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(RNS) On the first day of her introductory religion class at Merrimack College just north of Boston, professor Rebecca Sachs Norris put her students to work at having some fun.
She assigned teams of three or four students to play some of the many religious board games that fill her office shelves. Weeks later, they had to present their classmates with what they gleaned from each game.
As one team discussed BuddhaWheel, a game that teaches about Buddhism, Norris, chair of Merrimack’s religious and theological studies department, asked, “Can you win this game?
“One of them said, `Well, yes, but it takes a very, very long time!
You just keep getting born over and over and over again.’
“I said, `Exactly, that’s it!’, and they learned it in a way that is very different.”
Norris and Nikki Bado-Fralick, an associate professor and director of religious studies at Iowa State University, examined the educational BuddhaWheel game as one component of the growing market of religious games and toys for their upcoming book, “Toying with God,” which is due out in February from Baylor University Press.
It may be a niche market, but it’s big business nonetheless:
MarketResearch estimated a $6 billion-plus market for religious publishing and products in the U.S., with growth fueled since mainstream mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Target recently began carrying faith-based toys.
To be sure, some religious playthings are tongue-in-cheek and even potentially offensive — games like “Fleece the Flock” or the myriad toys like the “Nunchuck Nun Catapult” that poke fun at nuns. Yet others, like the board games Episcopopoly, BuddhaWheel and Kosherland can be educational and even help to reinforce religious identity.
Then there are those that are downright perplexing, like the Job action figure that comes complete with boils and sores; the Plagues Bag (billed as “the Passover/Seder Enrichment Toy”); or the Missionary Conquest board game, earnestly billed as “One giant game of laughter and strategy.”
Both avid collectors of religious toys and games, Bado-Fralick and Norris said there are many contradictions inherent in the items they studied. Christian games and toys, they observed, are frequently marketed as educational yet many claim “no Bible knowledge required.”
Some talking dolls, like Queen Esther, play fast and loose with Scripture quotes.
Such contradictions intrigued the academics.
“One of the goals as advertised on the boxes and Web sites is to give children good, clean, wholesome fun,” said Bado-Fralick. “The (makers of) talking dolls that seem to place an emphasis on Scripture don’t necessarily care about whether the Scripture’s accurate or not, or whether you can reduce the entire (biblical) story of Esther down to about 60 seconds of text, or whether some of the board games … are really doing a disservice to real religious dialogue.
“You take a game like Missionary Conquest — it’s hardly a game of ecumenical goodwill with a name like that!”
The authors acknowledge, too, that the marketing claims of “fun” by toymakers are entirely subjective. The Hajj Fun Game poses mild questions like, “How many days must a pilgrim spend in performing Hajj (Muslims’ pilgrimage to Mecca)?” The Mahabharata Game, meanwhile, comes with a hefty 38-page instruction booklet that includes an abbreviated version of the Mahabharata, an epic Hindu myth.
“Toying with God” also examines the origins of religious games. The popular board game Chutes and Ladders was adapted from Snakes and Ladders, a game reportedly invented in the early 13th century by a Tibetan lama.
While some people might scoff at religious toys and games, viewing them as frivolous or irreverent or both, the book argues that such playthings are simply examples of “contemporary lived religion” in a postmodern world. It’s not all about angels strumming harps on fluffy clouds, either: One Catholicopoly game card, for example, reads, “Make general repairs on all property. $25 per chapel. $100 per cathedral.”
Such toys and games also reflect the reality that today’s religion is marketed like many other pastimes and consumer products.
Norris and Bado-Fralick said their toy collections often provoke surprise and raised eyebrows from students and colleagues. Occasionally, some are offended.
“One of my jobs is teaching people how to talk about religion,” said Bado-Fralick. “There may be people who don’t really have a sense of humor, who think there should be a very sharp line between religion and other aspects of life … but I think most people are going to be fascinated by what our book says in terms of how it reflects modern life.”
Norris added, “These are not things that we made, we found these. We collect them and invite people to think about them.”
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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