offer your thoughts! 
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Sightings 6/24/10


Fire and Fraud:
Touchdown Jesus Meets the Cult of Palin
-- Jeremy Biles


I recalled C. G. Jung’s definition of “synchronicity” last week when two email messages, each containing a link to a religion news story, arrived to my inbox almost simultaneously. Synchronicity refers to “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” In other words, synchronicity is about meaningful coincidence – two or more events or images not causally related, but connected in some significant way.

The first news item actually invoked coincidence: “We just all have to go on our faith and ask God. This cannot be a coincidence." This was one Solid Rock Church member’s response to the destruction of the famed “Touchdown Jesus” sculpture that had long caught eyes and raised eyebrows along a stretch of Interstate 75 in southwestern Ohio.

Officially titled “King of Kings,” this massive bust of Jesus, with arms raised to heaven in the posture that suggested its nickname, was struck by lightning last Monday night and subsequently burnt down, in what some characterized as an “act of God.” News images show the gigantic sculpture engulfed in flames, while a sign at Solid Rock ensures hope in the resurrection: “He’ll be back.”

The second link brought me to a Huffington Post article calling attention to the cover image on the latest issue of Newsweek. It depicts Sarah Palin, her hands pressed together in a prayerful gesture, her lit-up face turned heavenward, and her head endowed with a Photoshopped halo. Below this intentionally tacky image, in vintage calligraphy, are the words “Saint Sarah,” along with the tagline for Lisa Miller’s article: “What Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women says about feminism and the future of the religious right.”

Miller’s report brings critical light to bear on Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women. Miller emphasizes Palin’s much touted “authenticity,” as demonstrated in her book Going Rogue, where the former vice-presidential candidate talks, for example, about the unexpected pregnancy leading to the birth of her son Trig. “Nothing,” writes Miller, “makes a person, let alone a politician, appear more vulnerable, more ordinary, and more unambiguously female than a scene in a bathroom where she pees on a stick.”

The combination of sentimentality, pathos, and all-American ordinariness that constitutes Palin’s “authenticity” works hand-in-hand with her optimistic religiosity and buoyant patriotism. Miller describes Palin “wearing a rosarylike cross around her neck and a sparkly American flag lapel pin” as she spoke to over 500 women at the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, each of whom paid at least $150 for the privilege of hearing Saint Sarah speak.

Miller notes that “a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships” Palin. One Palin zealot, Vicki Garza, owner of a Dallas-based marketing firm, established a now heavily trafficked website called PrayForSarahPalin.com. Garza “believes a great cosmic battle is underway for the soul of America and that Palin has been singled out by God for leadership.” In Garza’s own words, “The anointing on [Palin] is so strong…. She’s just fearless.”

But what does Saint Sarah have to do with Touchdown Jesus? What makes the coincidence of these images significant? They are connected on at least this point: Whatever else they are, both Palin and the King of Kings can be seen as forms of advertising that might be characterized as kitsch: cheaply produced, popular, and marketable art that traffics in sentimentality and often adapts imagery from cultural iconography – Jesus or saints, for example.

To suggest that Touchdown Jesus – a sculpture of fiberglass and plastic foam mounted on a simple metal skeleton – might be perceived by some to be a kitschy oddity is not to deny that for others it is a meaningful icon, a monumental focal point for faith. It also has clear evangelistic intent, and thus works, for better or worse, as a kind of marketing tool.

But whereas the loss of Touchdown Jesus provoked both sadness and guffaws, the cult of Saint Sarah leaves little room for mirth. Palin’s self-construction as ordinary and “authentic” – her everywoman, working-mom routine; her down-home idiolect; her wink-peppered performances – is, at base, an advertisement for herself. With or without the fraudulent halo, she is a kitschy image designed to sell a particular brand of religio-political entertainment.

Cheaply produced (if sometimes expensive to consume), Palin is above all a popular commodity whose religious saleability is evidenced and abetted by the merchandise generated around her. Newsweek highlights the commercial aspect of Palin’s enterprise in a photo slideshow entitled “Cult of Palin.” Here you find images of Palin alarm clocks, Palin burlesque shows, Palin coloring books, and Palin shirts emblazoned with the slogan “God, Guns, Guts.” As an image, Palin is the patron saint of a form of commercialism in which religion, politics, and entertainment are collapsed.

Cheap and marketable: these terms may describe both Touchdown Jesus and Saint Sarah. But one suspects that human will, and not an act of God, will be required to dispel the cult of Palin.


References:

The Huffington Post calls attention to the “Saint Sarah” Newsweek cover here:

Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article, followed by a link to the “Cult of Palin” slideshow, can be found at:

Information about the destruction of the “King of Kings” statue can be found here:



For information on kitsch, see:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsch


Jeremy Biles teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at various institutions in Chicago. He is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).

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This month's Religion and Culture Web Forum features a chapter from literary critic Amy Hungerford's forthcoming volume Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton University Press, August, 2010). In "The Literary Practice of Belief," Hungerford focuses upon two contemporary literary examples--the novels of Marilynne Robinson and the Left Behind series--in order "to engage (and revise) the current emphasis on practice over belief in our understanding of religion." With invited responses from Thomas J. Ferraro (Duke University), Amy Frykholm (The Christian Century), Constance Furey (Indiana University), Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University), Caleb J. D. Maskell (Princeton University), Edward Mendelson (Columbia University), Richard A. Rosengarten (University of Chicago Divinity School), and Glenn W. Shuck (Williams College).
http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml


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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

2 comments:

Rial Hamann said...

Bob,

An open request:

Could we have less of Palin, and more of Christ. One is a want to be, while the other already is.

Doug Sloan said...

From its beginning, the Good News has been apolitical and non-national. When pushed to choose between faith and empire, the way of the Good News has been to respond with non-violent defiance and refusal. Our faith life is not measured by how materially abundant or wealthy is our life and not by how much political or cultural influence we have. Our faith life in no way embodies, is connected to, or dependent upon or subservient to patriotic fervor or national loyalty or good citizenship. Our faith life is measured by how we attend to and improve the lives of others – by feeding them, quenching their thirst, clothing them, visiting them in prison, healing them, and welcoming them. Keep in mind that this is a deliberately incomplete list. It works in much the same way as when Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times – the point being that by the time you forgive someone 77 times, it has become, not an act that has been repeated 77 times, but a habit, a path, a journey, a way of life. My point being that by the time you develop the habit of feeding, quenching, clothing, healing, welcoming, and visiting prisons, you have created a new life complete with new values and new goals and new vision. Once you get to this point, you have discovered and claimed (not earned) and embodied your grace-given membership in the family of God, a membership exemplified by faith, love, and service.