I know what it looks like. I have to accept this alter-ego of a whiny contrarian whose always moaning about the books and the state of Christian publishing. And for all of you who get it and know I’m really not so cranky as all this makes me seem, there are a dozen more who think I’ve got real mental problems for sticking around if I hate it so much. I wish I could tell them how I really feel, the excitement and inspiration I feel in getting to influence the shelves from the inside, the honor and respect I have for my coworkers and the industry in general. CBA does do a lot of good, and I’m appreciative of all the positive things it’s made possible, all the good it’s done in people’s lives. As a capitalist corporation, it’s one of the most benign organizations around and I’d like to dispel the misconception that I’m anti-CBA in any way. I personally know many people who work for CBA and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with Christian retail and marketing Jesus, as it were. These are desperate times and we need more Christ-centered resources, not less.
But from my perspective, an association representing Christian retailers and suppliers could do much better than their current slogan suggests, introduced in 1999 after significant research and market testing: "What goes into a mind, comes out in a life." What no one seems to want to acknowledge is that there’s a sad reality behind that sentiment when faced with the evidence of what isn’t available on Christian bookshelves. Inaccurate, ignorant philosophies of watered-down truth do not make for a healthy mind, or a healthy life. Let’s set aside the quality question for a moment and simply look at the limited offerings available. What can we assume about the "brain food" that’s going into our Christian minds? What sort of nutrition do you think it might be missing? Are we not able to confront the fact that we are accepting a self-imposed ignorance, isolation, and resulting defensiveness from the parameters we’ve put around Christian books and resources? Can anyone deny the obvious dearth of variety in our stores? Whose fault is this? Is it the bookstores’ fault? The publishers? The writers? The store buyers? The readers?
When I was a freshman in high school, a lady came over to our house with her husband to talk to my parents for their monthly church update. She was a family friend, active in the church, but not known as the most tactful woman on matters of Christian love and grace. She walked in to where my brothers and I were watching some G or PG-rated movie–the only kind allowed in our house–took one glance at the screen and said, "Garbage in, garbage out, boys." I don’t even remember what the movie was or what the offensive scene might have been, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of abject condemnation and scorn. That kind of thing is what later caused me to run so far afield from all things Christian as a college student and recent grad.
Later, while working with the youth culture department at Focus on the Family, I ran into the well-worn illustration of the father who serves a plate of chocolate cookies to his kids with a tiny bit of dog poo mixed in. "It’s just a little bit of dog poo," he says, as if somehow this makes a better point than the "one-rotten-apple" illustration when talking to teens about their entertainment choices.
It’s a good thought, and certainly accurate when applied to the more disgusting evils available in modern entertainment. But the problem with their philosophy here is that dog poo is just untransformed chocolate. And not just in Christian stories either. If we take out all the dog poo, we’re taking out all the chocolate. And then what do you have? Well, plain cookies, but really, you’ve got nothing because everything that exists is either dog poo or chocolate on some level. What’s grace without sin? What’s beauty without ugly? What’s redemption without something to be redeemed?
If "what goes into a mind comes out in a life," then it’s more than safe, clean, approved Christian products that will fit the bill here. We also need real honesty, truthful messages, and redemptive grace. A quick scan of the shelves will show we aren’t there yet. One place to start is in God-honoring fiction where dog poo gets transformed into chocolate and where we get past our parochial mindsets and easily-offended sensibilities for the sake of the greater good. I believe God is waiting to work if we’ll let him. There’s so much more to be done and so little time to get this right.