Andrew T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Month: November 2012

Martin Kemp, “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon” (2012)

Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (2012) – Review by A.T. Coates

Kemp’s lavishly illustrated art history text grapples with an important question for studies of religious visual cultures: what makes an image an icon? Though he offers a definition of “icon” near the beginning of the book, Kemp chooses his materials idiosyncratically and avoids analytical precision intentionally. There is no one definite criterion, no single necessary cause, that makes a “merely famous” image into an icon—but we all know an icon when we see one. He writes, “an iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations… across time and cultures, such that it has… transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning” (3). So, what kinds of images does Kemp consider icons? He examines 11 varied examples: Jesus, the cross, the heart shape, the lion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the head of Che Guevara, Nick Ut’s photograph “Villagers Fleeing Along Route 1” (napalmed and naked), the American flag, the Coca-Cola bottle shape, the double-helix shape of DNA, and the formula e=mc2.

If this seems like a motley crew, it’s supposed to. The book reads like an extended thought experiment: Are Jesus, the Mona Lisa, and e=mc2 all icons? If so, are they icons in the same way? If the medium, type of image, time period, and original function/purpose/intent of the image can vary dramatically from icon to icon, what makes one image iconic and another simply famous? In the conclusion, Kemp proposes that the term “icon” refers to a fuzzy set: much like “too hot” and “too cold,” no single set of characteristics defines the term “icon.” Nonetheless, some characteristics do seem to cluster around icons, and some images are much more likely to be counted as icons than others. Not all icons share a given set of characteristics, but we do seem to know an icon when we see it.

This is a beautiful, highly readable book with much interesting food for thought—but its “fuzzy” approach often seems to beg for more rigorous analysis from religious studies scholars. If I were to assign this to a class, I would have them read only the chapters on Mona Lisa, Che, the American flag, and the Coke bottle. In these chapters, the author’s art historical method proves quite illuminating—if somewhat lacking. Mona Lisa’s life as an icon has been quite different than the Coke bottle’s, but both demonstrate superb design and execution. But even in the chapter on Mona Lisa, the only icon from Kemp’s area of specialization as an art historian, his analysis practically begged for the input of a religious studies scholar like David Morgan. My favorite moment came when Kemp described his first private, close-up encounter with the Mona Lisa—outside its usual prison of extra-durable glass, velvet ropes, and pushy tourists. Having been specially invited to view the painting during its annual cleaning/inspection, the Oxford professor resorts to language that sounds frankly religious to describe the encounter with “the real thing.” He describes it as “spine-tingling in a way that is difficult to describe without sounding pretentious. Great art encountered in the flesh can produce sensations that go beyond visual stimulation” (142). After regaining his composure and talking about Da Vinci’s application of paint, the use of “incident and reflected light,” and his own process of viewing the image, he concludes in the worshipful mode: “And, of course, there is always her (Lisa’s) uncanny presence. I have never experienced a stronger feeling of presence in a work of art. . . . she is not just looking. She is overtly reacting, smiling, with a knowingness that is perpetually engaging and even disconcerting” (145). Here, the esteemed art historian sounds more like a religious devotee. Though he mentions the notion of presence (see 342), we do not get a good sense of what “presence” entails. More troublingly, this book tells us very little about how people encounter and negotiate the “presence” of their icons. The image of an ancestor demands food and acts of obeisance. The presence of Jesus in a doorway offers protection over the home. The presence of Our Lady in a statue heals the sick. The cross pendant around an evangelical’s neck reminds of Jesus’ presence in daily life and serves as a reminder to avoid sin. Each of these instances could be considered encounters with an “icon.” But they are also very different kinds of religious activities. Some of these “icons” seem more like amulets, apotropaic symbols, power objects, or tutelaries. Most importantly, people engage them in very different ways. Though he offers superb readings of the making of icons, Kemp’s analysis would have benefitted from more attention to their reception. By exploring the subtleties of how people engage with icons, Kemp’s fuzzy category might have come into sharper focus.


Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself,” Public Culture 18.1 (2006): 15-21.

Appadurai uses the phrase “the thing itself” to describe “the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the work of art and the objects of everyday life. . . . chaotic materiality… that resists the global tendency to make all things instruments of representation, and thus of abstraction and commodification” (21).

Things have a social life. What things do, how things interact, where things are, how things work, how we can engage things, and how things can engage us, are, according to Appadurai, “invested with the properties of social relations” (15). A thing is a thing because it has the social properties of a thing. When we encounter a thing today, we’re encountering a snapshot of a much longer “social trajectory”: today’s gift of a postcard is tomorrow’s garbage, tomorrow’s garbage is the next day’s found art, found art becomes worthless junk when no one wants it anymore. We spend millions of dollars to “preserve” the aggregation of paint on a canvas because it is a Rembrandt and we want it to remain an art object for a few more years. As social relations change, things move from singularity to commodity and back again. The “priceless” work of art becomes a commodity at a Sotheby’s auction. Insofar as they are subject to changing social relations, Appadurai notes, people and things are not so different.

Appadurai’s essay grapples with the materiality of things to understand contemporary Indian art. He contends that Indian social life has lately experienced “a profusion of things” (16). Things and bodies blend together in Indian society in “a panorama of piles, stacks, bunches, bundles, baskets, bags among which people appear, as laborers, as shopkeepers, as vendors, as housewives, and as pedestrians” (17). Minimalism does not play much of a role in this context—the profusion of things feeds Indian art. People in India delight in the “promiscuous presence of things” (21). More still, people are hard to distinguish from the things around them, the things they make and give and live among. Fittingly, he suggests, in India it is not easy to differentiate art objects from objects of everyday use. There are just too many things. Materiality reigns.

Appadurai provides a useful lens for thinking about the excessive qualities of materiality. Things resist our attempts to master them. In this essay, materiality is stubborn, chaotic, resistant, and analytically slippery. As a student of materiality in American religion, Appadurai’s discussion of commoditization and gifts in the United States offers food for thought. Market logic has so penetrated American life that Americans enjoy nothing for its “sheer materiality.” Everything is a means to some other end (usually, the end of increasing wealth: your home is your retirement). Everything is convertible to exchange value, nothing is truly priceless. Singularity and commodity are in constant tension in America, where the same object that is my gift today becomes fodder for a garage sale tomorrow.

As I read this section, I couldn’t help but think about mass-produced objects of Christian affection. Here, I am not talking about Jesus t-shirts (necessarily), but more about the beloved objects that acquire their singular status through constant use. Evangelicals take great pride in a tattered, highlighted, coffee-damaged leather-bound Bible. Though certainly a commodity (Rupert Murdoch owns Zondervan, after all), evangelicals usually receive their most prized Bibles as gifts upon baptism. As Bibles have become evermore targeted at niche groups (children, moms, dads, teen boys, teen girls, college students, alcoholics, grandmothers, and Jewish converts), people have started to receive new Bibles at other significant moments like marriage or graduation. But every one of these mass-produced objects is the Word of God to evangelicals. Evangelical Bibles are commodities, but also singularities—every reproduction that finds its way to a believer has descended from Heaven and bears God’s special directions for that person. Such practices highlight the fact that everything is for sale in America, but some objects in American religious life resist the kind of easy commoditization that Appadurai sees in home investment or the obsession with wealth and cost seen on The Price is Right. A good evangelical Bible has to be heavy enough to look like a Bible, small enough to be portable, tough enough to withstand decades of marginalia, and needs to bear an inscription from the person who gave it to you. Once they become so worn that certain sections of scripture are missing, they get replaced with a new Bible—but the old remains on the shelf, its raw material presence bearing witness to the owner’s life of faith.

J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923)

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)

Machen delivers the classic text of bowtie fundamentalism. As the title suggests, he argues that liberalism (aka. modernism) belongs to a completely different category of religion than Christianity. Liberalism doesn’t even deserve the name of heresy; it’s simply a different religion altogether. For Machen, this is what makes liberalism so pernicious: it’s another religion, but it dishonestly uses Christian symbols and language. Though painstakingly dull by modern standards, Machen’s work clearly aims at a broad audience. He seeks to eliminate confusion about liberalism among Christian ministers, thoughtful laypeople, and theologians alike. Though he deals with standard topics in systematic theology, Machen never uses terms like “soteriology” or “ecclesiology.” Instead, he contrasts Christian and liberal understandings of “doctrine,” “God and man,” “the Bible,” “Christ,” “salvation,” and “the church.” The spokesman for bowtie fundamentalism remains deeply concerned about fighting liberalism at the grassroots level.

Machen’s (slight) ecumenism stood out to me. It’s quite easy to imagine fundamentalism as an exclusivist club, forming boundaries to exclude its opponents from Heaven and justify extreme actions (as I criticized Marty and Appleby for doing). But, for all of Machen’s bald assertions that liberalism isn’t Christianity, Machen reminds us that early fundamentalism often transgressed denominational boundaries. Liberals want to erase differences to create a naturalistic religion, Machen contends, but Christianity acknowledges differences of opinion while remaining firm on certain key doctrines. Machen’s Christianity simply wishes to differentiate between essential and non-essential differences. Machen believes that premillennialism is a grave error (yes, he was a postmillennial fundamentalist!). But he insists that the premillennial/postmillennial debate is merely “a difference of opinion which can subsist in the midst of Christian fellowship” (50). For Machen, identifying the sine qua non of Christianity in a few “fundamentals” enabled partnerships between Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and perhaps even—but probably not—Catholics (see 160ff).

History matters to Machen—but he thinks about history very differently than I do. For Machen, Christianity is rooted in an event. “From the beginning,” he writes, “the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened” (27). Doctrines about Jesus, says Machen, mean nothing unless “joined in an absolutely indissoluble union” with history (ibid). In other words, supernatural events—like the resurrection, virgin birth, etc.—occur throughout history, and Christian doctrine simply explains the meaning of those events. Machen identifies this position as a key differentiator between Christianity and liberalism: “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative” (47). In Machen’s understanding, then, major supernatural disruptions have happened throughout history—but between such supernatural events, history hangs limp. When it comes to the gospel, Machen sees no major difference between the first century and the twentieth. To me, such claims offer an interesting point of connection with anthropological studies of Christianity like Joel Robbins’s Becoming Sinners, which identifies “rupture” as a major theme of Christian history (we were sinners, now we’re Christians—then is incomparable to now). Machen’s history seems both flat and ruptured.

Selections from Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism Project”

Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, “Introduction” and “Conclusion” in Fundamentalisms Observed (1991) and Marty, “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 42.2 (1988): 15-29.

Marty’s understanding of fundamentalism is the water I swim in. The Fundamentalism Project, true to its aim, now holds the status of an encyclopedia. I suspect if you asked a group of well-informed undergraduates, they would produce a definition of fundamentalism something like Marty’s. It’s a testament to the intellectual force of his comparative approach. It’s also a strong incentive to innovate.

For Marty, the term “fundamentalism” captures the family resemblances in a global array of religious phenomena. Acknowledging that the term “fundamentalism” isn’t going away anytime soon, he uses it to designate “fundamentalism-like movements” rather than any particular substantive thing. This is a key part of Marty’s argument: unlike earlier substantive definitions (such as James Barr’s equation of Protestant fundamentalism with biblical inerrancy), Marty isolates similarities among fundamentalisms across many religious traditions. First, he identifies what “fundamentalism” is not: 1) it is not conservatism, classicism, or orthodoxy, 2) it is not a vestigial remnant of earlier times, 3) it is not synonymous with certain substantive elements, doctrines, or particular tenets of a faith (e.g. inerrancy), 4) it is not the only kind of opposition to “secular rationalism,” 5) it is not just anti-science or anti-rationalist in perspective, 6) it is not opposed to modern technology or media, 7) it is not in decline or likely to fade away, 8) it is not always composed of activists, militants, terrorists, or belligerents, 9) it is not a way of compensating for economic or intellectual deprivation. Next, Marty suggests the traits fundamentalist-like movements share: 1) they are always reactive against “modernity,” 2) they are selective in choosing “fundamentals,” 3) they are “scandalous,” meaning they cause offense to groups outside themselves, 4) they are always exclusive and separatist, 5) they are always oppositional, 6) they are absolutist, 7) they are anti-developmental and anti-evolutionary, 8) they are anti-relativistic and anti-hermeneutical, 9) they consider themselves “agents of the sacred power, person or force which gives life to their group,” and 10) they are teleological. In short, fundamentalism is “a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements, which manifests itself as a strategy or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group” (Conclusion 835).

George Marsden famously defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” To play Marsden against Marty a little, one might say that Marty considers fundamentalism “militantly anti-modernist” religion. For Marsden, the “modernism” against which early Protestant fundamentalism militantly rebelled was a very specific set of theological positions and changes in American culture. Marty’s fundamentalists hostile to modernity itself, opposing a varied set of political, cultural, and intellectual conditions wherever they can assume the name of “modernity.” Militancy unites Marty’s fundamentalists in their oppositions to various modernities around the world. They are “religious idealists” who coalesce around a personal and collective identity, then fight back, fight for, fight with, fight against, and fight under (Intro ix-x). This is not to say that Marty caricatures fundamentalists as terrorists. Rather, it is to observe that he categorizes fundamentalism as an internal disposition, “a tendency, a habit of mind… which manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies… to preserve… identity” (835).

Obviously, such a perspective takes little interest in objects, practices, bodies, media, or materiality. The conclusion essay gapes in wonder at “fundamentalism’s seemingly innate understanding of, and effortless manipulation of, modern mass media of communication (and propaganda)” (832). Fittingly for its internalized understanding of fundamentalism, this presents media as something fundamentalists understand innately and manipulate effortlessly. In this understanding, internal fundamentalism spreads by using inert media instrumentally. As the parenthetical remark about propaganda suggests, this model emphasizes content and the meaning-making activities of religious agents. Fundamentalists qua agents use media to deliver their militant mental habits to as many people as possible. They do so with quasi-magic effortlessness, innate understanding. In my future dissertation, I want turn the tables. I want to ask what kinds of mediation made Protestant fundamentalism possible. I want to examine the articulations of power, techniques of the body, networks of objects, and technologies of mediation that made it possible for something called “fundamentalism” to emerge in early 20th-century America. 

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People (2000)

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. (2000)

Yaakov Ariel’s Evangelizing the Chosen People dances through a minefield. Examining missions to Jewish people in (and from) American Christians, Ariel sensitively renders both sides of a history more accustomed to harsh polemics. On the one side, he examines the institutional histories and theological motivations of Christian missions to the Jews. On the other, he attends to the Jewish responses to those missions—which were far more varied than many people might like to admit. Ariel’s book advances two important theses: 1) dispensational premillennialism provided the fuel in the engine for American evangelical missions to the Jews, 2) in surprising ways, missions have shaped Jewish-Christian relations in America. In Ariel’s estimation, dispensational premillennialism was the primary motivator of American missions to the Jews: it offered frameworks for Christian understandings of Judaism and Jewish people, and instilled in many Christians an urge to convert “Israel.” In dispensational theology, the Jewish nation has an important role to play in earth’s Last Days: those who remain alive after the Great Tribulation will convert en masse to Christianity and usher in Christ’s millennial kingdom. Thus, Jews hold an ambiguous place in dispensationalism: they need to convert to Christianity, but they are fundamentally different from all other people and have a special role to play in God’s future plans. This twin emphasis on specialness and difference, Ariel argues, has created a number of paradoxes in Jewish-Christian relations. The Christians who worked the hardest to convert Jews often became ardent supporters of Zionism and nationalist projects in Israel. Because they thought Israel had a special past and future, missionaries learned much about Jewish life and became ambassadors to other Christians on behalf of Jewish culture and religion. Such missions have made it possible for Christian groups like Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism to emerge and to be welcomed into the evangelical fold. Because of the dispensationalist character of missions to the Jews, Ariel argues, today in America there are Christian congregations who celebrate Jewish ethnic heritage, churches where teenagers read the New Testament at their bar mitzvahs.

This book is heavy going. Ariel builds his case by carefully tracing the histories of many important missionary institutions, moments in mission history, Jewish responses to Christian missions, and twists in the story of Jewish-Christian relations. Most non-specialists will probably have a hard time appreciating the significance of this work—some sections seemed repetitive and dull, piling detail after detail about dispensationalist missionary organizations. But for those willing to move at Ariel’s pace, the book proves rewarding. Careful and sensitive, this book takes its subjects very seriously even as Ariel’s sense of humor shines through: “If the association between evangelical missionaries and Jewish Orthodox scholars was amazing, the encounter between the Southern Baptist missionaries and the Canaanites was almost in the realm of the unthinkable” (151). This encounter “in the realm of the unthinkable” connected a conservative Southern Baptist missionary with the hippest edge of the Israeli avant-garde on the issue of the separation of synagogue and state. Though his interactions with Israel’s cultural elite, that missionary helped to forge a new language for Christianity: converts started calling themselves meshichi (“messianic”) instead of the more familiar term notzri (“Christian”) (155). Later in the book, Ariel carefully shows how this language became central to the self-understandings of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism in America. Though he calls them “new religious movements” (222), Ariel notes that adherents think of themselves as “ur-Christians,” having special affinity with Jesus and his disciples. Reversing a long history of responses to missions, these groups see conversion to Christianity as a way of connecting with their Jewish roots, of finding “authentic” Judaism and Christianity (198). The chapters on Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism would make for great discussion in an upper-level undergraduate class.

© 2016 Andrew T. Coates

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑