The toy David

Observations on religion

Last summer the American toy company one2believe made the news when Wal-Mart agreed to stock its biblical action figures. The figurines include Jesus and Samson and recite passages of scripture at the push of a button.

Five months on, buoyed by the success of the figures, the company has come up with a new range - Bible Princesses - and is in negotiations with a UK distributor to get the toys on our shelves within a year.

David Socha, the Christian founder of the company, started manufacturing the toys after witnessing a decline in "wholesome" playthings. But their aim is mainly evangelistic, to "help teach children Bible stories and learn about the gospel." The action figures are divided into Spirit Warriors, traditional action figures for older child; Messengers of Faith, a slightly smaller version which come with stories and three to four scriptural recordings at the press of a button, and Tales of Glory, for children as young as three years old "to act out the stories".

Bible Princesses come with "a hidden special message based on the Bible" and will be marketed as an alternative to Barbie.

Christian products that were once tucked away in niche stores in the US Bible Belt are now well established in the mainstream retail sector in the US, accounting for $4.6bn (£2.3bn) a year. And there are signs of an upward trend in Britain.

Norman Nibloe, who runs the Tonbridge Christian Book Centre, reports an increase in sales in the latter part of 2007 on top of the traditional Christmas sales rise.

Online retailer Amazon recently identified Christian literature as an area to develop on its UK site; it already offers a huge selection on the US arm. Many of the best-selling books are brightly coloured reads for children. And although Christian bookshops regularly close, there are new, all-encompassing stores popping up around the country, including The Well in Stourbridge, which has incorporated a Thorntons chocolate concession.

Nonetheless, the prospect of a Bible Barbie and action hero Samson has provoked greater unease in Britain. They may be harmless playthings, but to surreptitiously communicate a religious message via play is disingenuous, say the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS).

A "Spiritual Stepping Stones" leaflet accompanies the toys, detailing the desired development of a child. Between birth and age two, the leaflet advises: ". . . a child is very susceptible to spiritual influence and instruction". And at ages three to six "seeds of faith that were sown during infancy will continue to grow with responsive parenting and continued spiritual influences that are all focused on the Lord".

Terry Sanderson, NSS president, is not convinced by the wholesome toy approach: "If Barbie is the representation of evil, perhaps they should consider a Jezebel figure with a pack of dogs to eat her?"

But the main difference between the US and British markets for such toys may be in their effectiveness. As Sanderson says of the Bible character dolls: "They would be harmless in Britain; kids here have no idea what they stand for."

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.