"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.