With faces painted blue and green and orange, a group of children dressed as books began dancing about the lobby of the Convention Center in Anaheim, lip-synching the words to a jaunty "Bless the Lord" tape.
Five youngsters disguised as "church mice" joined in the festivities.
Watching over them, executives of the Christian Booksellers Assn. smiled at the performance Monday morning, then solemnly joined with Mickey and Minnie Mouse to cut the ribbon opening the CBA's 38th annual international convention here.
In fact, the vast gathering had started Sunday with devotionals, a public "expo" of the nearly 400 CBA exhibitors and an inspirational lecture by Nixon presidential aide turned top-selling Christian author, Charles W. Colson.
New Colson Book
"Just because a person is a Christian does not mean he is going to make the best President," Colson, promoting his new book from Zondervan called "Kingdoms in Conflict," said. "That's why we make a mistake when we say 'Oh, just elect a Christian and it will solve all our problems.' Bismarck was a Christian."
Touching also on the Iran- contra congressional testimony of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North--"I envy his chutzpah, " Colson said. "I wish I had had the nerve to do that during Watergate"--Colson focused on matters of contemporary politics in a way that supported CBA president and chief executive officer William R. Anderson's contention that Christian publishing is expanding and crossing over into a growing secular audience in large part because it is responding "head-on" to "social issues that in the past we often tended to skirt."
Christian booksellers' 37 million retail customers, accounting for $1.4 billion in annual retail sales at 5,500 religious bookstore across the country, are "beginning to look for anchors, structures, things to hold their lives together," Anderson said. "For example, how to put your marriage back together, how to deal with drugs, loneliness, alcoholism, cancer, success.
"People are interested in what kind of answers the Bible has to these problems," Anderson said.
Yet out on the 275,000-square-foot exhibit area ("the size of six football fields," a CBA release noted), among the 1,200 booths displaying titles on child sexual abuse, meditations for athletes or new mothers, intimate marital advice, AIDS, rock-and-roll music and the plight of the Christian single person was what Anderson called "a plethora of products, not just books and Bibles."
So extensive was the array of Christian-oriented merchandise that one CBA regular, a representative for numerous Christian publishing houses, was heard to sigh that "one of these years, Jesus is going to walk in here with a whip," incensed, presumably, at the commercialization of His name.
Close to the entrance of the convention hall were "I Love Jesus" frisbees and "I Am Blessed" jogging suits. One large wholesaler was touting a line of scratch-'n'-sniff Bible bookmarks, along with lion-and-lamb bath sponges encased in clear plastic bubbles. There was Galatians 5:22 wrapping paper (" . . . The Fruit of the Spirit Is Love"), Christian doormats and heart-shaped, "Let's Celebrate the Lord" Mylar balloons. Not far from an assortment of inspirational refrigerator magnets, a carton of potted coleus plants professed love for the Lord. Nearby, there were dura-nylon Bible cases, Scriptures soap that invited its users to "wash with the Word," 12 Disciples wristwatches and erasers shaped like major Bible characters.
"B-I-B-L-E, yes, that's the book for me," chirped a $32 Bible Bear (no relation, it was stressed, to the ever-popular Care Bear Bible). A "Joy" doll sang "Jesus loves me, this I know," and Esperanza, her Spanish-speaking cousin, chanted the tune in her own native tongue.
"The learning process starts with backpacks," Chuck Such, an exhibitor of Savior-emblazoned school bags and other childrens' products from Praise Toys of Sarasota, Fla., said.
But not everyone at CBA embraced the five-day merchandising extravaganza with unbridled enthusiasm.
"Jesus junk," said Nancy Guthrie of Waco, Tex.-based Word Inc., one of the major Christian publishers. "Isn't it disgusting?"
While noting that 46% of CBA members' sales are in books and 23% in music, CBA president Anderson did concede that the "holy hardware," as the profusion of products is also known, does lure customers into Christian bookstores.
"We are finding the more reasons we can give people to go to a Christian bookstore, the more they will go there," Anderson said.
Out on the convention floor, Doug Spence of Marcus Wholesalers in the Northern California Gold Rush-era town of Murphys insisted the fare was in no way sacrilegious, or excessively commercial.
"I'm not so sure He would be offended," Spence said, standing near his display of Jesus Frisbees. "Anything that brings attention to Jesus Christ is all right, as long as it is not derogatory."