HARRISBURG, Pa. (RNS)– Jesus and Moses were sold out, but you could still head to the checkout counter with Mary, Noah, David and a ferocious-looking Samson, packaged with Delilah in hot pink.
The world of posable action figures has traditionally belonged to hulking heroes such as Spider-Man and He-Man. But this latest crop — heroes and heroines from the Bible, on local Wal-Mart shelves since mid-August — are a testament to central Pennsylvania’s proclivity for religion and Wal-Mart’s marketing savvy.
Wal-Mart chose to test-market biblical action figures in its Carlisle, York, Lebanon, Swatara and Silver Spring township stores, displaying them with the preschool and stuffed animal aisle — not the Bratz and Barbie Beach Glam dolls aisle.
Given the area’s conservative impulses, the dolls should be a natural fit.
“Central Pennsylvania is conservative religious turf,” said Doug Jacobsen, religion professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. “This is Bible Belt.”
So far, the dolls have generated a measure of revulsion at the idea of Jesus and She-Hulk tumbled together in the toy box, and hope that the toys will help children absorb the stories of their faith.
“That’s how children learn, by playing with things. They begin to own the story,” said Coleen Cotton, director of children’s ministry at Carlisle Evangelical Free Church.
Others had more fixed feelings.
“My concern is kids are going to equate them with other action figures,” said Jane Beachy of Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church.
“Superheroes aren’t true. Jesus is true.”
Americans spend billions of dollars each year on Christian products, though the Internet and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart are absorbing more and more of the market growth. That growth has shuttered some local Christian bookstores, and some who sold similar actions figures saw sleepy sales.
Wal-Mart said it studied the concentration of churches around its stores and their previous sales of faith-based products to select 425 stores nationwide — most of them in the South — for test markets.
Together, they represent about 13 percent of all Wal-Marts.
Wal-Mart does not discuss sales of individual products, but David Socha, CEO of manufacturer One2believe in Valencia, Calif., said the early word from a few stores sounded promising.
Target also will test-market the figures on its Web site, www.target.com, starting next month, a One2believe spokesman said.
In some ways, though, Wal-Mart is a totally different world for biblical action figures, said Anne Borden, assistant professor of sociology at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Mass merchandising opens them to “multiple interpretations,” she said. While some people view the dolls as creative tools for religious training, others might see kitsch or gag gifts.
“Once something is put out there, we don’t know what the audience is going to do with it,” Borden said.
Socha, who calls himself an “evangelical Catholic,” says he’s fighting a “battle for the toy box.” Too many toys these days seem to encourage promiscuity and violence, he said.
The One2believe line includes 13-inch Spirit Warrior Samsons and Goliaths ($19.97 apiece with little story books). Socha said violence is found in “true stories from the Bible, and there are tremendous lessons there.”
Most of the toys are 12-inch figures that talk at the push of a button in their backs. (“With God all things are possible,” says Mary, among other things.) They cost $14.97.
There also are smaller Tales of Glory sets (Samson, Delilah and a little pillar like the one Samson dislodges in the Old Testament story) for $6.97.
Focus on the Family, Samaritan’s Purse and other prominent evangelical groups have endorsed the toys.
Jacobsen, from Messiah College, said the biblical toys find their obvious market among evangelicals, who have a long history of adapting pop culture to their purposes.
Years ago, it was marrying drinking tunes with pious new lyrics to create hymns, Jacobsen said. Now it’s action figures from the Bible.
The Rev. Martin Odom at Bethel Village African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harrisburg had not seen the toys, but he liked the idea in general “as long as they’re done in a culturally sensitive way.”
“The Bible is pretty clear that Jesus was a person of color — not an African-American but not Caucasian,” he said. The Wal-Mart Jesus has long, straight dark hair and dark eyes, and there’s a hint of olive in his skin color.
Mary Warner writes for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.