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Biblical Action Figures: Acting Out the Faith or Creating New Stories?

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What’s the coolest action figure since G.I. Joe? The Jesus Action Figure, according to online retailer Archie McPhee.

The Jesus Action Figure, according to online retailer Archie McPhee (www.mcphee.com).

“Each hard plastic Jesus Action Figure stands 5″ tall with poseable arms to reach toward the heavens and wheels in his base for smooth gliding action,” reads the description on the site. “Comes in our illustrated package with biblical quotes on the back.”

At $6.95 each, the Jesus Action Figure ranks among McPhee’s top 12 best-selling products. It also tops the 25 best-sellers at Accoutrements—Outfitters of Popular Culture (www.accoutrements.com). Accoutrements is the wholesale, parent company of Archie McPhee, and the company that actually manufactured the Jesus Action Figure.

On the market for about one year, the figure sprang less from a theological motive and more from a desire for something novel. But not all biblical action figures are novelty items. Some are intended for actual use by children.

For example, Cook Communications Ministries (www.cookministries.com) has produced a line of action figures including Jesus, Moses, David, Goliath and Samson.

“In today’s world of ‘manmade super heroes,’ children need to be reminded of Bible individuals who were genuine heroes,” reads the promotion on the site. CCM’s Jesus figure even comes with loaves and fishes.

Train Up a Child offers “Biblical Action Figures—Poseable Figures with Background Play Scenery.”

“Our purpose in creating Biblical Action Figures is to help children identify with the Bible characters represented, and to inspire children to learn the teachings of the Bible,” the site reads.

Adam, Eve, David, Goliath, Moses, Solomon, Job, Mary, Jesus, and an angel are all available.

Positioning Figures
These figures, however, can pose more than their arms and legs. They pose a problem for some who examine religious culture.

And Ship-of-Fools (www.ship-of-fools.com)is likely unsurpassed in reflecting on all things religious.

In its “Gadgets for God” section, the SOF staff takes on biblical action figures:

“Imagine it. Moses parts the Red Sea. Adam and Eve pay a visit to Goatskins-R-Us. David tackles Goliath. Job gets the kind of zits that keep teenagers awake at night. The great and heroic moments of the Bible… all taking place on your child’s bedroom carpet!”

SOF concludes that “the real fun begins when you let them into the doll’s house, and when David first sets eyes on Barbie…”

SOF’s point, of course, is that kids’ imaginations can, and do, run wild. And those imaginations might not shut down just because the figures represent characters from Holy Scriptures.

In the irreverent online publication Bully Magazine (www.bullymag.com), Ken Wohlrob wrote: “What’s really interesting is that most of these manufacturers overlook one basic fact—that action figures are to be used with an imagination.”

It’s common knowledge that tactile experience is good for intellectual as well as motor skill development. That’s why toys are tools for learning. Also, scholars have demonstrated that people tend to be creative when they start monkeying around with things.

Folklorist Simon Bronner, in Grasping Things: Folk Material Culture and Mass Society in America, wrote that touch is important because its “association with the hand implies the grip of possession.” That is, people become invested in ideas when they can experience them through other senses, especially touch.

“Kids learn in three ways: auditorially, visually, and kinesthetically,” said Randy Scott, vice president of business development for CCM, in an e-mail. “In other words, kids learn by either hearing, seeing, or by touching. We feel we need to provide teaching tools for all three types of learners.”

So when CCM promotes its Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus action figure collection, it states that not only will the figures help children “mingle play time with faith time,” but the collection will bring the nativity “to life.” The product information also indicates that the figures will create “hours of fun for acting out the Christmas story.”

Andre Kalich, president of Train Up a Child, said in an e-mail: “Our hope is, when children have contact with our action figures it will cause them to have questions about the Bible characters and the adult will have an opportunity to teach (train).”

Kalich also indicated that the company had received positive feedback about the figures, especially from people working in early childhood and religious education.

Playing with Others
How warranted is the criticism of biblical action figures? Yes, they’re tactile. Yes, they probably ignite children’s imaginations. But is this anything new?

First, the firing of imaginations is hardly unique to action figures. Adults read to children—and to themselves, for that matter—because reading itself frees the mind.

Second, these figures do “manifest” Scripture and put mental images in more concrete forms. But criticism along these lines would have to reconsider all illustrations inspired by Scripture. And that includes everything from da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to a child’s illustrated version of the Bible.

Third, various forms of “Bible figures” have been around for centuries. Nativity sets are comprised of biblical figures, though they probably don’t have moveable arms and legs. But many a child has rearranged those figures, hidden them and used them with other figurines.

Flannel board figures, while not three-dimensional, have offered children a means of acting out stories with Bible characters for decades.

The blurring of boundaries isn’t lost on Kalich: “We feel our action figures serve the same purpose as other Christian products for children, such as coloring books, board games, plush toys and others,” he said.

Cleaning Up
The figures may be for children, but there’s no escaping theology. Train Up a Child, for example, offers a light-skinned and a dark-skinned line of figures. CCM’s initial lines had olive-colored skin.

Though writing in jest as always, SOF makes an interesting point about the Jesus Action Figure. SOF reports it can’t recommend the figure because it is “theologically biased.”

“If this had been a Catholic toy, it would have come complete with a ring-pull to make Jesus do the sign of the cross and play ‘Ave Maria’. If it had been a Baptist product, it would have been guaranteed waterproof,” reads the site. “Instead, it is clearly intended for the charismatic market, because his poseable arms and gliding action give him a ‘signs and wonders’ fashion.”

These biblical action figures are important precisely because they are toys: adults manufacture them and children play with them. And they do interpret Christian tradition.

If there is an ethic behind biblical action figures, it may have less to do with which figures are put into plastic and more to do with how Jesus—in the hands of children—behaves.

What does happen when he meets Barbie, G.I. Joe or Yoda?

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.