Commercialization of Christianity
Sweet Jesus is an ice cream shop located in the heart of the Entertainment District in downtown Toronto. This is an area of the city defined by debauchery, lasciviousness and extravagance, seemingly no place for religious symbolism. Despite this, Sweet Jesus gained notoriety through its eclectic combination of Christian symbolism and ‘Instagramable’ aesthetic. It was the first shop in Toronto to popularize the sale of soft serve ice cream and quickly became the gold standard for the sale of bespoke frozen treats. Through the commercialization of religion, in this case Christianity, the shop was able to diffuse the intensity often associated with religion in a way that makes it appealing to the general public. In this way the shop essentially disarms religion, reducing it to something that is perceived as character enhancing and trendy by most Torontonians. Many would consider this appropriation of religion a form of sacrilege, but it is this very practice that plays a crucial role in the induction of religion into popular culture. I am suggesting that the appropriation of Christian symbolism juxtaposed with this increased focus on design oriented food shops, promoted through digital media, directly contributed to the seemingly overnight success of Sweet Jesus.
Sweet Jesus belongs to a new wave of restaurants that are popping up across Toronto. These restaurants are defined by their unique stylistic elements and the ability to prepare classic food staples in a way that makes whatever they are selling trendy, as demonstrated by the staged photo above. All of these restaurants experience a massive influx of customers within the first few months of opening, and then experience a levelling off as novelty is replaced by something akin to kitschiness. The quality of the food almost seems secondary to the experience of being a patron. Some notable restaurants that follow this pattern are La Carnita, Burgers Priest, 7 Lives Paleteria and Kinton Ramen. In reality these restaurants are not doing anything new. They simply present a food staple in a way that is largely appealing to the public by creating an atmosphere that is uniquely trendy and at the risk of oversimplifying, ‘cool.’ Sweet Jesus follows this pattern to a tee, its foundations based on the re-invention of soft serve ice cream; something ice cream trucks have been serving for years.
By discussing the role food has historically played in society I believe it is possible to understand some of the forces at work that make Sweet Jesus so popular. Professor Joseph Epstien notes that food went from something relatively undiscussed to something that was at the focal point of most all societies, “topic number one,” in the 20th century (Mintz, 100). Professor Epstien was writing more then thirty years ago when he noticed this shift occurring, so it is no surprise that in the 21st century food plays an even larger role in the definition of culture. Just like ritual meals connect participants to invisible beings or to other members of a religion, meals in non religious context are increasingly becoming sites of connectivity that work to bond friends, family and significant others (Mintz, 107). So in this sense, the experience Sweet Jesus offers goes well beyond ice cream. It is a site where relationships are built and discussions are had over a product that unites both parties.
The rise of New Age Spirituality also plays an important role in illuminating how religion and popular culture have become intertwined and utilized by pop culture restaurants like Sweet Jesus. As Taylor (374) suggests, in this type of spirituality an individual does not convert to a certain religion just because they find its practices spiritually significant. Rather, an individual draws on a number of different traditions, “to create one’s own unique, individualized spiritual system.” (Klassen, 38). As a result, New Age Spirituality exists primarily outside of religious institutions, allowing individuals to borrow from religion whenever they see fit, in whatever instance they may find useful. In other words, those who participate in our capitalist economy see religion as simply another commodity through which they may choose to participate (Klassen, 38). So, “these various ideas, practices and resources” subsequently become a part of our economic market, in the sense that they are available for a fee (Klassen, 38). In this way we begin to see the commercialization of religion take hold or to put it poetically, the selling of spirituality. Sweet Jesus makes use of this notion, plucking iconic Christian symbols and repurposing them in counter intuitive ways that are perceived to contribute to the unique, non religious, identity of the shop.
To contextualize this idea I will provide a brief discussion of yoga’s induction into the West. “Traditionally, yoga is a several thousand year old South Asian philosophy that trains the embodied mind to accept truth through a combination of physical and mental practice” (Fish 191). This traditional form of yoga if founded on 8 ‘limbs’, Abstentions, Observances, Postures, Breath Control, Abstraction, Concentration, Meditation and Trance. Westernized notions of yoga tend to draw from the physical parts of the practice, devaluing its religious and spiritual roots (Fish, 191). This restructuring of a religious practice, in a way that makes it appealing to New Ager’s, is in large part what allows for its commodification. This commodification then allows for the creation of an economy that perpetuates religious appropriation and contributes to the integration of religion as a form of popular culture; a process that institutions like Sweet Jesus can take advantage of.
In the same way aspects of Hinduism have become commercialized in the Western context, so has Christianity. In observing Christian symbolism, specifically the Cross, representative of Jesus’s atonement and serving as a reminder of God’s love in sacrificing his own son for humanity, we can see these processes of commodification and appropriating taking place. In the context of the 21st century, an age defined by New Age Spiritualism, the significance of religious symbolism is slowly disappearing. The Cross is being removed from its Christian context and being reframed within the context of fashion, most popularly in jewelry. Celebrity jewellers, like David Yurman, are crafting cross pendants and selling them to the public, perpetuating this cycle of commodification within consumer culture. This process ignores the symbolic origins of the Cross, defining it strictly as a fashion icon, effectively disarming it of religious association. Through this commodification the Cross and other Christian symbols become inherently trendy and embraced by popular culture to be utilized as decoration or accessory; as exemplified by the aesthetic Sweet Jesus has adopted.
Another reason Christian symbolism is becoming intertwined with popular culture has to do with its ubiquitous role in modern forms of art. In 2007 artist Cosimo Cavallaro created a six-foot sculpture of Jesus, crucified nude, made out of chocolate. This art piece was placed on display in a down town Manhattan art gallery for all to observe, serving as a reminder of the Christian feast day of Easter (Promey, 239). Cavallaro’s intentions in creating this sculpture were innocent enough, as he simply suggested that he chose Jesus as his muse because he wanted to sculpt a truly iconic figure (Promey, 241). Cavallaro was fully aware of the attention this would garner, making his choice to sculpt Jesus in this way a true test of the role New Age Spiritualism plays in society. When asked why he chose to sculpt the body in chocolate Cavallaro responded by saying, “Because it is a substance that I like. And it is sweet. And I felt that the body of Christ, the — the meaning of Christ, is about sweetness” (Promey, 241). His choice to sculpt the body of Christ out of this material and in the nude is reflective of his own interpretations of Christianity and its symbols. Despite this, his sculpture was deemed by most of the Christian community as, “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever,” yet celebrated by artists (Promey, 239). Cavallaro’s choice to use chocolate as a medium to convey his own opinions about Christ is an effective example of the role New Age Spiritualism is playing in affecting not only the lives of individuals, but institutions. It demonstrates how restaurants like Sweet Jesus are able to use this concept of New Age Spiritualism to perpetuate design and trend despite overtly religious contexts. Cavallaro’s reinterpretation or borrowing of religious symbolism is crucial in understanding how religion is becoming integrated into popular culture in the 21st century. We are now in a society, as Cavallaro demonstrates, where reinterpretation of religious symbolism is not only possible, but in many cases accepted as legitimate. Just as the art world perceived Cavallaro’s Sweet Jesus as crucial in furthering the ongoing, “conversation surrounding the public display of artistic work deemed religious,” we as a society are increasingly finding ourselves in situations that require us to navigate the popularized ideas of religion and religious ideals (Promey, 241).
Sweet Jesus is a shop that utilizes the appropriation of Christian symbolism and the commercialization of Christianity to its own advantage, most obviously in the storefront sign that brands the shop. It is shaped as a cross, where the T in Sweet is flipped upside down. This upside down cross is commonly associated with the anti Christ and acts as an opposing force to Christianity. The sign itself is made out of rusty metal, highlighted by bright lights and is very aesthetically pleasing. It is much more then just a simple cross, it is indicative of opulence and modern design, all things not normally associated with the common Christian Cross. The interior of the shop is also decorated with upside down crosses, creating the feeling of a counter culture opposed to Christianity. Further, the language the staff uses to describe their desserts is inherently religious, suggesting that they are of Devine origin and ‘touched by God.’ This is obviously a joke, but it carries with it malicious undertones, seemingly belittling the process of transubstantiation. While Sweet Jesus is not anti Christian, its ironic use of Christian symbolism and language is a clear attempt to use religion in ways have been adopted by popular culture. The prevailing perception that the qualities of the shop are unique and edgy are demonstrative of this fact.
Beyond this, the commercialization of Christianity and appropriation of Christian symbols by consumer culture becomes even more apparent through Sweet Jesus’s social media presence. Sweet Jesus’s success relies on its ability to present as a trendy, pop culture icon. Through social media Sweet Jesus capitalizes on the integration of religion into popular culture by creating images utilizing, most commonly, the Cross and Christ. These symbols are removed from religious context by juxtaposing them with neon colour or pastel backgrounds while displaying them as a form of ‘bling’ or accessory, cartoonish in a way. Christ is often displayed coated in gold and diamonds while rosaries are often intertwined with thick gold and silver chains, akin to what is seen draped around the necks of rap artists like DJ Khalid, Snoop Dog and Kanye West. Every photo posted has the same enigmatic but recognizable ‘Instagram’ aesthetic that is emblematic of most modern social media accounts.
Sweet Jesus is a shop that flourishes because its creators capitalized on a time where consumer culture perceives the appropriation of religious symbols and the commercialization of religion as something that is trendy. By repurposing iconic Christian symbols the shop is able to create a setting that is unique and yet a clear member of this new wave of design oriented food shops popping up across Toronto. Its social media presence recognizes the role religion now plays in popular culture, adopting religious symbolism in ways that are commercialized. Sweet Jesus has become indicative of this intertwining of religion and popular culture, a destination that is representative of the collective conscience of a society.
Fish, Allison. “The commodification and exchange of knowledge in the case of transnational commercial yoga.” International Journal of Cultural Property13, no. 02 (2006): 189–206.
Mintz, Sidney W., and Christine M. Du Bois. “The anthropology of food and eating.” Annual review of anthropology (2002): 99–119.
Promey, Sally M., ed. Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice. Yale University Press, 2014.
Religion and Popular Culture, by Chris Klassen (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Taylor, Eugene. Shadow culture: Psychology and spirituality in America from the Great Awakening to the new age. Counterpoint, 1999.
[1.1] Instagram, SweetJesus, image, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BL_tV-2g8pZ/
[1.2] Instagram, theburgerspriest, image, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BFRW-8WJRjR/?hl=en
[1.3] Pintrest, Rubes, image, 2009, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/257057091201207502/
[1.4] David Yurman, Streamline Tag, image, 2016, http://www.davidyurman.com/products/men/necklaces-and-tags/streamline-tag-d15689mss.html
[1.5] Cosimo Cavallaro, Sweet Jesus, image, 2007, http://cosimocavallaro.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Christ_Front.jpg
[1.6] Google, Street View, image, 2016, https://www.google.ca/maps/uv?
[1.7] Instagram, SweetJesus, image, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/7fU9PtD2t8/?taken-by=sweetjesus
[1.8] Instagram, SweetJesus, image, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BJTgLVBhavx/?taken-by=sweetjesus