I Don't Care if It Rains or Freezes
Years ago, I received a couple of catalogs in the mail just around the holidays. One of them had Jewish-themed "stuff", quite a bit of it aimed at kids. I seem to remember a Mickey Mouse menorah. But what I recall most vividly was a stuffed Torah scroll, in bright red and blue plush, replete with goofy cartoon face. I'm guessing that - if someone without a religious bone in her body thought it was peculiar that anyone would want their religion's sacred object to become some two year old's drooled upon cuddly - this wasn't a big seller.
At just about the same time, I received a catalog for Christian-themed "stuff". The most memorable object in this one was the manger scene in which Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men were teddy bears. I'm guessing that - if someone without a religious bone in her body thought it was peculiar that anyone would want their religion's founder and his birth to be depicted by teddy bears - this wasn't a big seller, either.
But given these objects, I was certainly not surprised by a recent article by David Shiflett in The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be needed to link) on religious action figures.
We did not, of course, have religious action figures when I was a kid. There were plaster statues, but they weren't anything you'd actually play with. First, they were considered holy; second, how long would a plaster anything have lasted as an object of play? I will confess that I coveted a Prince of Peace statue (a.k.a., the Infant of Prague). This was a statue of the child Jesus and you could dress it up in different colors depending on the season. A couple of my friends had them and I was insanely jealous. For whatever reason - probably having something to do with fear that they'd become toys or weapons - my family did not go in for religious statuary. Pictures and crucifixes, yes. Statues, no.
We didn't go in for dashboard Jesus or Mary, either, another thing I always wanted. No, my father went for the more discreet St. Christopher medallion (the one with the funky wings). St. Christopher, of course, is long discredited, i.e., assumed not to have existed, which is a no-no if you want to be a saint: you have to have existed. (What this does for the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, I don't know, since their existence doesn't seem quite provable, either. I will have to perform a saintly google at some point.) When I was working at Genuity, a colleague's elderly father sent her a St. Christopher medallion, which she passed on to me. It wasn't the one that graced our Fords, but is clipped to a cup holder in my Beetle.
In my day, there were also nun dolls. Some were big and fancy, with authentic nun costumes that replicated the habit worn by a specific order of nuns. Most were cheesy little plastic dolls with generic nun outfits. Most of the action with the nun doll centered around flipping up the veil to see if she had hair, which is something we always wanted to do with our own nuns. (I remember the thrill when, in third grade, a big wind blew one nun's veil up and we were able to briefly spy the back of her brunette buzz cut.) Nun dolls, by the way, had no hair at all, just pink-ish plastic head.
Catholics have come a long way since then, and Mr. Shiflett notes that an outfit called Catholic Supply sells "several incarnations" (hah) of Jesus statues: " including a football player, skier, rollerblader and the best-selling 'Baseball Jesus Sports Statue.'" (I checked these statues out, and they're not actually of Jesus as athlete. They're sappy statues of Jesus helping a kid bat, swing a golf club, etc. Catholic Supply's got a little of everything, including "the golf balls Catholics have been praying for": one with St. Patrick on it (for luck), one with St. Anthony (finding a lost object), and another with St. Jude (hopeless causes). They also sell sports-related stuffed bears called "Holy Bears" for some reason. Holy Cow! Not to mention lots of St. Christopher stuff - and here I thought he'd been discontinued.
Meanwhile, the Christians - as always, more into the Bible than Catholics ever were - have religious action figures for Adam, Eve, Daniel, Job, Esther, Goliath, Samson and Jesus. (I don't know about that Adam and Eve thing. Seems to me that kids could get in a bit of trouble putting those two in action.)
A company called One2Believe sells action figures, and something called P31 dolls, which look like knock-off American Girl dolls, but which "are specifically designed to provide a Bible-based, Christian alternative to other secular toys on the market, and to encourage young girls to pursue biblical womanhood." I certainly don't think it's a bad idea for parents to encourage their kids to play with dolls that are wholesome (like the American Girl dolls - completely wholesome, other than their encouragement of wild consumption). Especially in a world where doll best sellers include Bratz teeny-hooker, 'let's go shopping for skanky clothing and get some collagen injections for our lips" dolls.
Still, "biblical womanhood"? I don't know quite what's up with that, but I'm guessing that P31 (for Proverbs 31:20) eventually turns into "wives, submit to your husbands."
And I really don't imagine that little Christian girls need a specifically Christian doll to play house with. All of my dolls were Catholics. I may have even baptized some of them.
As for the action figures the One2Believe offers, their "goal is to provide fun ways of teaching children about the greatest people who ever lived."
I'll give you that Jesus would be on most anyone's list of "the greatest people who ever lived."
But Samson vs. Thomas Jefferson? Esther vs. Helen Keller?
Still, it's their toy store and their kids, and God knows there are so many tawdry and terrible toys these days, it's understandable that parents would want to rein things in a bit.
It's not just the Judeo-Christian toy tradition, either. There's a company that Shiflett found, Kridana, that sells Shri Hanuman and Lord Rama for little Hindus.
Shiflett closes his article with a dire warning:
Purists may, with reason, fear the possibility of severe ecumenical repercussions. Fully funded toy boxes might easily include figures from different faith traditions and eras, creating an environment rife with historical and ecclesiastical error, and maybe worse. One easily imagines a play session in which Jesus is sent rollerblading past Moses or Lord Rama, perhaps screaming "Out of the way, you geezer!" In the same spirit, there may be awkward efforts to evangelize Barbie and Ken, whose spiritual affiliation has always been kept secret (some suspect a very mild Presbyterianism, augmented by Prozac).
And it may not end there. I can see that action Buddha's may not be far behind, but I can't imagine that any atheist toy house will be coming up with Madalyn Murray O'Hair action figures any time soon. (The MMO'H figure would picket, petition, shake its fist, and sue.) On the other hand, us seculars can likely find a Thomas Jefferson action figure somewhere or other out there.