Baltimore Sun’s BEST party in 2 weeks

Kitsch and religion: a marketing marriage made in heaven?; Is the nation's appetite for objects of divine comedy a sign of the apocalypse, or just a postmodern take on our age-old need for talismans?


In the beginning was the punching nun puppet. Customers bought it and Mark Pahlow said to himself: This is good. So the punching nun begat the glow-in-the-dark statue of Mary and the plush computer voodoo doll and the Hindu lunch boxes. Not to mention the Amish and rabbi punching puppets.

And business is good.

Pahlow's company, Archie McPhee, is hardly the only place to find less-than-reverent religious merchandise. Elsewhere in the world people are selling a plastic golf ball with a plastic angel inside (to protect, no doubt, from an ungodly slice). And a guy in a frog suit is pitching products emblazoned with the slogan "Fully Rely On God."

At Hanukkah, pooches can eat dreidel-shaped dog biscuits. For grooms-to-be, there is "The Ten Commandments for Bridegrooms.

Religious kitsch is out there, from the sort-of sacred to the seriously goofy. In thousands of religious bookstores, in novelty catalogs and on the Internet, people are buying stuff that weds religion and humor -- or at least religious conviction and cuteness.

Some of this merchandise follows in a long American tradition of relatively respectful -- if artistically dubious -- inexpensive stuff with religious themes, like 1800s pottery busts of John Wesley and teapots covered with Bible scenes.

But what's new, if not improved, about these products is how widespread their sales are and how willing some of the merchandise seems to be to make fun of religion.

Just try to come up with a serious interpretation for "dog buddha," a statue with the body of a buddha and the head of a pooch? Or for "Nunzilla," a windup nun that walks and spits sparks from its mouth.

Not everyone is laughing. Some find dark meaning in the increased popularity of stuff like the glow-in-the-dark statue of St. Claire, the Catholic patron saint of television (as declared in 1958 by Pope Pius XII, its packaging explains).

Marshall Fishwick is a professor of humanities at Virginia Tech who has helped edit several popular culture journals. Sales of knickknacks that make fun of religion are evidence of a decline of respect for serious matters of faith, he says.

"The decline of the creedal religions means that merchants can ... put out things that are parodies," he says. "We have finally become a truly secular society."

But Pahlow is anything but cavalier about his company's sometimes silly products. He sees them as part of a large and serious movement in American society.

"I think everyone is looking for meaning," he said. "And I think these products manifest some sort of quest for me."

Americans have a grand tradition of wanting little mementos of their faith, says Colleen McDannell, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of "Material Christianity; Religion and Popular Culture in America."

A hundred years ago, she says, consumers could redeem soap coupons for pictures of saints. In the 1930s, pencils printed with Bible verses were sold, and in the 1950s a Catholic magazine ad pitched "little nun" and "little priest" kids' costumes. Much of today's stuff fills the same needs, she says.

Older examples of religious kitsch may have been derided by critics but were generally taken seriously by those who bought them, she says; they were never intended to make fun of religious traditions.

FROG merchandise is like that. Dickson's, a company that sells many inspirational items, came up with the Fully Rely on God slogan in an attempt to perhaps leapfrog over the "What Would Jesus Do?" craze. And sales are brisk in hats, T-shirts, bouncing balls, yo-yos and candy -- with nary a complaint.

"I don't think anyone who takes God seriously would question something that spreads the message and gets kids interested about God," said Melissa Bane, Dickson's marketing director.

Other products are less easily understood as homage. McDannell notes that unlike their predecessors, the new items are intended to be funny, even mocking. And they are mass-marketed across religious lines. Someone who knows nothing about the faith tradition of India can buy -- and laugh at -- a smiling rubber monk who squeaks.

He's a product of Seattle-based Archie McPhee, which bills itself as the "outfitters of popular culture."

While Catholic items are particularly popular, he's not averse to any religious tradition, Pahlow said. Jewish items include a fish in the shape of the "Jesus" medallions that instead has the word "gefilte" in it. Hindu lunch boxes trade on interest in Eastern-influenced religious traditions, he said.

He has never sold anything with a Muslim theme, partly because Islam forbids artistic images of people. And Pahlow says he's not trying to offend anybody.

Bane of Dickson's believes that sales of lighthearted religious merchandise are actually a sign of acceptance by the larger culture.

"As it becomes politically correct to believe in God and religion, people know they can have a sense of humor about it," she says. "Sometimes a sense of humor is how people cope."

Pub Date: 02/14/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad