Bling for believers

Items with religious themes help to reinforce faith

Published: Saturday, Oct. 11 2008 12:05 a.m. MDT

Religious stores across the country jingle with jewelry, statues and trinkets to remind the faithful to be faithful and teach children about religious traditions. CTR rings, cross pendants and "Ani L'Dodi" rings — not to mention "Jesus Loves Me" kazoos and "God's Team!" beach balls — can serve as tangible testimonies.

A 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found a quarter of respondents who claimed no religious affiliation said they still bought something religious over the past year. And 90 percent of people saying they go to church several times a week bought at least one religious item in the year prior to the survey.

In short, religious products abound. Catalogues burst with religious race cars, yo-yos — even squirt rings.

Catholics might buy a medal of a patron saint as a reminder of the saint's example, says Nora Mancuso, co-owner of Mancuso's religious goods store in Salt Lake City.

Deseret Book, which carries goods related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has "I Am a Child of God" wristbands and pencils, Articles of Faith stickers and 216 varieties of the CTR ("Choose The Right") Ring.

Mark Clegg, Deseret Book vice president of retail, says customers choose items based on emotional connection, or those that "reinforce their beliefs and create a feeling of well-being and harmony in their homes."

The Jewish Gift Place online store includes key rings and pendants containing traditional symbols, including the Hebrew word "chai," meaning "life," and the 12 tribes of Israel. It also has "Ani L'Dodi" rings, the Hebrew inscription of the "The Song of Songs" verse "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Jewish artists are also responding to interest in Kabbalah and mystical Judaism that has made popular the Hamsa Hand, commonly depicted with a centerpiece eye and believed to bring the owner happiness, peace, prosperity and protection.

The Online Islamic Store offers books and videos and other items, such as prayer beads, promoting faith practices. Figurative art is widely rejected in Islam, according to religionfacts.com, and depictions of the prophet Muhammad are particularly offensive.

Certainly, pop culture and capitalism shape what's for sale.

Still, there are concerns. According to Jerry Park, author of the piece "What Would Jesus Buy?" when items stray from traditional symbols into commercialism, the believing buyer should beware.

"Sometimes material goods carry their own meaning system," Park says, "and it can sometimes communicate more quickly than if someone, for instance, sits down and talks about their faith. But it can also communicate a distortion of a religion," And the more symbols become popular, the more they might lose their intended meaning, Park says. Some people even refer to the onslaught of religious wares as "Jesus Junk."

"To me, Jesus Junk is ... the low-quality T-shirts" that say things like, 'I'm a virgin because of Jesus,"' says Chelsea Eubank of Atlanta, a college student and founder of Faithful Fish clothing company. "It's nonsense."

Eubank's T-shirts, polos and caps depict the outline of a fish, an ancient password of sorts for Christians during times of Roman persecution.

"A little fish on the polo on the side, shows I'm a Christian, but it's not an in-your-face type of deal," she says.

The 21-year-old created the company in an attempt to get back to faith after her father died. She also started the movement, "Dare to Wear Your Faith," encouraging youth to wear their favorite "faithful" shirt on the first Wednesday of each month.

In the end, what is appropriate and what is not often comes down to personal taste.

And whatever your taste, somebody, somewhere is surely working on a religious trinket to cater to it.

One person's kitsch, apparently, will forever be another person's icon.

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