Tearing Christ apart or…

…just a representation on a mass-produced poster for the ‘Kerk in Actie’ campaign

A few weeks ago Kerk in Actie, the charity department of the PKN (Protestant Church in the Netherlands), started a campaign for ‘Christ-inspired sharing’. That this campaign caused some commotion, because of the content of the videos, which was controversial to many people (Catholics, Protestants, believers, non-believers), might not surprise:

Kerk in Actie stated that the campaign was meant to reflect Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind. This tearing apart, or sharing, for ‘a greater good’ is, according to Kerk in Actie, symbolized in the sacrament of the communion. Christ sharing his body as an example for altruism and charity.[1] This, being a theological statement, is contested by Jan-Jaap van Peperstraten, a Catholic Priest, who states that the body of Christ was explicitly left intact according to the Bible and that it was just the bread at the Last Supper (and, before, Feeding the Multitude) which was broken.[2] For Van Peperstraten this campaign is of stereotypical Protestant nature: iconoclastic, aggressively culture-appropriative, and celebrating the fragmentarization of the Church (which is the ‘body of Christ’) since the Reformation. Van Peperstraten criticizes the PKN for crossing the oecumenical dialogue between churches.

Now, I think this campaign does, despite the reactions of individual Protestants, fit traditional Protestant theology, and its subsequent view on religion in general. It follows the Protestant ideal of religion as a spiritual, mental activity, with as a little as possible attachment to the material world.[3] The stance of Kerk in Actie could even be seen as quite an ignorant one, in the tradition of Calvin and Zwingli, suggesting that images (still) are confusing for the common people, for they cannot distinguish between the sign and the signified.[4] And, furthermore, by its use of reproductions (posters by mass-production) instead of handcrafted icons, the campaign reflects the preference for authenticity in modernity: material mass culture as a suspicious and non-religious phenomenon (hence the critique on capitalism and mass culture by Adorno and the Frankfurt School) versus the authentic folksy nature of, for example, expressionism.[5] The campaign cautiously avoids the latter.

I tried to demonstrate how this campaign fits the classic divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. But, of course, there is more to take into account. What to say about those (many) Protestants who spoke out against this campaign? How do they relate to the material? It is clear that the video, and the image and actions in it, is a strong agent in still ongoing debates about the material.[6] It is a multilayered thing interacting with human agents, which should therefore not be analyzed as just an iconographic artifact (signs), but as actively taking part in (meaningful or meaning-making) interactions in a wide variety of attitudes contexts.[7]

[1] R. de Reuver, ‘Verscheurd’, Protestantse Kerk (2017), visited 4 May 2017, available via https://www.protestantsekerk.nl/actueel/nieuws/verscheurd.

[2] And even then, he continues, each part of the host embodies Christ as a whole, not just an eye or hand. See: J.J. van Peperstraten, ‘Is Christus dan in stukken verdeeld? Enige reflecties op het Verscheuren van de Heer’, Zwarte Peper (2017), visited 4 May 2017, available via http://zwartepeper.blogspot.nl/2017/04/is-christus-dan-in-stukken-verdeeld.html?m=0.

[3] C. McDannell, ‘Material Christianity’, Material Christianity. Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995), 6-8.

[4] McDannell, 9.

[5] McDannell, 10-11.

[6] P. Pels, ‘The Modern Fear of Matter: Reflections on the Protestantism of Victorian Science’, Material Religion 4-3 (2008), 267.

[7] See for interactivity: McDannell, 4; for more than signs: Pels, 269; for more than iconography: B. Meyer, D. Morgan, C. Paine, P.S. Brent, ‘The Origin and Mission of Material Religion,’ Material Religion 6-3 (2010), 208-2010.

McDannell, C. ‘Material Christianity’. Material Christianity. Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995: 1-16.

Meyer, B., D. Morgan, C. Paine, P.S. Brent. ‘The Origin and Mission of Material Religion’. Material Religion 6-3 (2010): 207-211.

Pels, P. ‘The Modern Fear of Matter: Reflections on the Protestantism of Victorian Science’. Material Religion 4-3 (2008): 264-283.

Peperstraten, J.J. van. ‘Is Christus dan in stukken verdeeld? Enige reflecties op het Verscheuren van de Heer.’ Zwarte Peper. 2017. Visited 4 May 2017. Available via http://zwartepeper.blogspot.nl/2017/04/is-christus-dan-in-stukken-verdeeld.html?m=0.

Reuver, R. de. ‘Verscheurd’. Protestantse Kerk. 2017. Visited 4 May 2017. Available via https://www.protestantsekerk.nl/actueel/nieuws/verscheurd.

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