It’s Easier for Critics to Curse the Darkness than to Light a Candle
There have been times in the past when my regular blog, Thinking Out Loud, can get into a run of critical articles, and even my Twitter feed occasionally upsets someone because it appears to be skewing negative. (That’s why I created Christianity 201; for my own spiritual sanity.) So in the “It takes one to know one” category, I can spot this type of rhetoric a mile away.
For example, Jim Fletcher’s article in WND (World Net Daily) is interesting because they have a conflict of interest here, as they also publish books which occasionally appear in many of our stores, including a Four Blood Moons title of their own last year.
Checking out Christian retailing online the other day was a real downer. Among the top-selling books/authors making their rounds through evangelical circles: “Jesus Calling,” “The Power of I Am” (Joel Osteen), Thom Rainer, Rick Warren, Jen Hatmaker, Steven Furtick and “Half Truths” (Adam Hamilton)…
…Anyone who has paid attention to the research of Warren Smith regarding Sarah Young’s “Jesus Calling” mess should be dismayed. That this non-biblical book has become the publishing sensation it has indicates biblical illiteracy is at epidemic levels within the American Church.
Rainer, who runs the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Publishing Division, a cash-cow for the denomination, doesn’t like to answer uncomfortable questions about LifeWay’s business practices. He finally blocked me on Twitter for asking questions about Alex Malarkey. He is a major change-agent within evangelicalism.
Osteen … what more needs to be said? “The Power of I Am”? “I Am” is the self-identifying name God used to announce … Himself. Of late, American evangelical “leaders” have begun using the phrase to describe themselves…
What’s next in Christian bookstores, mini golden calves?
He attacks others as well, and while I have also voiced the opinion that LifeWay is “a cash cow” and have been involved in discussions in other media regarding the Jesus Calling merchandise, I felt the piece rather trashes people like you and me who entered the arena of Christian bookselling out of purer motives. So I wrote him this letter:
My wife and I run a small-town Christian bookstore without pay, and have been doing this for more than 20 years now. We basically lose money every time we open the doors; it’s all we can do some months to cover the $1,600 per month we pay in rent. (Real estate bargains to do not abound in our part of the world.)
I think a lot of what you wrote was spot-on. There are a lot of issues that need to be identified, including our industry’s penchant for taking a trend like adult coloring books and milking it to death, to the shallowness of Osteen, to the incredible cash cow that is LifeWay; and while I often try to cut Furtick some slack — “He’s just a kid;” I tell myself — I frequently feel I’m betting on the wrong horse.
Any list of new releases is often met by a great deal of eye-rolling, though there are always a couple of gems worth finding and recommending to customers.
Jesus Calling has been the subject of great angst for us. It’s not my thing, but some of the book’s fans are core customers, a situation I don’t fully understand. We’ve compromised with this one title. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking right now.) There are minimal copies in the store, but most are out-of-sight, behind the counter. I’m very vocal with prospective buyers that the book has some controversy associated with it, to put it mildly, and then we discuss that in detail. (Interesting though that the genre is not new; first-person, God-talking books by Larry Crabb, Sheri Rose Sheppard (6 such titles) and Frances Roberts escape all the criticisms. I guess sales volume makes you a greater target.)
That said, I’m still not content with your article. First, it curses the darkness without lighting any candles. There are some great books being published that have rich text (a term I’ve borrowed from the HTML world of computing) and offer spiritual depth and insight. I would offer my store’s entire Christian apologetics department — about 300 titles — as Exhibit A.
Second, you paint all of us who involved in the buying, merchandising and marketing of Christian books at the local, community, storefront level with the same brush. The decisions, as I stated above re. Sarah Young are never easy. But some thought and prayer does go into deciding what gets in and what gets rejected.
Finally, the comment,
“What’s next in Christian bookstores, mini golden calves?”
simply wasn’t helpful for purposes of this discussion. (A more informed article could have discussed the St. Joseph statue phenomenon, where people bury a statue of the poor man upside-down in the hope of selling their house. Some ‘Christian’ bookstores do actually stock these. I tell customers to lower their asking price or get a different sales agent.)
The article was simply too easy to write, and too sensational. For balance, it needs a Part Two.
Basically, I’m saying don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t blame the individual, local, mom-and-pop store owners for the state of the entire industry; and don’t castigate them if taking on a category like colouring books or eschatological scare-mongering helps keep the doors open and facilitate a whole lot of helpful interactions and transactions.
If it’s true, as the set-up indicated, that this investigative piece only looked at online titles on offer, perhaps that’s the problem; it’s missing the heart and the nuance of what happens when people step into a real store with real people serving them.