Two pairs of googly eyes stared at me day after day as I practiced the piano as an elementary student. These eyes were mounted to a small, plush lamb and a slightly larger golden lion. Both sat on a lacquered piece of wood that bore a white-lettered sticker saying “Peace.” Even as a nine-year piano student, I was being reminded that I was part of a specific church, back then the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Objects all around my house told me about this identity—from a full-color framed print of Lehi holding the Liahona with a curious Sariah looking on, to a black-and-white print of Jesus painted by RLDS member Nida Vincent King, based on an RLDS member’s vision of Christ. Even though we rarely attended church by the time I was nine, my home was a deeply traditional RLDS home.
Religious material objects are bearers of memory, identity, and evidence our participation in modern consumer-driven economies. Before we get too dour on how Christians have simply “sold out to culture” with loads of “Jesus junk,” it might be good to reflect on why we fill our homes with religious material objects. Colleen McDannell in her influential study, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, asserts that across centuries, “Christians use religious goods to tell themselves and the world around them that they are Christians.” Similarly, “religious objects also signal who is in the group and who is not. . . . Religious goods not only bind people to the sacred, they bind people to each other” (page 45). Of course, there is much more to the use and display of material objects than just this. Still, McDannell’s observations ring true to my observations of my own home.
So, in your own home, what items do you have that are “religious”? Why do you keep them? What memories are associated with those objects? Do you wear clothing branded with religious messages? What about spaces that you control outside the home? What objects are in your car or office that are “religious”? What religious items did you once display that you no longer do?
By the way, the googly-eyed lion and the lamb no longer sits on my parents piano (a victim of a garage sale), but Lehi, Sariah, and Jesus are still prominently displayed.