In Defense of Christian Bookstores, Christian Publishers, and Southern Baptists

It seems there are three, quick, easy, cheap ways to score points if you’re a hip, up-and-coming evangelical. Say something negative about Christian bookstores, Christian publishers, and/or Southern Baptists. If you hit on a criticism of all three, you’ll really get a lot of back pats and your blog will probably have a lot of new unique visitors. You might even get a book deal. You’ll definitely want to buy those cool, new “Rob Bell” glasses.

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I’m going to defend this seeming unholy trifecta, the supposed enemies of Christian awesomeness. A few weeks ago there was a big controversy about Lifeway Christian stores. In response to a pastor from Florida, Lifeway pulled the movieBlindside from their stores because of some objectionable content. (for the record, I highly recommend the movie. It’s great). It’s apparently an evergreen story, because I keep reading fresh blog posts on the subject. Nothing drives web traffic like Christian controversies, apparently.

This was a silly move by Lifeway, but what I found even more offensive than this decision was the way “progressive” evangelicals used this opportunity to tee off on Lifeway, Christian bookstores, Christian publishers, and Southern Baptists in general. Rachel Held Evans wrote a widely distributed blog post that was pretty much a broad-brushed rant. She has some history in this struggle with her fight to have her book include a rather graphic body part. Her publisher, Thomas Nelson, agreed to keep it in, but not before Rachel got a lot of mileage and blog posts and Tweets in, all with disparaging digs against anyone who would dare edit her work in any way. And she is not the only one who expresses these feelings. I hear and read this complaint all the time, from both evangelical left and right.

To be sure, Christian bookstores, publishers, and denominations like the SBC deserve a fair share of the criticism they receive. But let’s remember they are brothers and sisters in the Lord. There are very good, wonderful, Christ-honoring men and women who work in these organizations. We should treat them with love and respect. It’s amazing how the people who scream for tolerance the loudest have the least amount of it for those with whom they disagree.

But let’s also consider this idea of Christian publishers and bookstores wanting to sanitize their content to make it safe for Christians. Perhaps they sometimes go too far, and we try to create a safe, sterile Christianity that doesn’t reflect the violence and messiness of the gospel story. At the same time, we are called by Christ out of this world to be different (1 Peter 2:9). So Christian books should not be as vulgar, violent, or explicit as nonChristian books. They should be different and publishers and bookstores are right to filter some of this content. Not simply because the people who patronize their businesses want this (though this isn’t wrong), but because they have a deep conviction that God’s people are to be holy. Baptists in business suits didn’t write 1 Peter 1:16. The Holy Spirit did, using the pen and personality of a fisherman who had seen his share of gospel messiness.

Secondly, there is a misconception about “edgy” Christian literature. If edgy means cutting edge storytelling, penetrating, haunting tales of suffering, I’m all for it. If it means presenting life as it really is rather than how we’d want it to be, yes let’s be edgy. But for many young, progressive, postmodern evangelicals, “edgy” simply means “I want to use indiscriminate cuss words and I don’t want anyone to stop me.” If edgy means fighting to the death to include words that intentionally offend your Christian brothers and sisters, words that have no bearing on your overall book, then you’re not being artistic or edgy, you’re just being purposefully offensive. And that, my friends, is wrong (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Count me as one young, millennial Christian leader grateful for some level of Christian editing, some kind of filter that lets me know that when I pick up a Christian book it’s going to have wholesome, Christian content that will edify rather than unnecessarily stir up passions best left quiet.

Lastly, it must be said that there is a sense of entitlement among some authors, artists, creatives who constantly push the boundaries in Christian publishing. As if that bookstore and that publisher owe them a contract and they should have no say over what is put in their books. I’ve met these types. They look at the publishing executives in CBA as ignorant rubes who don’t understand their exalted art.

Let’s take a step back here and realize that no publisher owes me or anyone else the time, investment, and business risk of publishing my book. And no struggling small business (because that’s what Christian bookstore owners are) owe me shelf space. If what I write offends their constituency, the publisher doesn’t have to publish it and the bookstore doesn’t have to stock it. For me to demand this, because I want to make some kind of outlandish point, is ridiculous.

The bottom line is this. Yes, sometimes bookstores, Baptists, and publishers are unnecessarily censorious. Sometimes they may make decisions that frustrate, even offend. But to paint all of these good brothers and sisters with such a broad brush and demand they do what I say, well, that’s just not the way of Christ. It’s a privilege to speak for God, not a right.

We’d do well to adopt a bit of humility.

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5 Comments

  1. Nancy Wallace says:

    Thank you for sharing your wise and loving perspective. I am one of those who needs the reminder that I am still to love and honor those Christians with whom I don't agree. The enemy gains much ground when there is so much infighting among those who follow Christ.

  2. Eyvonne says:

    Dan, I agree with what you say here. All of it actually. I wrote a blog post about this issue and received some of the traffic you're describing (it was a huge surprise to me actually — call me naive). I was critical of Lifeway's decision, but my criticism stemmed from the mentality that I've witnessed in the SBC (and evangelicalism) that wants to sanitize everything to the point where the good message is muted along with the bad. For me, the Lifeway issue was just a springboard to discuss thoughts I'd had for a long time. I tried to address this in the comments.

    You're paragraph about the misconception of "edgy" is right on.

    This issue has been instructive for me as I continue to write and share thoughts on the church, faith, life, and Christendom at large. I deeply appreciate your perspective.

  3. Dan, it's people like you that restore my faith in the future of the church. I keep hearing talk of being "edgy" and "extreme," when Paul told the Philippians, "let your moderation be known to all men." OK, that's KJV, and modern translations say "gentleness," not "moderation." But the current view of "edgy" is certainly not reflecting a gentle spirit.

    When a group of bookstores chooses not to carry a particular book or movie that is readily available elsewhere, it is silly to call it censorship, however. Lifeway neither published nor exclusively distributes that movie, so their decision not to carry Blind Side is not a significant difficulty for anyone who wants to buy it.

  4. Kate says:

    From someone who works for a Christian publisher, thanks for the understanding :). We a lot of times feel like our hands are tied on publishing "edgy" content (your definition, and to a degree the "progressive evangelical" definition) because the truth is that to do so would risk alienating the majority of our audience. We may personally prefer certain books (I'm grateful to work with quite the literary, discerning bunch), but that doesn't mean most of our readers will. We cheer when we can get a thought-provoking, edgier book published, but we know at the same time it won't sell nearly as well as, say, Amish fiction. Bookstores are in the same boat, as you point out. They can't cater to what is ultimately a small number of customers (since most of the people complaining don't shop at Christian bookstores anyway). I've always thought, in this debate, that people knocking Christian bookstores and publishers should consider that the source is actually traditional evangelical perspectives, and if they want to change the content published and sold, they need to first work on changing the way many Christians react to content that may be outside their comfort zones.

  5. Hillari Delgado says:

    Thank you, Daniel, for your thoughtful post. I write Christian romance–Christian because I'd write romance anyways but I cannot be true to my Lord and include the 'gynecology' required of general market romance. I'll add to another poster (@Dave Fessenden) by saying that if Christians lose their 'saltiness,' if we don't offer anything different to the world, then what good are we? I may not agree with the extreme, Bowdlerizing end of the spectrum, but I have to respect my brothers and sisters who are representing our Lord the best way they know.