Shoppers find paradise in the store for Jesus

BALTIMORE DAYS

If you're planning a long car trip with the family and you're worried about how you're going to keep the kids amused, why not try Bible Bingo? The game works on the same principle as "I spy" but has the added incentive of allowing you to accumulate points on the road to heaven.

Available at Trustworthy's, a Christian megastore in Baltimore, for $8.95 (about pounds 6), your Bible Bingo set consists of 20 pieces of paper each marked with 40 squares. The squares have little colour pictures of oak trees, sparrows, lilies, eagles and other flora and fauna found in the New and Old Testaments. The idea is to look out of the car window and match what you see to the pictures on the squares. When you spot, say, a sparrow, you put a tick - or a cross if you prefer - over the relevant square. A note under the picture will suggest that if you wish to acquire further information about the theology of the sparrow you should take a look at the Book of Genesis. The first member of the family to fill every square wins the game.

Trustworthy's is one of hundreds of retail outlets in America that cater to the burgeoning Christian memorabilia market. According to a report in the Washington Post this week, the industry's sales rose from $1bn in 1990 to $3bn in 1994. Jesus Christ, whose name is invoked by right wing politicians to increasingly beneficial effect these days, is already outstripping Michael Jackson, the Ninja Turtles and other false idols in brand name popularity.

John and Peter Trustworthy have been in the religious books business for 31 years but it is only recently, after consulting with a marketing expert who specialises in the Christian business, that they have moved to a shopping mall in the suburbs of Baltimore and expanded their merchandise to include, as a sign outside says, "Music, Gifts and More".

The first surprise is how big the store is - about the size of the Centre Court at Wimbledon. The second surprise is the powerful aroma that fills the air. The cashier pointed by way of explanation to a shelf containing rows of little pouches containing Scripture Fresh Scents air fresheners - available in vanilla, banana and strawberry at $2.95 a packet.

You waft through the shop to the accompaniment of hymn tunes beneath overhead television screens projecting the latest in the Christian video market. The video rental section includes an educational documentary called The Evolution Conspiracy. The blurb at the back of the box says: "The minds of young people who believe in a Creator God are having their faith broken by the aggressive promoters of evolution." What the documentary does is provide irrefutable "scientific proof" that Darwin was nuts.

For those whose needs are less contemplative, Trustworthy's provides "Jesus loves me" baseball capsin a variety of colours and sizes; key- rings bearing the message "Real men love Jesus"; car-stickers that read "HEAVEN: don't miss it for the world"; coffee mugs reminding you to love your neighbour; and a wide assortment of T-shirts, one with an embroidered exhortation from the Psalms, "Oh Magnify the Lord!", that glows in the dark and sells for $13.95.

Should that not prove enough to impress both your friends and the Lord at the next Men for Jesus stadium bash, you might ask your wife - for more than 80 per cent of customers at religious shops are female - to buy you a snazzy Bible carrier case, available at Trustworthy's, with or without shoulder-strap, in vinyl, dura-nylon or leather.

If what you are looking for is a gift for the Christian child, Bible Bingo is only the beginning. There are Bible Dominoes and the Bible Treasure Hunt board game; the "Women and Faith Collection" offers a choice between Mary, Esther and Ruth `Barbies' kitted out in authentic dress; for the boys there are plastic Action Man John the Baptists; and, for the toddlers, the Noah's Ark rattle and the Jonah and the Big Fish playset offer mom and dad satisfying opportunities to engage in some post-baptismal indoctrination in the bath.

The weary shopper can easily spend a whole morning at Trustworthy's; so it is a blessing to discover a cappuccino corner at the back of the store where you can put your feet up, tuck into a slice of chocolate fudge cake and meditate on the thought, while examining the range of Communion wafers displayed on a nearby shelf, that Man does not live by bread alone.

JOHN CARLIN

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