There are a number of Edmonton area academic events relating to religious studies coming up this fall that I am either involved in or have caught my interest. If you are in the Edmonton area, you may want to catch one or all of these events:
1. University of Alberta Human Rights Lecture (Wednesday 26 October 2005)
Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, will deliver the University of Alberta Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights on Wednesday October 26, 2005 at 7:30 pm in the University of Albertaâ€™s Myer Horowitz Theatre. Khan will be the eighth speaker in the annual U of A Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights. Established in 1998, the lectureship has brought many leading human rights advocates to campus, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi. Tickets for the lecture are $10 and available through Ticketmaster. For more information go here.
2. Taylor University College Public Lecture on Postmodernity (Thursday 27 October 2005)
Next Thursday night, Dr. Merold Westphal, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University, New York, will be presenting a public lecture entitled, “Religious Uses of Secular Postmodernism: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith” (7:30-9:00 pm). Many Christians see postmodernism as a threat to their faith. This lecture will take a closer look at this perceived threat and uncover how many aspects of secular postmodernism are actually useful in proclaiming the Christian faith. The lecture is free and will be held in Stencel Hall, in the Taylor Seminary Building, 11525-23 Avenue (access from the West parking lot off 23 Avenue). For more information, including promotional materials, please go online here or contact me at your convenience.
3. University of Alberta Lectures on “Rethinking Religion”
The Program in Religious Studies and the Department of English and Film Studies are sponsoring a series of four lectures by Garry Watson, Professor of English, University of Alberta, on the topic “Rethinking Religion and Where We Stand in Relation to It.” The lectures will be delivered in Humanities Centre L-4 at 3:00 pm on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, 7, and 9, with a reception following the final lecture on the 9th. For more information, check out the U of A Religious Studies website here.
4. Taylor University College Public Lecture on C.S. Lewis (Thursday 10 November 2005)
The fourth and final installment of the 2005 Taylor Public Lectures on Religion & Culture will be presented by Dr. Martin Friedrich, Associate Professor of English, Taylor University College. C.S. Lewis once said that his task as a writer was to get past the “watchful dragons” of his readers. In his lecture entitled, “Past Watchful Dragons: Christianity in C.S. Lewisâ€™s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Dr. Friedrich will examine the literary techniques that Lewis employed to get past those watchful dragons and to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. The lecture is free and will be held in Stencel Hall, in the Taylor Seminary Building, 11525-23 Avenue (access from the West parking lot off 23 Avenue). For more information, including promotional materials, please go online here or contact me at your convenience.
5. Association for Research in Religious Studies and Theology Annual General Meeting (Saturday 26 November 2005)
The Religion & Theology Department at Taylor University College will be hosting the Annual General Meeting of the Association for Research in Religious Studies and Theology. This year’s theme is “Magic, Demons and Healing: Light from Aboriginal Religions on the Gospels.” The meeting begins with registration at 8:30 am and will be finished by 2:00 pm. Registration is $20.00 (students/seniors $10.00). Registration includes coffee, snacks, and lunch, which will be catered by Nak for Catering. The meeting will be held in classroom S1 in the Taylor Seminary building. For more information, please see my Edmonton Area Academic Events Calendar here.
I’ve been asked by some readers “What is ‘Kitsch’?” In this post I will attempt to define it, or more accurately, I will show some ways that it has been used in the discussion of religion & popular culture. I should say at the onset that much of my thoughts on kitsch have been formed in part by the following books:
McDannell’s work is perhaps the classic work on the material culture of different religions from an outsider religious studies perspective, while Brown’s monograph focuses more on the aesthetics of taste. I have not had a chance to examine Spackerman’s work yet, though it looks intriguing. Miller’s absolutely excellent work is an analysis of the effect of advanced capitalism on religion, especially on the effects of the commodification of religion in our culture.
While I am primarily interested in “Christian” kitsch, all religions have their own material culture, and consequently their own kitsch. There are many examples of “Judaikitsch,” Islamic kitsch, and kitsch from eastern religions. Thus you can buy Mitsvah Bears, Krishnah action figures (as well as Shiva and Buddah), or “I Love Allah” rulers.
What is “Kitsch”?
The term “kitsch” gained popularly by the 1930s when it was used to describe poor art. While the etymology of the word is unclear, many suggest the term was coined by German painters during the mid-1800s to deride the cheap “tourist art” bought in Munich (Kitschen with the sense “to make cheap”). Thus, the term “kitsch” is used by many to denote trivial literature, low quality materials, sentimental arts, or vulgar merchandise. Beyond this, McDannell finds that there are three distinct ways or approaches that scholars, artists, and cultural critics use the term “kitsch”: cultural, aesthetic, and ethical.
A Cultural Approach
Sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies specialists note that for many the term “kitsch” is pejorative and reflects a cultural bias. In contrast to this understanding of the term, proponents of this perspective understand kitsch as a reflection of educational and economic levels, among other things. Thus Bourdieu notes, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” One person’s art will be another person’s kitsch.
Every social group has its own artistic expression that include a system of aesthetics with its own internal logic and we should not judge one group’s material culture by the standard’s of another.
An Aesthetic Response
Artists and cultural critics are not as forgiving as social scientists, and some tend to see kitsch as mass produced and inferior art, a cheap imitation of good art.
This approach places kitsch as a subset of art — it tries to be art, but it ultimately fails. Some proponents of ths approach understand this low quality art as an attempt to identify with the “real art” of the upper classes. Thus, kitsch required the existence of a mature cultural tradition from which inferior copies could be made (Greenberg). Of course, this approach begs the question of who gets to decide what is real art and what is not!
An Ethical Response: Kitsch as Anti-art
A final approach to kitsch understands it as containing a negative moral dimension. It holds that art should reflect the true, the good, and the beautiful — and kitsch does not. “Art, then, is, in its own way — no less than theology — a revelation of the Divine” (Lindsay). If this is the case, then kitsch is “the element of evil in the value system of art” (Broch). For example, the ability of kitsch to “sentimentalize the infinite” has ethical connotations as it reduces something meaningful to a bauble and divorces it from its original meaning-providing context. I can’t help but think of all of the “Precious Moments” figurines that elicit an “aww… isn’t that cute” response.
Kitsch and Commodification
The rise of Christian retailing in the 19th and 20th centuries added a new dimension to the whole kitsch debate. While “Jesus junk” has its origins in the 1800s, it exploded with the development of advanced capitalism in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the sales of Christian products exceeded 3 billion annually — and that’s just in the United States! Advanced capitalism, with its outsourcing, niche marketing, and new marketing and advertising techniques has clearly demonstrated that anything — absolutely anything — can become a commodity. This results in the reduction of beliefs, symbols, and religious practices into “free-floating signifiers” to be consumed like anything else. The result is the proliferation of what some would consider “kitsch.”
I have sympathies for all of the approaches to kitsch noted above. The more neutral social-scientific study of kitsch is crucial for understanding the material culture of different groups within Christianity. This I believe has to be the first step in any analysis of kitsch. In regards to the aesthetic approach, I think it is very difficult to maintain a rigid dualism between good art and kitsch — especially in the light of blurred distinctions between camp, pop art, hyper-realism, and even kitsch art.
But when I put on the hat of a theologian and take an “insider” perspective, I find it difficult to maintain neutrality. But rather than take an ethical stance based on some idea of aesthetics, I would base my ethical repsonse based on the affect of advanced capitalism on Christianity. In this sense, I am more concerned with the commodification that much of Christian kitsch represents, than with any evaluation of its artistic merit. I can’t help but think that much of what I would consider “kitsch” devalues and cheapens Christianity (or Judaism, Islam, Hinudism, or any religion) by taking it out of its faith context and reducing it to a product to be consumed like anything else. But then again, I could be wrong!
I hope I won’t regret this post indicating that I hope to be back on track in regards to my blogging! We have settled into our new abode to a degree that I hope I can actually get some other work done besides house-related work! I have run the ethernet lines for my office and my wife’s computer; I have installed the new washer and dryer and plumbed in the laundry sink so that we can have clean clothes; I have disposed of the myriad of boxes that have been littered throughout our house. My home office still needs some work, though the essentials are unpacked and set up.
There have been a number of interesting “discussions” in the biblio-blogosphere of late that I have wanted to post on; perhaps now I will have the chance!
The Seminar is chaired by fellow biblioblogger Ken Ristau and the Steering Committee is made up of the following:
Patricia G. Kirkpatrick, Associate Professor and Chair, Biblical Area, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.
Gary Knoppers, Professor and Department Head, Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.
Dilys N. Patterson, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec.
Ken Ristau (Seminar Chair), Doctoral student, Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.
Tyler F. Williams (Communication Officer), Assistant Professor and Chair, Religion & Theology Department, Taylor University College, Edmonton, Alberta.
Ehud Ben Zvi, Professor, Department of History and Classics & Interdisciplinary Program of Religious Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
One of my tasks as a member of the Steering Committee, was to develop a Seminar website, which is now online at http://biblical-studies.ca/historiography. The website will allow the Seminar members to communicate with each other and with the broader academic community. It will also serve as a means to disseminate information about the Seminar and resources for the study of historiographic writings of the ancient Near Eastern world. You will note that the resources page is still under construction. If you have any resources that you think should be included on this page, please let me know.
York 2006 Call for Papers
The CSBS will be meeting at York University in Toronto in May 2006. The Call for Papers for the Seminar is available here. The theme for the Seminar’Â’s inaugural year is “The Function of Biblical and Cognate Historiography.” We invite papers that examine biblical and cognate historiography within its historical contexts. It is important that submissions remain strictly focused on the biblical and cognate historiography of antiquity (pre-1st century C.E.) and analyze its function for the communities that wrote and/or received these texts in the ancient world. Papers can be methodological or practical, that is, in the latter case, scholars may apply a particular critical approach to a problem or text(s) and so engage the questions implicitly rather than explicitly. Contributors must be or become members of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. For more information on the call for papers, please see the Seminar website.
For questions regarding the Seminar please contact Ken Ristau (email: ken.ristau [at] anduril.ca). Questions and/or comments on this website may be forwarded to Tyler F. Williams (email: historiography [at] biblical-studies.ca).
The Review of Biblical Literature for this week is a bit sparse, though there are some noteworthy books under review. Based on the positive review, David Carr’s work looks quite facinating. From a comparative study of the educational curriculum of several ancient Near Eastern societies, Carr argues that rather than understand the production of Israelite Scripture being the result of editorial activity on actual manuscripts (e.g., documentary hypothesis), it is the result of “the ability of the erudite scribes to recite from memory long passages from the authoritative curriculum and to use them as templates in the composition of new texts.” I quite liked Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (WJK, 1996), and it appears this work is worthy of perusal. For those intersted in a more synchronic analysis of the Hebrew Bible, then David Dorsey’s book is for you. Dorsey performs a comprehensive examination of the books of the Hebrew Bible looking for literary connections and patterns (especially pivot patterns or palistrophes). Shapira’s rant review brings up some interesting points, perhaps the most important is the general lack of awareness on the part of English scholars of research written in modern Hebrew. While I agree that there are many excellent works on the Hebrew Bible being published in modern Hebrew by Israeli scholars, it is quite difficult to access many of them in North America (at least Canada). That being so, the fact that Dorsey missed a recent work expressly devoted to pivot patterns in the Hebrew Bible just because it was written in modern Hebrew is unfortuant to say the least. Finally, the collection of essays edited by Marguerat includes what looks like some interesting essays that relate to ancient Israelite historiography.
David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Reviewed by Itamar Singe
David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. Reviewed by Amnon Shapira
Today was Canadian Thanksgiving. Besides getting together with my extended family, I was working hard painting our duplex and getting it ready for renters (As I have posted, we have just moved into a new house. We are keeping our old duplex as a rental property).
During my solitude (just me and my paint) I was reflecting on thanksgiving and what I am thankful to God for — and I have much to be thankful for. I have a beautiful supportive wife who has stuck with me for 17 years (despite my own faults which outnumber hers by far!). I also have three wonderful children who I am very, very proud of. I have a great extended family, a wonderful house, a fulfilling teaching position, and much much more.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty thinking about how very much I have considering how many people around the world are in such need (especially thinking of Pakistan, and the places affected by Katrina and the Tsunami). I find that the key things to remember is that (1) there is nothing I have done to deserve my blessings; and (2) to those who have been given much, much will be required.
I only hope that I may be faithful with all I have been blessed with.
Mental Note: In the future, don’t move into a new house during the beginning part of a semester.
OK, so we are emerging from the boxes and some rooms are actually partially set up, including my home office. Despite the rain the move went very well. I had a number of very good friends show up Saturday morning at 9 am to help move. I was able to upsize my the rental truck, so I had a 26 foot truck and friends brought three other pick-ups. We were pretty much finished the move at around 1:30 pm when we sat down to a feast prepared by my mother-in-law (it was a good thing we had pretty much finished since no felt like carrying much after lunch!).
Well, I need to do some work for my courses. I will have to put some more pictures of the hosue and my new office soon.