What do you do say about a pastor who wears a feather boa as a stole? You can pray that the pastor isn’t United Methodist. Or, if you’re Christopher S. Johnson, you’ll post a photo on your blog, “Bad Vestments” (http://badvestments.blogspot.com).
Mr. Johnson, who is also the Webster Groves, Mo.-based editor of the Midwest Conservative Journal, answered questions via email from staff writer Mary Jacobs.
Can you tell me what your personal faith or denominational affiliation is?
Right now, I guess I’m an unaffiliated Christian, although I spent the first 48 of my 56 years in the Episcopal Church and expect to end up as some kind of Anglican or other.
Not really. I’ve had people send me examples of vestments that they considered awful and have thought to myself, “That’s not so bad.” In general, any vestment which seems over-the-top or attracts too much attention to its wearer constitutes a bad vestment. If I have any rule-of-thumb at all, it’s the line below the title of the blog. Christian worship is not supposed to be about you.
What inspired you to blog on this?
FailBLOG(http://failblog.org) is the biggest influence. I intended this site to be just kind of a blogging hobby, a once-in-great-while kind of thing, and I’m amazed at the attention it’s gotten.
What’s the difference between a vestment that’s elaborate or colorful, in a genuine and theologically-expressive way, as opposed to one that’s over-the-top?
Another rule I have is that it is the job any minister of the gospel to direct people’s attention to God and away from themselves. If you think you have to make some kind of a personal statement with your liturgical clothing or if people are more drawn toward what you’re wearing than what they’re supposed to be doing in church, you’re wearing a bad vestment.
As many churches add contemporary worship, there are some United Methodist pastors who never, or almost never, wear vestments at all. Does that solve the “bad vestments” problem?
Even though I was baptized into, brought up in and spent most of my life in a high-Anglican church, I’ve always thought vestments were kind of an absurdity. So yeah, I think it would be good.
What’s next for your blog?
I’ve recently expanded the site’s range to churches themselves and I’m seriously considering changing the name of the site to Christian Aesthetics to consider the whole range of Christian art, architecture and whatever, not just vestments.
Because I don’t get all that much in the way of bad vestments that I can come up with sufficient snark for. Because a lot of Christian art is worthy of ridicule. And because some Christian architecture is just as aesthetically appalling as some Christian vestments. Haven’t gotten to it yet but there’s a church here in St. Louis County that I’m afraid to even approach, never mind worship God in.
So much modern Christian art is derivative. Any theories about why that is?
I think Christian art tends to ape the culture around it because too many Christians think that they have to speak in that idiom or the culture won’t listen to them. So instead of starting a Christian band, playing music that you want to play in the way you want to play it and believing in your own artistic vision, you have to be Christian metal, Christian techno, Christian pop, Christian whatever.
The single best example of that tendency I can think of was a movie called The Omega Code, a feature-length thriller made by the Trinity Broadcasting Network about the Book of Revelation and the end of the world. When it premiered, TBN ran reports of people saying what a great movie it was and how exciting it was. Good conservative Christian that I am, I wanted it to succeed in the worst way. So one evening, I went over to a movie theater, paid full price, bought myself something to eat and drink and sat down.
To watch the single worst movie I have ever seen. Dear LORD, that thing was awful. It was excruciatingly embarrassing to watch, literally painful in spots. There was absolutely nothing thrilling about it, just one Hollywood cliché after another, the sorts of clichés Hollywood gave up on 20 years ago, some of which were done so ineptly as to defy belief. Several times I thought about walking out but since this thing supposedly involved the return of Christ, I thought I’d at least stick around for that. Let’s just say that the ending of that movie made me angrier than the rest of the movie did. I remember thinking about all those people who gushed about the thing and thinking, “Dear Lord, have none of you ever seen a movie before?”
Contrast The Omega Code, which told the culture what it thought the culture wanted to hear, with The Passion of the Christ, which the culture hated. Mel Gibson may be a reprehensible human being, but it’s never been a requirement to be a great person in order to make great art (see [Richard] Wagner). And in Passion, Gibson had an artistic idea which he was determined to bring to fruition regardless of what the culture had to say. He ended up making a movie that I consider to be one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, one of the greatest works of art, period (because it defied the culture) and which made him a boatload of money in the process.
Artistically, I guess the bottom line is Christian artists need to have something to say, need to believe in what they have to say and the way they think they should say it or they shouldn’t waste their time.