I was around nineteen years old when I understood that kitsch was stupid. Maybe it’s the other way around: it was then that I understood that the clichés, conventions, and other intellectually clunky tropes with which I had largely grown up had a name—kitsch—and that smart people had gotten beyond them. The adolescent alienation that I shared with, I’ll wager, many readers of this magazine was a temporary phase. It did, in fact, get better, precisely when one saw through and transcended what had once felt like absolutes.
Many of these clichés were aesthetic: football quarterbacks and lettermen, pickup trucks and teased hair. Others were ethical: the ‘common sense’ notions we took apart in philosophy class, the simplistic myths of religion. Others, for lack of a better word, were questions of style. Sentiment, saccharine, Hallmark Cards, kitties with big eyes, immaculate suburban lawns, patriotism, douchey fashion accessories, believing in the bromides of politicians—I can’t quite pinpoint what all of these had in common, except that they were cheap, over-simplified, and kitschy.
And thanks to Walter Benjamin, Clement Greenberg, the Frankfurt School, and a legion of writers and musicians allergic to the cliché, I came to reject kitsch and its quasi-fascistic associations. Feel this way, think this way, act this way—no!
It took another several years before I really understood that some people, perhaps most people, never went through this quintessentially sophomoric phase. Oddly, they seemed not to have read Clement Greenberg. They liked Norman Rockwell unironically. They still looked at “abstract” art and said “my pet could do that.” They listened to Richard Marx.
This was especially true in America, where clichés ruled the political airwaves, as well as the radio dial, back when such a thing mattered. And it was especially true of religious people.
Son of God, the latest cultural product aimed at the supposedly burgeoning Christian consumer public, embodies this mode of kitsch religiosity. Of course Jesus is hot, white, and soulful. Of course he is just absolutely perfect. That’s what a religious person should aspire to be: nice, clean, square, entirely in major key.
More than the Biblical literalism of the film—a term which is hardly deserved, given the contradictions between the Gospels and the inevitable selection of which stories to tell—what is striking about Son of God and its marketing campaign is how straightforward it actually is. The film is the opposite of irony and afraid of nuance.
Of course, we’ve already had nuance and complexity in the Jesus story—the Scorsese/Kazantakis Last Temptation of Christ—and we saw how well that went.
One could object that Jesus, being Divine, is a special case. But how different is the milquetoast Jesus from the milquetoast teens meant to ask WWJD?, or commit to virginity at the Purity Ball? This isn’t the Emergent Church; this is unreconstructed pabulum.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is, in contrast, an exercise is complexity. Its title character is being marketed as your standard Russell Crowe action hero—Gladiator, the Prequel. In fact, he is tortured, obsessive, wounded, and deeply flawed. He ends up being the villain of his own story, eager for humanity to be wiped out.
Press coverage of the “Christian reaction” to Noah has focused on its often outlandish elaboration on the Biblical tale. As I’ve described elsewhere, many of its additions—the fallen angels called the Watchers, for example—have precedent in Christian and Jewish legend. Many others are just made up.
But these embellishments of the Biblical story seem secondary to a different conception of what a Biblical story should be in the first place. Is the point of myth to provide a relatable character, full of human flaws, to whom we might relate and from whom we might learn? Or is myth about paragons of virtue, well beyond ordinary folks like us, to whom we might aspire?
Alan Dershowitz and others have argued that this is a Jewish/Christian difference. The flawed heroes of Genesis versus the Christian martyrs and saints. But Jews are every bit as capable of whitewashing and idealization as Christians are. Plenty of rabbinic exegetes have idealized every complicated character from the Bible. Jacob’s not a conniving thief with masculinity issues; he’s pure and saintly. Moses doesn’t have an anger management problem; he’s pure and saintly. In fact, every hero is pure and saintly because that’s what heroes are.
No, this kind of hero—corny, shallow, stupid, unrelatable, and flattening of the beautiful and horrible complexity of the human experience—is not specific to any religious tradition. It is specific, rather, to a particular unsophistication of taste and simplicity of intellect, both attributes that are affirmatively praised by many religious fundamentalists. Simple faith, simple values, common sense, old time religion.
In this reading, Noah has to be a good, simple guy because he’s a hero (in Christian readings of the Bible anyway—Jews were always more ambivalent about him) and therefore he can’t be seen getting in knock-down, drag-out fights with his sons. Good people don’t do that. And of course, Jesus can’t be tempted by sins of the flesh—even though the Bible itself suggests that he might’ve been.
I don’t think it’s because Aronofsky’s Noah has a mixture of admirable and flawed elements that he raises fundamentalist suspicions. It’s because he has a mixture of any kind at all. Progressive religion values complexity and nuance; traditional religion values simplicity. Noah’s character flaws, which make him interesting to progressives, hit sour notes for traditionalists— indeed, like blue notes corrupting the C-major harmony, or complex flavors messing up the meal.
And the fact that Aronofsky gives serious consideration to Noah’s nemesis, the (invented) Tubal-Cain, pushes it over the line. Villains are supposed to be bad—not interesting.
Question everything, undermine everything, nothing is as simple as it seems, put scarequotes around clichés—these are some of the values I was taught at my corrupting, secularist, humanist university. Yet they have always seemed consonant with my religious consciousness, which itself is hybridized, postmodern, and self-reflexive in the extreme—as well as informed by mystical and ethical traditions which resist oversimplification.
Son of God and Noah don’t just represent two different ways to read Scripture, two different ways to make films, and two different marketing demographics. They also represent two sharply different ways to believe, to be in the world: one inspired by the pure and the simple, another suspicious, if not contemptuous, of them. These different modes of relation to complexity include politics, art, taste, style, culture, morality, and ethics within them. And while I feel certain that the tendency toward simplicity slides toward cruelty, I wonder if the basis for that certainty is, itself, ethical—or something else.