On one stand there’s a T-shirt featuring a drawing of a bloodied hand nailed to the cross above the slogan, “Body-piercing saved my life”. It’s from a natty line by World of Warcraft. This peculiar fashion statement is a contributor to a billion euro industry. The company is just one of the many – both mainstream and truly fringe – who make up the quirky world of Christian retail.
In 2006, sales of Christian products totalled a heavenly €3.3bn worldwide, up from €3.1bn in 2004 and €2.9bn in 2000. Most of that is books – the top of the bestseller charts remains, of course, the Bible – but there is also music (with and without tambourines), church supplies, toys, gifts and then those T-shirts.
Many of these items were on display at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta during the 2007 International Christian Retail Show. There were 1,129 booths spread over 11,600 sq m at the event which took place over five days in July. Most of the 386 exhibitors came from the US and Canada but there were delegations from Britain, South Korea, and China. All were vying to sell their products to the countless representatives of the stores and online marketers that make up what is rather clunkily called in the trade the “Christian retail channel”.
The ICRS is the world’s largest gathering of Christian publishers, publicists, craftspeople, manufacturers and shop-owners. It features workshops and seminars and performances by Christian musicians and services led by prominent worship leaders. There is everything you would expect to find at a trade convention except booze and call girls.
Although the fair does nod politely to the mainline churches, the brand of Christianity represented in Atlanta is overwhelmingly evangelical, creationist, ecstatic and full of old-fashioned fire and brimstone. When the reverend Tim LaHaye asks on the cover of his latest book Global Warning, “Are we on the brink of the Third World War?”, you can be sure the answer is going to be: “Yes, and about time too.” A moderate Anglican is likely to feel as unappreciated and marooned at this event as a Jew might.
Actually, he would probably feel worse, since many exhibitors appear to be evangelical Jews (AKA “Jews for Jesus”) or pitching their merchandise to the same. Hence the profusion of Hebrew-lettered jewellery; stars of David on sale alongside crosses. Not to mention the line of children’s biblical action figures taken entirely from the Old Testament, whose proportions suggest that Moses destroyed the golden calf during a fit of ’roid rage.
The toys, clothing and gift items remain the most striking elements of the show. It’s hard to overlook a rack of Christian-themed hunting gear or air fresheners for cars shaped like hands at prayer. A woman stands in front of a display of Bible-themed puppets hanging in braces like dead birds in a butcher’s window.
But books remain the biggest part of the market, and most of the show’s displays belong to publishers. This year’s prospective top-seller was 3:16: The Numbers of Hope (Thomas Nelson), an exegesis of the verse in John that the author, Max Lucado, calls “the Hope Diamond of the Bible”. The publisher had printed a million copies. Close behind was Paula White’s You’re All That, whose author is a celebrity minister as well as a TV life coach.
If books are the driving engine of the Christian market, it’s largely due to Tim LaHaye’s bestselling Left Behind series. The 16 apocalyptic thrillers sold 65 million copies and broke Christian books out of the “good news ghetto” and into Wal-Mart (the store is also set to introduce a line of Christian toys including a talking Jesus) and Borders. As LaHaye’s publicist says, “You know you’re a cultural force when you’re getting spoofed on The Simpsons.”
Since the series’ last number came out, however, the industry’s book segment seems to have entered the doldrums and publishers are feverishly casting about for successors. Tyndale’s candidate this year was Joel Rosenberg, a former aide to Rush Limbaugh and Benjamin Netanyahu whose latest book, Epicenter, views current events in the Middle East as a fulfilment of Ezekiel and Revelations. The promotional trailer has footage of Muslims praying, a sly-looking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and clouds scudding at menacing double-speed across the Jerusalem skyline.
There is increasing evidence of the decline in numbers of Christian products sold through mainstream outlets. The market is ever more dependent on Christian retailers – not always the best businesspeople as many see themselves more as ministers. “Our business changes lives,” says David Martin, the proprietor of a Christian bookstore in Binghamton New York, who has the steely gaze and chin whiskers of a happy Captain Ahab.
A few weeks ago he took a Saturday-morning phone call from a woman looking for a book to help her deal with a troubled child. Martin recommended a few and visited the customer’s home. She started putting the books’ (biblical) principles to work, he beams. “Now she tells me that she and her husband have ministered to 23 families in their area.”
However, Martin acknowledges the problem. “You can’t have a business without a profit margin.” Or, as Chris Childers, chairman of the Christian Booksellers’ Association, puts it: “You’ve got to make a profit to be a prophet.”
God and Mammon have always been at odds and the ICRS bears witness to evangelicals’ ambivalence towards modern secular culture, especially pop culture. On one hand, they’re deeply suspicious of the values it promotes: individual freedom, pleasure, change for change’s sake. On the other hand, they can’t take their eyes off pop culture, quarrelling with it, imitating it and co-opting it.
A Martian who touched down at the Georgia World Congress Center might see skate punks, eating disorders, MySpace and the New Age documentary, The Secret. But it would be a warped view. The skateboarder’s sneakers are emblazoned with “Jesus”. The website is called ThySpace. The book The Secret Revealed shows “how the ‘law of attraction’ has misled millions.” Hungry Souls “instructs on issues central to eating disorder, including fasting, famine, demonic oppression and possession, use of blood in Scripture and sexual purity.”
The Christian retail industry’s downturn may be related solely to factors in the broader economy or it may be that on some unconscious level Christian retailers can’t bear to associate themselves with a culture they might regard as evil.
Possibly the most tranquil presence at the event is Mark Patrick, a sculptor from Colorado who makes statues of angels in cold cast or solid bronze, some the size of bookends, others life-sized. All are buff and armed with fearsome swords and look like idealised self-portraits of Patrick. They speak in code of his transformation from a hard-living biker who drank and did drugs, to a dedicated Christian.
Patrick lived in Alaska, working on an oil pipeline in the day and as a bouncer in a bar at night. One evening, back from the bar, he caught himself in the mirror. “I had that look in my eyes, that badass look. And there was blood all over my knuckles. I fell to my knees and cried, ‘Lord, I don’t want to be this person. Help me!’ And he came to me.”
Words of wisdom: Christian bestsellers
01 3:16: The Numbers of Hope by Max Lucado (Thomas Nelson).
The bestselling author delves into what is described as the “Hope Diamond of the Bible.” 02 You’re All That by Paula White (FaithWords). White is an evangelical dynamo and life coach on the popular The Tyra Banks Show. 03 Walking in Your Own Shoes: Discover God’s Direction for Your Life by Robert A Schuller (FaithWords).
A joint effort by a renowned evangelical minister and, er, a natural health specialist. 04 Inspired by... the Bible Experience: The Complete Bible (Zondervan).
Audio CD featuring African-American stars of both the cloth and Hollywood. 05 The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel (Zondervan).
A look at conspiracy theories surrounding Christ.