Form or Function? Material Christianity in the U.S.

Rosaries. Jewelry. Artwork. If you live in the United States, you have witnessed material Christianity. The “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, the glittering gold and silver crosses hanging around someone’s neck, the ichthus on the back of a car; this is just a small sample of the thousands of items that make up the material culture of Christianity in the United States.

What is material culture? According to Dr. Jules Prown, a professor of Art History at Yale, material culture can refer to both “the study through artifacts of the beliefs-values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions-of a particular community or society at a given time” and the artifacts or objects themselves (Prown 1982:1). These objects can be virtually anything to which a culture has given value; Prown offers six broad categories of artifacts: art, diversions, adornment, modifications of landscape, applied arts, and devices (Prown 1982:3). By looking at cultural artifacts –  material culture – we can understand more about the life and practices of a particular group.

Religious groups certainly produce material culture and have for hundreds of years. From the introduction of the rosary in the Catholic church (sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries), to 17th century pulpit cushions of the Puritans, to ornate family Bibles in the 19th century, the Christian church has constantly produced sacred objects for consumption. And while Christians – Catholic and Protestant – have always put value into material objects, it seems that American Christians have taken religious consumption to a new level. There are more than 250 Family Christian stores in the United States selling hundreds of Christian books, Bibles, jewelry, and games; hundreds of online stores sell Christian t-shirts with messages ranging from “Jesus Loves You” to “Keep Calm and Pray On”; and you can buy rosaries and crucifixes costing hundreds of dollars. There is no shortage of Christian artifacts in the U.S.

It is tempting to lump all these cultural artifacts together and make observations on American Christianity. Yet when American Christianity is taken as a single unit, significant differences are ignored. With more than 300,000 Christian congregations in the United States, we could spend days sorting through sacred objects and studying the many material cultures within the nation. Here, I’ll tackle just the first major split in American Christianity – Protestant and Roman Catholic.

In his 2002 book The Old Religion in a New World, Mark A. Noll observes that “in the last two centuries, Protestants have been avid producers and consumers of cemetery headstones, religious games for children, religious art, and (in more recent decades) bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts imprinted with religious messages” (259). The Southern Baptists’ True Love Waits popularized purity rings over the past 30 years, and James Avery produces thousands of pieces of Christian-themed jewelry. The material culture of American Protestants leans heavily towards form rather than function, as jewelry and apparel dominate material Protestantism and are rarely parts of religious ritual. 

On the other hand, Roman Catholics also produce and consume sacred objects but have “incorporated into American practice religious uses of material objects” (Noll 2002: 259). The majority of sacred artifacts coming out of the Catholic church are used in worship and prayer – rosaries, statues and images of saints, and elaborate religious festivals are not just visual markers of faith but practical forms of worship for the Catholic community. This is not to say that Catholics do not wear Christian jewelry or t-shirts, or do not put religious bumper stickers on their cars. But there is a tendency in the Catholic church to produce religious objects that have form and function. Perhaps this is because of Catholicism’s deep roots in Europe, where Catholics produced a rich material culture before immigrants even thought about traveling across the Atlantic. 

All cultures produce artifacts, attaching value to things like beads, charms, t-shirts, and artwork. Protestants and Catholics in the United States are no exception, both sides consuming millions of dollars worth of religious paraphernalia every year. Often religious consumption overlaps – jewelry or icons or apparel – yet it is clear that the material Christianity in the United States is not homogenous. Protestant/Catholic is just the first distinction – Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Northern Catholic, Southern Catholic, Pentecostal, Orthodox…each branch of the church produces their own brand of material Christianity.

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