McDannell, however, doesn't see that the overt use of material culture is tied to a religion's minority status. "It doesn't have to do with minority religions," McDannell said. "It just has to do with how religions spin out their beliefs."
She even noted that Episcopalians are starting to wear t-shirts. "They say things like 'Christianity: A religion for people that think.' "
In the 1700s the Dutch made tiles with Bible stories on them. In the 1800s, people may have had a plate that said "give us our daily bread" on it. Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" was an example of popular religious material culture that became very popular beginning in the 1940s. Over 500 million copies of the painting have been made.
Today material culture ranges from greeting cards to statues of Jesus playing football. Some objects are considered sacred by some — other objects may seem profane to other people.
"It is circulated just like any other commodity. It is made by people. It is used by people. If it goes out of fashion, something else comes in," McDannell said.
McDannell sees the union of religious and material as basic. "The whole Christian notion of an incarnation is material culture," she said, "because you have the notion of a God who comes into a body of a human — unifying the body of the human with the divine."
Riess, who is also speaking at the Sunstone Symposium this week, remembers an experience she had with religious material culture while traveling in Guatemala in 1993. She was considering joining the Mormon faith at the time. She went to a woman's home to get some laundry done. "And I walked into her house and there was this big picture of the Guatemala City Temple on her wall." She asked the woman if she was a Mormon. She was and told Riess her feelings about the picture that was on her wall. "And we hugged. It was a … wonderful experience and it was an object that gave us that experience," Riess said. "Sometimes these objects can be a lifeline. Sometimes they connect us to God in a way that our head can not do."
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