Very Brief Thoughts on Religion and the Art of Appropriation: Or How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art

I am reposting this post from my other blog. It was originally published a couple of years ago. I have added new thoughts at the end about where I am now with the topic discussed. I hope you enjoy.

Are we not postmodern?

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are largely foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

New thoughts since the original post two years ago:
For several years I was seeking a new kind of Christianity or , at least, a new kind of Christian culture. I kept running up against my aversions to modern Protestant versions of the “faith,” and I wanted something that had more substance in terms of culture and practice. However, whatever kind of Christianity I found would still have to have some basic theological foundations that were largely reformed, for I am a child of the Reformation in many ways, though not strictly. Out of curiosity the emergent/emerging church became a focus of mine for a while. In some way it still is and some of the key players in that movement (if it can be called that) are still on my radar, but less so these days. I appreciate some of the hermeneutic approaches and the emphasis on one’s personal process in coming to truth. But the more I look at popular alt-church trends the more I find that church, religion, practice, or most of anything we call worship or the Christian life just doesn’t mean squat. Not that there is no value whatsoever, but none of it is truly substantial. Faith is radically inward. Faith is what is truly substantial. Faith gets worked out in a person’s life in works that cannot be adequately predicted or proscribed. And there is nothing that a person can do, no practice, no spiritual discipline, nothing, that can affect any meaningful spiritual change in a person’s life. You cannot grow your faith. Only God can do that. If he chooses to work through some spiritual discipline or some ancient practice in someone’s life then that is his choosing and the individual’s benefit. But if there is anything that a study of the New Testament cries out to us regarding religion is to beware of pretense. It is is a bigger trap than mere sincerity can avoid. My searching has only clarified this for me.

On the whole, though, I do not see my observations in the original post above as necessarily indicating a negative situation for Christianity. The postmodern situation highlights something very important that can get lost in a primarily Christian dominated or influenced culture. That is, faith is fundamentally existential, which means that it requires the individual to make the decision, which means that the choice needs to be a free choice. Postmodernism throws everything up for grabs and pushes the individual into a more radical posture. It calls into relief the meta-narrative of Christendom as narrative. If we strip away the trappings of Christian culture one can no longer rely on the safety that culture provides. One has to now wrestle with the issues rather than having them answered before one even has a chance to ask. Kierkegaard dealt with this issue in his Attack Upon Christendom. The problem, as I see it, in not with postmodernism per se, rather it is with the sad reality that many (most?) people today do not seem to have the intellectual foundations to be able to accept this freedom and turn it to good. Our present age appears to me as a sea of people floundering in the waves and grabbing anything that looks substantial. Freedom without discernment is a deep and wide ocean where everything and nothing looks like salvation. But of course discernment, like faith, is one more undeserved gift from God.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian Life, Deconstruction, Religion, World View

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s