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Religious Retailing: Mission Or Mammon? Some Reassured, Others Troubled By Flood Of Christian Merchandise

If Jesus had been in Denver this summer, he could have thumbed through the pages of a bulletproof New Testament, posed for snapshots with a super-hero named “Bibleman” or shopped for a Last Supper paint-by-numbers kit.

Wandering the floor of the Colorado Convention Center, he would have been able to buy a Christian boomerang (“Love always returns,”) chomp a Scripture fortune cookie and sniff a balm called Fragrance of Jesus.

All told, he could have explored six football fields’ worth of religious merchandise on display at the 46th-annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association, or CBA.

What would Jesus think of this melding of commerce and Christianity?

It’s a $3 billion-a-year question, though hardly a new one. Almost since the Crucifixion, believers have been wrestling with the issue.

And today, with religious retailing booming - and secular companies swallowing up Christian ones - some say it’s hard to tell whether the Gospel is something sacred or just another brand name.

Indeed, with the exception of furniture and major appliances, it’s possible to outfit an entire home in Christian products - bird feeders to body lotions, luggage to lamps.

CBA President Bill Anderson says such goods are so effective for evangelizing that if Jesus were to give his Sermon on the Mount today, he’d have the disciples hawking merchandise at the back.

Shoppers say the products help them stay focused on God in an increasingly secularized society.

But others find the flood of goods troubling.

“This desire to spiritualize everything reflects an unwillingness to take God’s creation at face value,” argues evangelical author Michael Horton, a former pastor. “God doesn’t stamp John 3:16 on sequoias, so why should I have it on my lamp?”

In a small office littered with everything from St. Ignatius liquid soap to Gummie candy Nativity figures, religion historian Colleen McDannell discusses the quirks and controversies of modern Christian merchandising.

It is a phenomenon, she says, with strong roots in the 1800s, an era of suitcase-sized Bibles and Apostle teakettles.

McDannell, a University of Utah professor who studies and writes on the subject, says such items offer a treasure of insights into American spirituality.

“Everyone laughs at this stuff or calls it terrible, but nobody asks why people buy it,” she says.

McDannell contends that all believers need devotional objects to keep their faith alive:

“It’s tough to (sustain) religious sentiment just in your head. People need to touch, taste and see (the divine) to make it real.”

But lately that need has been playing out in increasingly far-fetched ways.

And even merchants seem a little uneasy about it. At the CBA, some refer to the plethora of goods as “Jesus junk” or “holy hardware.”

Part of the discomfort comes from the age-old chasm between the sacred and the profane. Any attempt to combine the two inevitably sounds jarring.

Consider, for example, the mission statement of religious publishing conglomerate Thomas Nelson Inc.: to “produce and market products that honor God and serve humanity, and to enhance shareholder value.”

And then there are the products themselves: Auto sun visors that say “Jesus Is Lord” on one side and “Need Help! Please Call Police” on the reverse; neckties in patterns of “angel paisley” or “burning bush”; and Heavenly Touch, “spiritually inspired messages” for your answering machine.

“It’s all based on marketing and having something new,” says McDannell, whose book, “Material Christianity,” is due out this winter. “The more you try to search for something new, the wackier your stuff gets.”

But Horton fumes: “If this were done on ‘David Letterman,’ Christians would write to protest that God was being trivialized and made fun of. Instead, we’re doing it to ourselves.”

As absurd as some of the items might sound, they do serve some critical purposes, observers say.

One is expressing identity.

“Forty years ago, everyone assumed you were a Christian unless you spoke out and said otherwise, so people were more private with their faith,” says Linda Riedmann, an employee at the Pink Lady Christian bookstore in Orange, Calif. “Now, society has changed. (To) take a stand, you put on a (Christian) bumper sticker or you (use Christian products).”

Objects also can keep believers inspired and focused on God. “It’s getting tough out there,” says David McNabb of Dicksons Inspirational Gifts. “We really do need reminders of our faith.”

Another aim - one that has caused a rift among Christians - is to convert lost souls.

The products range from Scripture-tagged checks (“Let God use your check-writing to open doors for sharing”) to watches (one has a solitary “11” on the face, so if anybody asks the time, a brochure advises replying: “You see, it really doesn’t matter what time it is; we’re in the 11th hour. Would you like to know Jesus and prepare for his coming?”)

Evangelizing is only part of the picture, however.

In essence, some conservative Protestants are trying to create a parallel universe to the secular world. Instead of Disneyland, they have Christian theme parks. Instead of Madonna, they have Amy Grant. Retailing is a logical extension.

“Name the secular (product) and we probably have the Bible equivalent,” says a sales rep at the CBA.

Scones. Mud flaps. Wallpaper. Candy bars. Mouse pads. …

CBA’s Anderson says believers are seeking ways to “integrate a spiritual perspective into every area of life. They’re realizing (that) the lyrics of a song or the plot of a video can either build up or tear down their values and their lives.”

Such thinking, says McDannell, marks a sea change in American spirituality. “The product has become a sermon; the words of the preacher (have been) replaced by … objects. (And) advertising and witnessing are interchangeable.”

Or, as CBA’s mantra goes: “Our motive is ministry. Our message is Jesus Christ. Our method is retail.”

With about 5,000 Christian stores dotting the land, religious retailing has burgeoned into a $3 billion-a-year enterprise, triple what it was 15 years ago.

Not surprisingly, chains such as Wal-Mart and Target have begun stocking religious products.

But the convergence of capitalism and Christianity poses some thorny theological issues.

One is “mega-corporations buying Christian companies,” McDannell says. “Christian executives are having to explain things like why it’s OK for Zondervan Press (which publishes the top-selling New International Version of the Bible) to be owned by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, which produces ‘The New Joy of Gay Sex,’ or for Time Alliance (a Christian music company) to be owned by Time-Warner, which published Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book. …

“For the most part, suppliers and retailers try not to look too deeply into (such) associations,” she says.

So what would Jesus say? Philip Yancey, a columnist for Christianity Today magazine, says the question is impossible to answer: “He lived in such a pre-technological environment. It’s hard to project” what he would do today.

But others are unsettled. At CBA, the story of Christ throwing the money-changers out of the temple comes up often.

Some believe he would do the same here. But others think he would be pleased.

Steve Fowler, who markets Christian art at CBA, says, “There’s a very fine line between ministry and exploitation. You don’t want to be hasty to judge anyone. But I’ll guarantee you this: God will judge them.”

Tags: religion

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