Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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February 19, 2004
"Kitsch and Liturgy"

Going through my back issues of everything, I found this great essay by Catherine Madsen, editor of CrossCurrents:

People in the demographic profiles for whom these efforts [the liturgical vernacular of the last few decades] are intended—modern skeptical people, young people, feminists, sexual outlaws—are supposed to greet this vernacular with relief. We are supposed to find it fresh and creative; it is supposed to make us "comfortable" at worship; it is supposed to compensate for centuries of oppression. If we find it galling and dispiriting we are dismissed as mere ingrates.

But it is dispiriting; it is exhausting.

The direct emotions of ardor and terror and inarticulate joy—the real stuff of religion—are all quite off limits; not only are they never invoked at full strength, they are scarcely alluded to in recognizable form. One has to keep holding back, pretending that prayer is not a bodily instinct, pretending that we come to religion with our problems already solved rather than out of a desperate urge to confront them.

. . .

Prayer that attempts less—prayer that falsifies the emotions, or plugs in a political shorthand, or otherwise stands between us and our full energies—is a sketch, a simulation, even a pornography, of worship.

I mean this quite literally.

Pornography, after all, is all subject matter and no reflection: a stylized, schematic representation of sex that offers everything but the problematic essentials, the body and the consent of a person we know.

Kitsch liturgy also offers everything but the problematic essentials, the dependence of every good thing in our lives on our undependable good acts, and the uncanniness and danger of facing a God who knows us.

There is a certain sort of docile porn watcher who humbly waits to be shown the definition and practice of sex—the curious underwear, the terminology, the positions—in the belief that he or she has no other way to find out. There are congregants who wait just as humbly to be shown the nature of worship. Both cede to authorities a knowledge that their own minds and bodies could give them more quickly, more kindly, and in more detail; both shrink from a knowledge that must be arrived at in one's own person and at the cost of one's whole future.