When most of us think of religious toys and games, we probably go straight to the satirical…the Looking Good for Jesus makeup kit, the Buddy Christ, or even the controversial Left Behind video game.  The authors of Toying With God:  The World of Religious Games and Dolls, Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris, address these games but also take readers on a journey into a world rich with both satirical and serious religious components, uncovering implications for religious expression/experience and cultural values along the way.

After finishing Toying With God, I felt that the authors faced a decision in how to structure the book.  Should they begin with a discussion of examples of religious games and toys and then follow it with theoretical underpinning or vice versa?  I think either way would have worked.  They chose the former as the first two chapters feature a host of detailed descriptions and critiques of religious games and dolls.  In between those two chapters and two more theory-focused ones, they devote a chapter to commerce and its often problematic relationship with religion.  Their theory-driven chapters focus on differing notions of fun and the notion of ritualized playfulness.  Their conclusion does a masterful job of drawing together main points from each chapter into a succinct defense of the necessity of continued study of religious games and toys.

The strength, one of many, of their text is the contributions it makes to the study of religion by turning the focus away from texts or established rituals to the lived experiences of so many religious folk.  Bado-Fralick and Norris write, “No religion exists in a book.  Religion exists in the lives and practices of embodied, sensing, feeling, thinking beings.  Because we are sensing, feeling, and thinking beings we need to experience and express our religions or spiritualities through our bodies, and one way we experience religion is through objects” (96).  They point out that objects of play have been a part of human experience for millenia and, in fact, weren’t even primarily for children as adults used them for religious or cultic practices.  They do  a good job of drawing parallels between those early games and our own.  These games are used for a variety of purposes including “divination, determination of skill, entertainment, farce, […and] education” (24).  No matter their purpose, they are all problematic on one level because of the notion of competition and the necessity of a “winner.”  How do we hold this in tension with Jesus’ assertions of and teaching about humility?  Even within this tension, and perhaps because of it, we can discern ways in which these games and toys both transmit and reflect cultural values.

Bado-Fralick and Norris’ discussion of religious dolls begins with the assertion, again, that these didn’t exist primarily for children in their earliest expressions.  Today, they claim, it is more fruitful to examine the use of dolls in non-Abrahamic traditions because they often do not include prohibitions against the creation of graven images (a prohibition that Christianity hasn’t followed too closely).  Their discussions of Fulla (seen above), the Muslim equivalent to Barbie, are fascinating.  They write, “Fulla, created as a role model for Muslim girls, has the same accessorized lifestyle as Barbie, in spite of being designed to contrast with her consumeristic approach to life […].  The differences between these dolls are only skin deep” (173).

The authors remind readers that the relationship between religion and commerce has always been present, and even thrived, in religious practice (70).  The two often make for complicated bedfellows:  it seems that  one of them is always kicking the other.  Unfortunately, consumerism seems to have kicked Christianity right out of the bed.  Bado-Fralick and Norris ask, “How did Christianity get from an ideal of poverty and discipline to the Christian theme park Heritage USA and the mega-churches of the twenty-first century” (72).  While the authors recognize that a certain level of consumerism must accompany religious experience in contemporary culture, they bemoan the ways in which the scales have tipped in favor of the former:  “[…It] is not the relationship between religion and money that is the problem, but rather the relationship between religion and a consumerism perceived as wildly out of control–buying and having as a way of life–that unsettles many of us” (99-100).  Lest we think that this is simply a secular spending problem, they point to research that reports that during 2004 the retail market for religious-themed products was about $7 billion (103).

Bado-Fralick and Norris outline the competing notions and definitions of fun, alerting us to the reality that some of these religious games might be anything but fun, despite their creators and marketers’ best intentions.  They offer interesting comments on the relationship between fun and religious institutions as well.  They write, “In short, fun is dangerous.  This is another reason that fun and religion–like play and religion–occasionally come into conflict, since a central concern of religious institutions is control.  […] Control of fun in today’s society ensures social and economic control” (113).  On the other hand, some religions have ritualized fun, but the authors assert that it is easier to find this by looking outside the Abrahamic faiths and Western expressions of them.  In the end, they argue that playfulness is ‘therefore not without its risks, to both self and community.  It may challenge boundaries and undermine traditional religious structures of authority and practice in favor of the creation of new ones” (155).

This is a fascinating book.  The authors clearly have a handle on the subject matter and the religious and cultural implications of these games.  Parents of young children that engage any of these games would do well to read this book and consider some of the questions and issues that the authors raise.  Childrens ministers who might actively engage in these games or supply them for their faith communities would do well to pick this up too.