Toying With God by Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris
95 Catholic Jeopardy! or another round of Lenten bingo anyone? Or perhaps Divinity, the only game with the imprimatur of the Church, would be a nice change? Inspired by their collections of Jesus dolls, Bible Character cards, board games and rolls of Testamint (sic) candy, the authors of Toying With God examine the history, challenges, and implications of their use in religious formation today.
In the ancient worlds of Egypt, Greece and Rome religious and public life did not belong to separate spheres; the idea of separating church or temple and the city-state was not part of daily life.
Games and dolls were often entombed with their owners as proof of their faithfulness or for enjoyment in the afterlife.
Buying and selling, learning a faith, and fulfilling religious obligations were not at odds with religions that valued wealth and position in society.
As time passed, the growing acceptance of Christianity and its eventual journey to America by way of Puritans, and other religious people seeking freedom, guaranteed a different outcome.
By the 1800's religious games were being produced and sold in America as they continue to be today.
What has changed is the understanding of religious speech and practice in the public domain.
In a country where church and state matters are divided in a legal as well as a social sense, a deep unease accompanies the marketing and profit making involved in the manufacture and purchase of religious toys.
Perhaps the most important contradiction the Bado-Fralick and Norris highlight is the Christian ideal of poverty and simplicity, including Catholicism's preferential option for the poor, in a nation that includes bingo nights, Christian theme parks and mega-churches.
Both the theme parks and the auditorium sized churches must bring in money to exist.
Good business practices and good faith formation become intertwined as a matter of necessity.
American society's desire for fun is not ignored either.
As the definition of childhood changed over time so too did the theories surrounding education of children in general.
Learning is increasingly expected to be entertaining, if only to compete with texting, computers and iPods.
Catechists and all religious educators have found creative ways to engage the young in internalizing their faith.
Games, action figures from the Bible, and telling stories using a felt board with figures, are utilized.
Vacation Bible School is an entirely prepackaged item with a new theme each summer.
Church mail now regularly consists of catalogs full of toys and worship aids.
The Christian community is not alone.
All major religions are experiencing the same challenges as their faith is commercialized.
Toying With God does not leave out Kosherland games, Fulla dolls (the Muslim answer to Barbie), or plush Buddhas from the discussion.
It is an ecumenical encounter with the fact that playthings have become central to the passing on of faith.
As the authors point out, religious toys have many layers of meaning.
They can be a wonderful way for parents and children to share the Gospel message but they also have limitations.
Some action figures are just as violent as any Saturday morning cartoon.
Bado-Fralick and Norris note that "the power of play moves through the world just as the sacred does, appearing at one moment and gone the next".
Their enthusiasm for their collections as well as their research, will help us use creativity and play to the glory of God.