Religious objects connect to God in a material world

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 2 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

OGDEN — In the beginning was the word. Then came the stuff.

Tons of stuff. Oodles of stuff. All of it expressing some aspect of what people believe, and much of it making people money.

"There is no religion that doesn't have clothing, spaces, religious objects, color — we live in a physical world and so every ideological or religious system has a material culture. Communism has it. Capitalism has it. It is just intrinsic to how we exist," said Colleen McDannell, historian and author of "Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America" and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah.

McDannell is speaking tonight at Weber State University as part of the Sunstone Symposium on "Mormon Artifacts and Material Culture" that runs from today through Saturday.

Part of the attention religious material culture is getting comes from its ongoing economic impact. CBA, the trade association for Christian retail, estimates that annual sales of Christian products by its members is valued at more than $4.63 billion. About 44 percent of Americans bought a religious product "in the past month," says a 2006 survey by Baylor University. Even 16 percent of the people who claim no religious affiliation bought some religious items. The biggest consumers of religious objects were evangelicals — and the more often someone went to church, the more likely they were to buy religious goods.

The LDS Booksellers Association is having its next convention — along with display after display of religious books and Mormon material culture — this week at the South Towne Expo Center. Although no hard figures are available, Robby Nichols, president of the LDSBA, estimates the LDS books, goods and products market at about $100 million a year.

But religious material culture goes beyond just economics.

Wrangling with the meaning of public, private and religious space and things also affects public policy. The design of the LDS temple now under construction in Phoenix, for example, was controversial — in part because of the deference given to religious structures.

Jana K. Riess, an editor and the author of the book "Flunking Sainthood," talked about how the meaning of an object changes from person to person. One person may see an object as primarily religious. Another may see it as a reminder of friendship. On her desk is a little statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague. "The reason that I love it is that it is a gift from my best friend who is Catholic and went to Prague," she said. "And there is this association of this person that I know and loves me and is praying for me. And somehow this all comes wrapped up in this tiny figure."

Religious objects have many different uses — and meanings. People use them as reminders of promises, rituals and events such as a baptism or a visit to a holy shrine. McDannell also said they can be used to socialize children into a religious system. Material culture is often about identity. And people do wear their religion on their sleeves.

Riess said, "When you are in the majority faith you just assume your experience is normative for other people. You don't have to broadcast your identity. Episcopalians don't wear shirts that say, 'I'm a proud Episcopalian.'"

A t-shirt like "God's Gym" in place of "Gold's Gym" tells people that the wearer knows about popular culture and that they are hip. It is a way of affirming faith and distancing oneself from popular culture while at the same time aligning oneself with popular culture.

Catholic experience is a little different, Riess said, because the Catholic Church has been always tied into material culture.

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