BOOK REVIEW / Sacred thumbs, Mormon vests and Coca-Cola Christs

Material Christianity, Religion and Popular Culture in America by Colleen McDannell, Yale, pounds 25
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By the time you get to 80, you could have committed 2,522,880,000 sins, according to a calculation made by the Rev Augustus Toplady in 1776. He appended it to a hymn he had written, and submitted both to Gospel Magazine.

If it seems like an awful lot, don't panic: all the sins of mankind, even of octogenarians, are no match for the forgiving power of God. This message was in the hymn, which became a tremendous success and inspired a vast collection of funerary monuments all over the world, depicting a weeping woman who clings desperately to a cross. The hymn was "Rock of Ages". Prince Albert wanted it sung over his deathbed; Gladstone translated it into Latin.

Colleen McDannell loves chasing up such stories. Her aim is to present a collection of the objects used by ordinary Christians to prop up their faith. Such images are not always theologically sound - in 1877, a catalogue was offering a picture of Christ with a woman, labelled "Immaculate Conception" - but they are often powerful. The figure of an unaccompanied Christ was always popular. Some preferred him stern and strong, others softly androgynous, while Sunday school teachers favoured an adolescent boy. The all-time bestseller, by Walter Sallman, showed him looking away from the viewer. For the uneasy sinner, this was a more comfortable pose than a direct, unflinching gaze. Still, it worked: preaching about Sallman's hugely popular portrait, a Protestant minister told a story in which a would-be burglar, about to rob a woman, saw the picture. "I can't do it, lady," he whimpered, "not with Him behind you."

The power of material things can be thaumaturgical. In the 1870s, an American priest was shipping in boatloads of holy water from Lourdes and sending it all over the country. He kept hundreds of letters sent by the grateful cured. This practice, which would, nowadays, be frowned on by the Catholic church, can be seen as part of the general interest in water- cures which, in a time of very uncertain medicine, were thought to be beneficial. Still, even Protestants eschewed pump-water for the superior Lourdes variety.

For such obviously Catholic "sacramentals'' were by no means restricted to the Church of Rome. In 1901, a new sect called the Church of God sent out numerous handkerchiefs dipped in oil to be used for anointing the sick, and even modern Methodists have their relics. Their archives house fragments of John Wesley's coat, a pair of Francis Asbury's glasses and even (yuck) a piece of George Whitefield's thumb. Once, in Spain, I saw a display of polychrome statues of St Roch whose sore leg was miraculously cured: each little figure showed the saint daintily lifting his skirt to display the tell-tale wound.

McDannell devotes a whole chapter to the business of Mormon underwear. Joseph Smith claimed that the angel Moroni - worn in effigy as a lapel- pin by devotees - instructed him as to the design of this gear. In their purest form, the garments cover the entire body from neck to wrist and ankle, with a slit in the middle to allow for all activities, even including childbirth. They are presented to a young adult as part of a rite of passage, when he is about to go on a mission, or she is to be married. Gradually, they have been modified or abbreviated; these days, only sacred, vaguely Masonic, symbols mark them as different from T-shirt and boxer shorts.

To the Mormons we owe the most startling example of what can only be called religious kitsch. In 1992, Frank McEntire put on an exhibition in Salt Lake City called "Reassemblages". He invited visitors to put their sacred objects in burial mounds: these were later re-buried in places identified as "needing special problem-solving attention". In pride of place was McEntire's own creation; a plastic model of the Mormon temple, retrieved from a wedding cake and tastefully covered by the artist in his own hair.

Yet the commoner, everyday images are the most fascinating. The relatively new phenomenon of the Jesus People has spawned "Christian bookshops" that sell everything from key-rings to tape-measures, all decorated in Biblical texts. These places, incidentally, tend to exclude Catholics as idolatrous non-Christians. There, you can buy Teen (sic) Commandment rulers, scriptural cookies and tea bags. The author, looking at baseball caps bearing the message "Jesus Christ - He's the Real Thing" in the Coca-Cola script; at paper napkins stamped with blue ducks saying "Praise the Lord"; at combs embossed with "Can't bear to be without Jesus", talked about the old dandruff and lipstick that would deface these sacred objects in use, but nobody was fussed. A nation so fundamentalist that it can't bear to have its flag used as a door mat is quite happy, even with the thought that Rupert Murdoch owns a company that sells both Bibles and The New Joy of Gay Sex.

In the end, it's a subjective business. The offensive depends on the offended. McDannell is infinitely careful to avoid being judgemental, but her style can become weighty and turgid. She says that it is "incorrect to judge one group's notion of taste by the standards of another group". Very fair, but what about this: "Proponents of the aesthetic and ethical responses to kitsch employ a binary logic that structures visual representations into oppositional poles"? I'm not sure what that means, but I finished this book sure of one thing: if I came up behind a bumper announcing "I love you is that OK? Jesus C", I'd certainly be tempted to smash into it.