Earlier this year (2009), I led a discussion of The Shack and it’s impact on Christian publishing at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal. Response to that was overwhelmingly positive from the largely Christian group of writers, but as usual, I didn’t get to much of what I was excited to talk about. Most people were far too busy discussing its theology and the successes and failures therein. And though debate about it seems to have died down to a low rumble now, sales continue to clip along for this “heretical” “life-saving” pseudo-fictional book.
Whether you love it or hate it, if you’re interested in the question above as much as I am, you will at least like this post. Because what I was so eager to get to at the NCWR was this question of who is buying this book. Let’s do some quick analysis.
In early 2008, an article in USA Today defined the audience of The Shack as the rather broad, unwieldy category of “spiritually interested.” But who are they? This audience is curious about spiritual matters, but especially as found outside of organized religion and the religious establishment, however we might define that. Maybe most significant about readers who recommend this book, they tend to be interested in the uncommon approach to the Christian God, and most, how he responds to our pain. They may or may not be Christian, but they’re attracted to the God they meet here (who IS largely the Judeo Christian God of the Bible: http://bit.ly/5srJo), and they are eager for an honest experience of God’s love and transcendence.
We might discuss how much less eager traditional Christian churches tend to be for such “extra-biblical” experience and how that defecit created the chasm for this book. That’s a great topic. Or we could look at the growing dissatisfaction with and breakdown of the modern Christian retail industry being undermined by fundamentalists and the traditional establishment creating a bubble, a ghetto, an ivory tower set apart from the very people Jesus worked so hard to get us to serve. Another great topic. But let’s ask another question instead.
How do these “pioneers” differ from the more traditional Christian book market?
Pioneers value Traditionalists value
Pioneers value Traditionalists value
Mystery over certainty Certainty over mystery
Experiential faith Propositional truth
Freedom from structure Structure to their freedom
Personal authority Authority figures
Love at the expense of truth Truth at the expense of love
Authenticity over status Status over authenticity
Relationship over rules Rules over relationship
Maleable, interpretive Concrete, quantifiable
A story over principles Principles over a story
Seeking over knowing Knowing over seeking
Pioneers have been conquering this literary frontier for a while. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis took this experience-based, non-propositional approach in The Sacred Romance and Journey of Desire. Meanwhile Henry Blackaby wrote Experiencing God for the church set and Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez revealed a God who longed to bless. Lauren Winner followed suit with her memoir Girl Meets God, quickly followed by Donald Miller’s meandering Blue Like Jazz and somewhere in this Brian McLaren released A New Kind of Christian. Soon, an unlikely pastor named Rob Bell jumped in with Velvet Elvis and the territory began to get fairly well carved out by various other new voices. One of my personal favorites—Closer Than Your Skin by Susan Hill (WaterBrook, 2007)—uses Susan’s amazing personal journey of discovery to show how to truly know the creator of the eternal reality all around us. No bubbles in there.
So to help these pioneers move closer in their journey toward God through authentic spiritual experience, and to encourage them to explore and process new questions about God, the Bible, and faith, we need to understand how to capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category. More on that next time.