Trinkets or truth?

National | How bumper stickers, stuffed animals, and retail kitsch are squeezing the books out of Christian bookstores

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

Within a cash register tape's width of the front door, the merchandising begins. Scripture verses dress up ceramic flowers and figurines. Fruit-of-the-Spirit logos make "Christian" candles of standard purple ones. Tiny red-and-white life preservers announce that "Jesus Saves." Bookmarks, bracelets, and assorted bric-a-brac ask shoppers, "What Would Jesus Do?"

Were He to walk into Berean Christian Store in San Diego, what would Jesus do?

It's a tough question. And it's not only Berean that provokes it. Once primarily purveyors of Bibles and books expounding Christian thought, many stores operating in the $3 billion Christian retailing industry increasingly push "product." Store owners and industry insiders defend that trend as smart business that supports a valid ministry. But critics say the peddling of Christian trinkets trivializes the name of God, and dilutes the market for literature than honors Him.

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For nearly a decade, book and Bible sales have held steady at about 38 percent of Christian retailers' total sales volume. But the proportion of items like jewelry, collectibles, greeting cards, clothing, and art has been rising since 1993. Back then, such products accounted for less than one-third of total sales volume in Christian stores, according to CBA, the international trade organization for Christian retailers, whose annual convention takes place this week in New Orleans. By 1997, though, such items made up nearly half of retailers' total annual sales volume.

The trend shows no sign of slowing down. The product mix has changed so radically that some organizations have even changed their names. Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retailer, used to be called Family Christian Bookstores. And CBA was once the Christian Booksellers Association. In 1996, the group jettisoned the pigeonhole term "booksellers" and chose the more flexible handle "CBA," since many of its 3,500 member retail stores began selling more gifts and apparel than books.

Some retailers don't like the gift and apparel trend. John Cully is concerned that Christian stores' increasing emphasis on non-book products is misdirected. "It's not the coffee cup or the praying hands or the picture of Jesus on the wall that changes lives," said Mr. Cully, who owns Evangelical Bible Bookstore, a 30-year-old family business. "It is God-honoring literature that changes people's thinking. We've seen many people shift their theological positions because of good literature."

Evangelical Bible Bookstore sits in an older, rougher part of San Diego a couple of freeways south of Berean Christian Store's prime retail location. Mr. Cully, a tall and imposing gentleman with a trim white beard and wire-rimmed glasses, built every shelf in the store in his own garage. But his business is no mom-and-pop shop. His store is known worldwide (he regularly receives orders from as far away as Bucharest and South Africa) as a reliable supplier of Puritan and other Reformed works; his satellite store is located at Westminster Seminary.

Mr. Cully, a CBA member, regularly agitates for change among Christian retailers. Last September, he sent what he calls "my latest letter" to CBA president Bill Anderson. In it, he complained that Christian retailers were selling products, books in particular, which were popular, but wouldn't pass biblical muster. "As I look around our industry I see much room for improvement ... " he wrote. "I hope it is only an educational problem, and not a concern for the bottom line."

Though he doesn't sell any in his own store, Mr. Cully doesn't see gift and apparel sales as all bad. "Some of it is very tasteful and good, but it ought to be in the back of the store."

Whether it's on a back shelf or not, Brian Chapell believes Christian paraphernalia frequently subverts Scripture by trivializing God's name. "The Old Testament practice of not even fully writing out the name of God in honor of His holiness reflects poorly on glow-in-the-dark crosses and smiley-face key rings with 'God loves you' slogans," said Mr. Chapell, director of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "Whatever represents God without reverence profanes His name."

He may have a point. The plethora of Christian giftware now on the market has attracted ugly monikers like "Christian kitsch," "holy hardware," and, most regrettably, "Jesus junk." Major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Post all have used those terms in recent years in stories on Christian retailing. Mr. Chapell believes that selling knickknacks is detrimental to the cause of Christ if it ultimately erodes reverence for God's name.

Baylor University marketing professor Marjorie Cooper agrees. "I think that, to some extent, we're trying to peddle a popularized God in sound-bite mentality so that He's palatable for the masses. But God has never presented Himself that way-this is our idea." Mrs. Cooper also is concerned that unavoidable business considerations may result in doctrinal compromise for Christian retailers.


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