Crossing Over: Writing to the “Spiritually Interested”

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"Spiritually interested" is the rather obtuse designation Cathy Grossman borrowed for her article in USA Today speaking about the audience of The Shack. The term comes from Wayne Jacobsen, one of the publishers of the book, attempting to define the larger market for Christian books that Christian publishing is not serving. Since one of my stated goals for this website is to bridge that gap, I think it might be instructive to discuss whether Christian publishing should appeal to more than Christians. After all, like faith without works, or a church that doesn't evangelize, the situation seems unnecessarily restrictive at best, at worst unbiblical.

 

So our question from last time was, How does one capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category of books for the spiritually interested? Some primary distinctives are that these books:

 

  • Do not identify with the Christian subculture or the Christian product and media industries.
  • Focus on experiential faith over propositional truth: Not arguments or lessons, but immersion in a direct, story-driven experience.
  • Show supernatural experience not “evidence” (natural or biblical): The transcendence of God intervening in everyday life through “dispatches from the other side.”
  • Are mysterious over convincing, allowing an experience that’s open-ended, unexplained, and even inconclusive.
  • Are timely and timeless, revealing the here-and-now God unbound to traditionalism, and intimately involved in our uncertainty about the present and near-future.
  • Reveal love triumphing over law, in relationship-affirming and life-honoring freedom from formal religious dogma, judgment, or mediation.

Before hurrying on, we should talk more about that first bullet. Those looking for books outside the strict confines of popular Christianity generally don’t seem to spend much time looking in places the gatekeepers control, namely Christian bookstores. And though there are several exceptions, the obvious limiting factor in getting these books read is that they are not “Christian” enough for Evangelical Christian readers, and up until recently, were too spiritual for most NY houses.

 

But now you see, that’s changing. These books for the spiritually interested are not coersive, they don't pound principles, which is a major reason they fit better in the general market than the Christian subculture. They aren’t closed to including what doesn’t currently fit modern Christianity. These books are redemptive, but their redemption comes in the jouney, not the destination. The “take-away” is of becoming engaged in an exploration, not to fix something, convert skeptics, or even evoke a quatifiable change, but to enjoy a satisfying read. The Shack, while not high literature, provides an example of book-as-interpretive-experience that causes readers to explore. That exploration attracts many “recovering Christians,” but the transcendent experience is broader and more profound than simple affirmation. The Shack challenges stereotypes about God to present him as a generous, fun-loving, approachable mother/father, with a single agenda of bringing unconditional, sacrificial love into the world. In religion and in larger society, that's an easy reality to miss. And what I find so exciting about this example is that despite its initial rejection by CBA and ABA publishers, it's revealed a huge desire for discussion about this God who doesn't necessarily begin and end in our established categories.

 

So why did Christian or NY editors believe their houses shouldn't publish it? Several possibilities, but "too risky" and "not up to snuff" seem likely to this editor.

 

The Shack proves there's an audience of spiritually interested folks who are not being served either by the so-called Christian ghetto or the ivory towers.

 

Some take issue with the idea of designating books as Christian at all. One result of The Shack's success is that readers now recognize there's something more to God and maybe even this word "Christian" than they realized. Maybe David Sessions wasn't just being bombastic when he said that the divide between Christian and mainstream designations has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world.

 

Of course, here are the sticky swamplands. If it's not Christian, how do we know it’s wholesome? Can we really let people be their own judges of that? Many rely on labels in today’s hyper-marketed culture, myself included. Where do we redraw the lines of this demographic? And I don't want to waste time arguing about the morality of blurring this line–hoping for a greater reach isn't a failure of faith. I don't question those who still feel called to be Christian writers, and never anything less. But the challenge remains. There's a big underserved audience out there. How are we going to reach them?

 

The good news is, reaching this spiritually interested audience isn't only possible, it's profitable. So next time we'll take a closer look at some comparative books and content characteristics that should reveal a bit more about how we define this emerging category.

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4 thoughts on “Crossing Over: Writing to the “Spiritually Interested””

  1. I find this post encouraging. I’ve had this ideal (I’ve probably shared it here before) that the Church should patron the arts not only in the sanctuary (an important aspect) but in the world. I think this means taking the risk of letting go of what others may get out of my writing. Richard Rodriguez said, “Books should confuse people.” Maybe now we get to help people wrestle with their questions first rather than only giving them answers. I’m not saying we never preach the gospel. I’m saying in fiction, we don’t have to always contain the whole gospel. We can struggle with readers about the idea of evil, suffering, dead dreams, unfulfilled lives, etc–all things present in stories in the Bible. In doing so, we let them know they’re not alone. We sit with them a while.
    Maybe it’s not about getting rid of old categories–plenty of people go to Lifeway, Mardel’s, CBD, the Inspirational Fiction section of Barnes and Noble. But I also love that Waterbrook got Overstreet’s books on the general fiction shelves because they thought that particular book more appropriate there. I love that we have Christian authors being published by general market publishers.
    To be honest, I’ve never been sure how we’ve defined Christian fiction–do we have to adhere to a particular theology?, for example. And why does it seem to me that we’re willing to take more risks in nonfiction than fiction? I think as we redefine our target audience, or broaden it, I should say, in some ways, it’ll be easier to understand who can find a place with CBA publishers–those you adhere to the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, for example.

  2. Now, this post is exciting. Jesus didn’t just hang out where it was safe, but went straight to the hungry people. I see no problem with writing to the spiritually interested. Most adults who haven’t found salvation have a much different outlook on life than those who have grown up in safe evangelical homes. Some people need fiction that is relevant to their experience to begin to navigate Christianity. I think we need to give God a little bit more credit. A book itself cannot save a soul.

  3. Great stuff, Mick. Wish you were here at the Glen! Many of us here are deeply concerned with these very issues and have been discussing and exploring them. I’ve been actively promoting YWG this week.

  4. These things I like:
    “…Are timely and timeless, revealing the here-and-now God unbound to traditionalism, and intimately involved in our uncertainty about the present and near-future.”
    and:
    “…These books are redemptive, but their redemption comes in the jouney, not the destination. The “take-away” is of becoming engaged in an exploration, not to fix something, convert skeptics, or even evoke a quatifiable change, but to enjoy a satisfying read.”
    but also:
    “…And what I find so exciting about this example is that despite its initial rejection by CBA and ABA publishers, it’s revealed a huge desire for discussion about this God who doesn’t necessarily begin and end in our established categories.”
    I think I could write a book in response to each one of these ideas you presented.
    Instead I’ll just respond to this incredibly under-served and desperately needed market by pounding down it’s door with novels that keep feeding that hunger!!

Discuss...