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The Lord is My Shepherd I Shall Not Want: Catholicism & Aestheticization 

by Will Price


     ombining the enticing mysticism of Catholicism with its own beautiful images, social media users (mainly on TikTok and Tumblr) have somehow made religion for the people again by toeing the line between blasphemy and exaltation, between irony and reality, between Jesus and themselves. Whether it’s feeling a kinship with Mary, learning about Hildegard von Bingen’s holy visions and thinking “she’s so me”, or romanticizing praying to God about anything and everything (Are you there, God? It’s me, tumblr user lilmagdalene777), the visuals associated with Catholicism have found themselves intertwined with an ironic twist on typical Catholic values to create a new niche aesthetic: the pseudo-Catholic. Images of grandiose baroque churches, gilded crosses depicting Christ’s suffering, and sculptures of the Madonna are among some of the most popular visual sentiments within the aesthetic, but there seems to be a deeper layer to the sudden interest in Catholicism not as a religion, but as an association; cathedral arches and holy suffering, bell towers and sacred confessions, ancient traditions and red wine all pointing to something relatable but personal– the idea of beautiful misery. Comparing the small problems you face in everyday life to Christ on the cross does not only provide some sort of blasphemous humor, but also helps make the problems feel smaller in a way– it's catharsis by comparison. Telling yourself that you’re God’s favorite when something goes your way and that “God gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers” when something doesn’t is not only humorous, but comforting because you have a higher power to project responsibility or culpability onto (whether you actually believe in God or not). Even the structures and traditions of Catholicism  provide a wealth of interest; the complex, mysterious inner workings of the Vatican, the ritualistic ancientness of the Seven Sacraments, the cloistered holiness of nuns, the rigid traditions of mass and the plaid-skirted drudgery of Catholic school. To an outsider, all of these structures and their combined symbologies provide a plethora of compelling images to pull inspiration from. The almost-condescending contortions of Catholic teachings provide a maelstrom of self-pitying and self-aggrandizing ways to express your shortcomings or exalt your accomplishments. 

    This new aesthetic is just one instance of the conversation between pop culture and Jesus and meta-christianity overall. Ironic attitudes towards Christianity are nothing new in American society, but this newest iteration explores previously uncharted territory because it deals specifically with Catholicism, rather than the cultural undercurrents of general Christianity. The idea of ironic Christianity is presented as a sort of inside joke about religion’s place in                                                    American society, as slogans like “Jesus Loves You” or the more humorous “Jesus                                                      Saves, I Spend” have found themselves onto baby tees and the like. Memes about                                                      Christianity or about God in general have been circulating more and more, adding to                                                  the contemporary use of religion as a sort of meta-joke about the state of religion in                                                  society-- perhaps it is not really serving anyone, so the empty phrases people                                                              remember from one of their church visits, or from their childhood if they were raised
                                                in the church, are a way to connect to people with similar attitudes towards the utility
                                                of religion in modern America. It is also interesting to call attention to the
                                                intersection of ironic-christendom and the aesthetics of the early 2000s. Combining
                                                baby tees and phrases that allude to religion (Good Girls go to Heaven, Bad Girls go
                                                to Cancun) de-emphasizes the intense belief of ending up in heaven or hell. The it-
                                                girl brand “Heaven by Marc Jacobs” uses stars inspired by the early 2000s like Doja 
                                                Cat, Charli XCX, and Pamela Anderson (an actual 2000s it-girl) for their campaigns and while this relation might be a stretch, the visuals of the brand are fully reminiscent of
the excess of Y2K, and the brand name matches the name of the paradise all good Christians
believe they are going to at the end of their life. It seems to be that the resurgence of early
2000s fashion brought along this ironic application of Christian values and mantras. I be-
lieve that the reason for the resurgence of the two at the same time that has resulted in their
sort of post-ironic melding have to do with how the excess celebrity of the early 2000s was
a reaction to the tragedy at the time, and now that our generations is facing tragedies of our
own- climate change, the threat of international war, impending recession, the deathgrip of
capitalism- we are clinging to things from our childhood that seem familiar, and so happen
to choose the glitz and glam of early 2000s celebrity fashions and the memories of going to
church with our parents on Sunday to cope. So, the impetus of the pseudo-Catholic aesthetic
can be said to be born out of the same fears, and that through romanticizing Christ’s suff-
ering and the aesthetics of an ancient world order, we can romanticize our own lives, prob-
lems, worries- finding the beauty in misery and folding them into each other. The pseudo-
Catholic aesthetic is perhaps a more intense version of the aesthetic of early 2000s ironic Christendom, or at least related to it. They’re cousins, like Jesus and John the Baptist. 

    So the next time you see an image of the crying Madonna with the words “Judas just wanted a kiss” layered over it, or a picture of schoolgirl pigtails tied with pinks ribbons that says “God loves me more” or an image of Lindsay Lohan sporting smudged makeup that reads “Remember you are dust” know that whoever posted it isn’t necessarily being blasphemous; they’re just doing what they think Jesus would do. 

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