Christian businesses have faith in `Passion'

Tie-ins: Firms rally behind Mel Gibson's account of Jesus' death as a way to spread their message and boost their profits.

February 20, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

More than 30 years ago, a one-time surf bum walked into a Christian bookstore, got saved and started making rings that heralded his newfound spirituality - first as a hobby, then for profit, though that was not the point.

Business just got better for Bob Siemon, especially in the 1990s, when he seized upon a phrase coined in a 100-year-old book and began marketing "What Would Jesus Do?" jewelry. Sales soared, though that was not the point.

Then last month, Siemon cut a deal with actor-director Mel Gibson. In exchange for paying royalties to Gibson's movie company, Siemon has become the official marketer of The Passion of the Christ jewelry - bracelets, lapel pins and other trinkets that, while promoting the movie and building Siemon's business, will also spread the message of Christianity.

And that, Siemon says, is the point.

Bob Siemon Designs is one of three companies that, under licensing agreements with Icon Films, are manufacturing and distributing official The Passion of the Christ products - jewelry, coffee mugs, books and inspirational art available primarily through the Internet and Christian bookstores.

Not unlike movie toys packaged in a fast food "Happy Meal" (though nothing that crass is planned), the religious knick-knacks are aimed at both promoting the film and capitalizing on its success. It's a self-perpetuating cycle that Christian retailers have long been familiar with: Their products sell Christianity, Christianity sells their products.

The same can be said, and has been, about Gibson's movie, which opens Wednesday. While debate rages over whether The Passion's vivid depiction of Christ's suffering and crucifixion may evoke anti-Semitic feelings, evangelicals are both promoting and plan to use the film as a tool to bring converts into the fold.

"It's going to have a huge impact," Siemon said by phone from his studio in Santa Ana, Calif. "I actually think that this movie is going to start a revival of Christianity in America, if not the world."

Large industry

The link between commercialism and Christianity is nothing new. In the Middle Ages, merchants cashed in on pilgrimages, selling candles, lodging and meals to Christians passing through. Today, it is a $4 billion-a-year industry in the United States; through the Internet, customers can buy everything from an "authentic" crown of thorns to Jesus and Mary bobblehead dolls.

"In the U.S., people have been selling Jesus and Mary stuff since Colonial times," said Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of religion at Boston University. "There has always been a group of purists that sneers at it. ... There have always been people who think religion should be above the market."

Amid all the other debate around The Passion of the Christ, concerns that Gibson may be making millions off Christ have not emerged as an issue. Rightfully so, in Prothero's view.

"Every other movie sells stuff related to it, why shouldn't he?" Prothero said.

Whether it's to give the movie a push or get one from it, Christian-oriented companies are taking steps to associate themselves with the film, officially and unofficially.

Christian bookstores are stocking up - not just on official movie products, but on Bibles and other merchandise in anticipation of new customers.

"We're beefing up our Bible section," said Vicki Lego, a manager at Greenleaf Christian Books on Joppa Road in Baltimore. "I think it's a great opportunity to reach people who maybe haven't been reached before ... people who leave the film knowing they maybe need a new Bible, or a first Bible."

Only two other companies have been licensed to make and distribute Passion-related products - Tyndale House Publishers of Illinois, which is printing photo books, and CarpenTree, an Oklahoma-based manufacturer of inspirational art.

But tie-ins and promotions to the movie don't end there.

A wide range

ScriptureMail, a company based in Richmond, Va., that provides e-mail service, announced this week it will offer free e-mail accounts for one year to anyone who agrees to have Isaiah53verse5.com - the verse the movie opens with - be part of their e-mail address. E-mails sent under the account contain a link that allows the recipient to read the entire verse.

It's a limited-time offer, starting next week on Ash Wednesday and lasting until Easter Sunday.

Sara Hunt, public relations specialist for ScriptureMail, said the makers of the movie "know we're doing it, and they are delighted."

Also hitching his wagon to the movie is NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte - or, more accurately, his car's primary sponsor, Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller. Miller, a born-again Christian, says being able to promote Jesus and the movie at the same time is a "double hit."

In last weekend's Daytona 500, the hood of Labonte's car, in addition to ads for batteries and anti-depressants, featured the movie's paint scheme and logo - but not a depiction of Christ, who is portrayed in the movie by actor James Caviezel.

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