"Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America"

By Colleen McDannell (Yale University Press, 313 pp.; $35, hardcover).

This is an excellent book to give to people who are embarrassed by popular Christian culture. But we need to be sure they do not just turn the pages. This volume is lavishly illustrated--153 pictures in all--and there is plenty here for the cultured despisers of popular religion to roll their eyes at: Sallman's head of Christ, embroidered Bible covers, bumper stickers, wall posters, Victorian-era cemetery sculpture, Infant of Prague statues, and red baseball caps with "Jesus Christ--He's the real thing" inscribed in white Coke-type lettering. The critics of such artifacts need to do more than look at the pictures, though; it is important that they actually read Colleen McDannell's fascinating and insightful discussion of these objects.

Professor McDannell teaches religious studies and American history at the University of Utah, and she has a special interest in the study of "material culture." This area of academic inquiry, which has gained in prominence during the past few decades, focuses on the cultural significance of human artifacts. As McDannell puts it, she is interested in the fact that "the products of human skill and imagination embody and symbolize patterns of beliefs, social needs, and behavior." And she is especially concerned to ascertain what meanings the objects in question actually have in the day-to-day lives of human beings. Why do ordinary Christians wear T-shirts that display eschatological slogans and write their grocery lists with Scripture-text pencils?

Material culture specialists tend to see their work as a corrective activity. They are convinced that approaches to ...

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