Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What Would Jesus Sell?

This week in Denver Colorado there is a convention going on for retailers of “Christian” merchandise. Marc is feeling nauseous about this. So here is a synopsis of what the money changers will be offering this year. (From Celebrity Theatre)

The fake rose petals strewn across the tablecloth gave Milton Hobbs' booth a romantic aura. He stacked crystal-cut perfume flasks in a pyramid and set out pink candles tied with ribbon. The effect was almost sexy -- at least compared with the other booths at the International Christian Retail Show.

Hobbs liked it. He needed a striking display to call attention to his most unusual product.

"Christian perfume," he said. "It's a really, really new genre. We're the first.”

“Virtuous Woman perfume comes packaged with a passage from Proverbs. But what makes the floral fragrance distinctly Christian,” Hobbs said, is that it's supposed to be a tool for evangelism.

More than 400 vendors packed the Colorado Convention Center in July to showcase the latest accessories for the Christian lifestyle. There were acres of the predictable: books, CDs, greeting cards, inspirational artwork, stuffed animals wearing "Jesus Loves You" T-shirts. Many of the newest items, however, put a religious twist on unexpected products -- marketed as means to reach the unsuspecting and unsaved.

Follow the Son flip-flops, for instance, have patterned soles that leave the message "Follow Jesus" in the sand. A start-up company called Christian Outdoorsman was taking orders for a camouflage baseball cap marked with a red cross. And, in Booth 235, Revelation Products of St. Louis was pitching Gospel Golf Balls with the slogan "a great golf ball with a greater purpose."

Manufactured by Top-Flite, the golf balls are printed with well-known verses from the Bible, such as John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son ..."). Dave Kruse, president of Revelation, said they were meant as "conversation starters," to help men share their faith while teeing up.

Michael McCarron has no time to contemplate capitulation.

Wearing a stars-and-stripes shirt and a harried look, the owner of Scripture Candy rushed about filling plates with samples of Christian chocolate for the more than 9,000 vendors and retailers who visited the five-day trade show. His company, based in Birmingham, Ala., sells an extensive line of candy packaged in little bags printed with Bible verses.

The candy is all top-quality, he said: "You can't put the word of God on something that someone will taste and go 'Blech!' and throw away."

McCarron absolutely believes his sweets can and do save souls. He once received a letter from a man who came across a Bible verse on a packet of candy corns while going through his son's trick-or-treat loot. "The verse touched him and he decided right there to stop drinking and go back to Christ," McCarron said.

Skin-tight, scoop-neck T-shirts for teenage girls bore slogans that practically begged those not in the know to ask questions. "Wood & nails -- a powerful partnership," one read. On another: "Life without you is not an option."

Would-be evangelists can carry little plastic key chains printed with the slogan "Got Christ?" They can serve their child's birthday cake on a paper tablecloth bearing the message "May God Bless You Today and Always." And for rebels with a cause, Good News Temporary Tattooz lets kids stamp their love for "JC" on their arms -- and rub it off next time they shower.

I know where you're coming from if you think it looks like we're merchandising or trivializing Christ, but this is a way to connect," said David Lingner, who developed the Christian Outdoorsman line, including a camouflage-print Bible cover.

Though she doesn't doubt the vendors' sincerity, Ellie Cupps was taken aback to see booth after booth of Christian kitsch. She and her husband, Don, had come to the trade show seeking handcrafted gift items for their two Catholic bookstores in Albuquerque, N.M. They had to search for them amid Queen Esther action figures, Christian pirate decals, David and Goliath balloons, Armor of God pajamas and Bible-based cartoon greeting cards.

"It's getting a little bit overboard," Cupps said. "It's faddish. If you can slap Jesus on it, it will sell."

I’m with you Ellie.

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