I have to admit to a weakness for "Jesus junk" stories. Since I worked in Denver for nearly a decade, I was pretty familiar with the style and substance of the CBA and its member stores. That's the trade group formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association.
Rare is the year that the CBA holds one of its blowout trade shows without seeing the publication of a "Jesus junk" story in a major newspaper or magazine. One of the classics, back in the late 1970s, focused on a company that was marketing Christian T-shirts for dogs. One year when I covered the convention, the hot story was the rise of Christian cappucino. Christian candy is another big favorite.
Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times has done the "Jesus junk" deed and done it quite well.
The reason these stories fly, year after year, is quite simple -- we are talking about a $4-something-billion industry that is growing. But it is an industry that, on first glance, has a style of its own, a style built on Christian photocopies of whatever trend existed in the real world about five years earlier. Thus, Simon shows us:
More than 400 vendors packed the Colorado Convention Center last week 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 a means to reach the unsuspecting and unsaved.
Christian Outdoorsman was taking orders for a camouflage baseball cap with a red cross. In Booth 235, Revelation Products of St. Louis was pitching golf balls and flip-flops. Follow the Son flip-flops have patterned soles that leave the message "Follow Jesus" in the sand.
Gospel Golf Balls are touted as "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.
An added bonus: Duffers need no longer feel bad about losing a ball in the rough. "If you're playing great, good," Kruse said. "If you're spraying the ball, well ... lose a golf ball, share the gospel."
The difference between this story and most of the other stories produced in the "Jesus junk" genre is that Simon actually stops and asks if these products are what they claim to be -- a means of outreach.
This is a claim that is a bit hard to swallow, since the junk side of this marketplace is built on selling Christian stuff to people who are already Christians through Christian outlets that advertise in Christian media. Is this outreach?
So who is the obvious person to call up for an interview on this topic?
You got it.
The effect of such products, according to political scientist Alan Wolfe, is to create almost a parallel universe, one that allows Christians to withdraw from the world instead of engaging it as Christ commanded.
"It's as if they're saying the task of bringing people to Jesus is too hard, so let's retreat into a fortress," said Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
"Evangelism is about reaching out and converting the unsaved," Wolfe said. "This is about putting a fence around people who are already saved. It strikes me as if they're giving up."
That's part of the story. However, there are some products in this world that have -- for reasons both mysterious and obvious -- had an impact with ordinary people in ordinary shopping malls.
Simon is a fine, fine reporter. I hope that, having done the junk story, she will now chase the more serious side of the CBA. There is some substance hiding in there. Honest.