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Religious objects connect to God in a material world

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 2 2011 10:18 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.

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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