Christian Kitsch #3: Parody T-shirts
In this series’ first two entries, I discussed how the market for Christian kitsch is driven by two complimentary impulses: to reinforce and communicate religious identity and political or personal choices (think the purity rings), and to cloak evangelistic rhetoric in the guise of non-threatening secular products (like the weirdo Archie comics we examined). We will return to the beautifully surreal landscapes of the Archie universe next week, but for now I would like to investigate the phenomenon of Christian parody t-shirts. These products, which were commonly worn by members of my old middle-school youth group, reveal some particularly damaging aspects of Christian consumerist subculture as well as the difficult relationship that the church often has with clothing.
We’ll look at the latter first. It should come as no surprise that clothing is a topic that Christians in America tend to either neglect or address poorly. Clothing is intimately related to the body, that fleshy shell that most American Christians would rather discard for harps and lyres in heaven. Probably the best indication of this broken conception of clothing is the idea of “modesty.” Censuring and criticizing people, overwhelmingly women, for not being “modest” enough is an accepted practice in most churches. As many writers have shown in critical work on the subject, modesty both arises from and reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are in some ways common property, to be controlled by mostly male church authorities the same way they would manage their their children’s sugar intake. Worse, by making women responsible for drawing men into “lust” with their clothing, the church relieves men of their responsibility to respect women’s bodies as well as for inexcusable activities like catcalling and sexual assault. Most of the time, when mainstream Christians in the United States (a problematic generalization, but I believe this is borne out) address the problem of clothing, they will be saying that women aren’t wearing enough.
Accompanying this sentiment is a culture-wide bias in favor of “inner beauty.” People who think of wearing clothes as a craft or sartorial expression as an art form are criticized for being shallow. People who wear outlandish clothing or spend more for quality are admonished and told to be simpler in their tastes. There is very little appreciation of the potential beauty and pleasure to be found in wearing clothes. After all, beauty and pleasure are corrupting influences and lead people to spend too much money on pretty things and not enough helping the poor or paying the pastor’s salary. My contempt for this point of view should be evident by now, so we can move on.
Where do Christian parody t-shirts fit into this scheme? One fascinating aspect of Christian consumer culture is that it tends to condemn secular products, especially certain forms of music, dress, and art. However, the culture only needs to coopt and “baptize” these products in order to package and sell them to Christian audiences that are weary of not being as “cool” as their secularized adversaries. Parody t-shirts are to snarky online-store-bought apparel as CCM is to rock and pop music. That is, they are secular products with a youthful appeal and an aura of “coolness” that Christian kitsch companies hope will sell to young people who aren’t allowed to act out except in specifically church-sanctioned ways.
These shirts tend to take brand logos and meme-friendly catchphrases and twist them in some way. The idea is that people’s eyes would be drawn to the shirt by the instant familiarity of the shirt’s imagery and, only at that point, realize what the shirt actually said. If the shirt works, the secular passerby will appreciate the wit of the message even if the content is unappealing. Even better, people might notice and ask about it, cuing up an evangelistic opportunity. In reality, of course, the parodies are almost all witlessly obvious, obnoxious, and unfunny. Some of them also cross over to become explicitly militaristic and nationalistic. These specimens seem to be marketed towards men, and some of their references for parody are a bit dated. Is C.O.P.S. that popular with the high school Christian set these days?
What’s truly entertaining about these shirts, though, is the way that some of the retailers package them. Their framing is often so out of touch that it far eclipses the comedic value of the products they’re hawking. For instance, read this explanatory bit of copy from Kerusso, one of the more prominent Christian kitsch retailers online:
“In using lighthearted tongue-in-cheek designs, parody T-shirts give readers the truth about the gospel and offer an easy way for them or you to start a conversation…which could be the beginning of a relationship with Christ, all because of the graphic on your parody T-shirt.
No matter what happens or how many conversations you have, you are making an impact. By wearing a Christian parody T-shirt, you have opened the door to conversations and are, at the very least, sharing the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world around you. And that is worth it every time.”
Why is this so funny? Because it’s taken deathly seriously. Evangelical Christianity can justify anything if it might save souls for Jesus, including these insults to graphic design. What’s truly sad is that there is more artistry and integrity in the original designs–which, I remind you, were solely created to sell consumer goods in the first place–than in these shirts, which are supposedly intended to do the work of God Almighty. What we have here, in a nutshell, are products that operate on stealing brand images and brazenly appropriating them, ultimately, to sell another product. Only in this case, it’s a trusted, ancient brand, Jesus, the only one who can complete me. And I thought “Jesus is my boyfriend” language was safely quarantined in CCM hell.