Sacred objects and piety: In what way does a picture of the Good Shepherd comfort a Protestant, and how does a portrait of the Madonna and Child reassure a Catholic?
Colleen McDannell has become a specialist in popular American religion, with a particular interest in religious objects - a $2.7 billion industry in the United States, she says. Religious goods, videos and music are mass marketed to address the concerns of particular religious traditions."Americans are people who like things," she said.
But while she has earned three degrees in religious studies - a magna cum laude bachelor's from the University of Colorado, a master's degree at the University of Denver and doctorate in philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia - she leaves points of doctrine to others.
"I am not a theologian," McDannell said. She prefers to let others interpret what God meant in his holy writ. "I am interested in what people hold dear to them. I want to know what we can learn from how everyday people express their beliefs."
McDannell is an associate professor of history at the University of Utah and occupies the Sterling McMurrin Chair in Religious Studies. She is working on her third book, which will explore religious objects in America.
Many of the items McDannell has observed and collected are "witness" objects. A bright red hat with Coca-Cola script proclaiming "Jesus Christ - He's the real thing" is meant to catch people's attention. "No one notices the common religious symbols. But if you parody the commercial aspect, spiritualize it to witness Jesus Christ, people notice it and it gives you a segue into your religious commitment," McDannell said. Other examples of witness objects include "Bank of Heaven" checks and a Mastercard logo imprinted "Christ Charge."
McDannell has collected a late-19th-century paperweight that bears the William Penn slogan "No Cross - No Crown," which McDannell compares to the contemporary slogan "No Pain - No Gain." She also found a drinking cup that Victorian Christians inscribed with the hymn "Rock of Ages."
McDannell finds it intriguing to find a theme and trace its development in America. "I like to find out who developed an idea, how it was marketed and how it has changed over the years," she said.
The history of images such as the guardian angel are documented in her collection. A turn-of-the-century guardian angel is shown protecting a child crossing a bridge. Pointing to a newer version, McDannell said, "This guardian angel from the '50s shows a child on a street with a rather sexy-looking angel much different from the Victorian angel."
McDannell displays a tiny, handmade prayer or meditation book so small it fits in her palm. The book is covered in satin and velvet and reads, "We obtain from the Good God as much as we hope from him," and a picture of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus. "St. Teresa was canonized in 1925, and people were very devoted to her in the 1930s," said McDannell. "They called her Little Flower."
Another category she has investigated is children's toys. "When children were good in Sunday School or knew Bible verses, they were given a Bible card game," explained McDannell. She has a Noah's Ark toy, bookmarks, Bible cards and a magic lantern with Bible stories that were made for children.
In her new book McDannell will show how Christians used religious objects over the years and how the objects have been influenced by history, advertising, industrialization and mass production. She will look at Christian rhetoric: the words used to describe whether or not the objects were considered aesthetically appropriate or if they were "kitsch." Said McDannell, "The boundaries of what was art or kitsch shifted over time."
She will look at historical case studies: the use of family Bibles, how Catholic women in the 19th century used holy water from Lourdes, and contemporary use of toys in Christian fundamentalist homes.
She is collecting the kinds of things you might find advertised in a Christian magazine. "Dolls, religious sayings, toys are things I'm interested in," said McDannell.
The esoteric field that McDannell has chosen to explore has been rich in unexpected treasures of knowledge. "Everything impinges on religion - philosophy, art, the social sciences. I've been able to study all of the humanities through religion," she reflected.- If readers have religious objects they would like to share with McDannell or allow to be photographed for her collection and book, she would appreciate a call at the history department of the University of Utah, 581-6121.
- If readers have religious objects they would like to share with McDannell or allow to be photographed for her collection and book, she would appreciate a call at the history department of the University of Utah, 581-6121.\