Category Archives: On the Christian Booksellers Association

Clarifying the issue: quality in CBA

Dangerous business, this question of art in Christian books, isn’t it?
I’m a bit random tonight after reading many of these comments, so stick with me here. Sheri’s reading Pat the Bunny to Charlotte while I write this. I’m struck by the obvious value of the book to our 7-month-old. To her, this is a “quality” book. And from her perspective, in this context, I can see that it is–a “children’s classic,” in fact. It’s even stretching her, which makes it easier for me to value personally. She isn’t switching her brain off to engage with it. And although she’d probably think it was even higher quality if it was good to chew, I’m not going to give in and let her.

So what if people want to check out, use drugs, drop out, drink battery acid? Shouldn’t we let them? Should we make up vats of it in our basements and sell it? I mean, it’s obvious that’s what people want.

I’m not implying Left Behind is battery acid. I merely want us to consider this.

How do we define quality? Maybe a better question is, do we define quality? We may judge according to different standards, different ideas of what constitutes a book’s value. But there must be an absolute standard in each of those areas. So what is our standard? Other books? Other markets? Our enjoyment?

This is hard. Art is hard to define.

Does every book have to be art? Probably not. But God does want us performing to the best of our abilities, and for some reason, people really get riled up when I suggest Jerry isn’t, even though he admits it. The problem is, among other things, we have different criteria for evaluating Christian books. I want to look at the “book” part, others look at the “Christian” part. I want the Christian part to be inherent in the book part. Is that being prejudiced? Shouldn’t we all just relax and let people read the books they want to? Why are we being so mean?

I’ve been asked what I have against “dumb” people.

So it hit me today as I drove home, we need to keep on, pushing on with this struggle to make room for the innovative stuff. Yes, high-selling books like Left Behind help to do that. And certainly, books like that have allowed for some great books in CBA to take on the work of real change to the landscape, challenging readers to look at the higher shelves. The Left Behind series isn’t the great evil we might think. In fact, if you tune out your judgment, there’s plenty to enjoy there.

But there’s my challenge. The tuning out part is difficult because I wish we could all be discerning readers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use books to escape. We all need escape; thank God for the escape of grace. And there’s a correlation to Jerry’s “cookies-on-the-bottom-shelf” ideology and God’s coming down to our level. I do see that. Yet still, grace remains difficult. God made it available; he didn’t make it easy.

I think there’s value in asking these questions. It’s not just to be negative or judge people and their books. It isn’t to be elitist or even suggest there’s a problem of mediocrity in CBA we need to fix. I want all kinds of books for all kinds of people. I just want to give equal time to books that point higher, maybe even books on the bottom shelf that challenge people to look up, reach higher. Left Behind does that for many people, maybe not everyone, but that’s no crime, is it?

Ultimately, it’s the writer who will have to answer for how he uses his talents. That should be something we all agree on.

What Goes Into a Mind

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.

Reality Check #5: “Safe” Books Are Not

I’m placing this post in the mission statement category because it’s one that doesn’t come along every day. Maybe it’s Glenn Gould’s piano playing in the background. Maybe it’s the frustrating day I had. Maybe it’s the setting sun, the passing summer, the culminating of all this thinking I’ve been doing in regards to the clash of the real and the ideal in CBA. But whatever. I have a theory. It’s one I’ve studied a fair amount, primarily as it relates to the Christian subculture. It is that safety often equates shoddy.

Sure, there’s the caveat: It’s not always the case. Making things “safe” does not necessarily mean they’ll be low in quality. But usually. When you make safety a primary requirement in the creation of anything, that product is going to pay a concession either in usefulness or appeal, or both.

Take cars. Where have all the bumpers gone? Our cars are actually less safe than they used to be without those bulky bumpers. But aren’t they more aesthetically pleasing? Or take kids’ toys. The old ones have all kinds of dangerous qualities. They’re heavy, have sharp edges, metal pieces, long cords, all kinds of choking hazards. Compare them to the plastic, uniform-sized, rounded, spongy things on the shelves today. It’s nearly impossible not to feel a little sorry for kids who won’t ever damage their innocent dignity on a rusty old hobbyhorse. Nature isn’t safe, but a misty sunset over a jagged shark tooth mountain can make you cry with its beauty.

The things we make safe often presume a consideration of children. A famous Christian radio station slogan is “safe for the whole family”—assumedly because I don’t want to have to explain anything to my kids. But what they don’t know is that I like explaining things to my kids. I like them learning things, expanding their view, opening the windows on their isolated little shelter.

I’ve actually looked up several definitions of “safe.” Some of my favs:
1. unlikely to cause or result in harm, injury, or damage
2. in a position or situation that offers protection, so that harm, damage, loss, or unwanted tampering is unlikely
3. certain to be successful or profitable, and not at risk of failure or loss
4. unlikely to cause trouble or controversy
5. cautious with regard to risks or unforeseen problems, conservative with regard to estimates, or unadventurous with regard to choices and decisions

Anybody familiar with a subculture that resembles that? I’ve heard it said that if Christian culture isn’t pretty, at least it’s not going to hurt anybody. Unfortunately, that’s not true. In attempting to forego offense, the Christian subculture often becomes one of the most offensive bunkers around. Sound ironic? Paradoxical? That’s because it’s true. Kind of like losing your life to save it. Or how eschewing safety reveals the safest place you can find.

I’ve proposed renaming “Christian fiction” “God’s fiction,” but I think I’ve got a better idea. Since it’s never going to happen anyway, I think we should call it “fiction for God” just amongst ourselves, just to avoid any possible confusion. It might really confuse some people if the industry just changed the term.

“Fiction for God? How is that different from Christian fiction?”

And people would have to ask. Much of what passes for saleable in Christian bookstores is determined by the types who refuse to see anything unbiblical about the protected environment we’ve created. Their ideal is a clean, conservative, tame pond pooled from the raging ocean of God’s full creation. And their Christianity is an adjective, an added thing, a term to keep us distinct from those unsafe gutter-dwellers.

But it’s difficult for me not to wish they could spend some quality time with those unsafe gutter-dwellers they’re so offended by. I might even claim that God probably wishes the same, at least for the reason of uniting us as fellow seekers. If they were able to get past their delusions of safety maybe they wouldn’t be so ineffectual at influencing the world.

But I’m not being winsome here, and that’s wrong. In fact, the people I’m talking about don’t deserve to be marginalized. They are just like you and me—passionate, eager, full of faith. They just happen to believe in a different view of Christianity. I don’t want to send anyone running to a safe haven, but I want to tell those who crave safety that Jesus is constantly being judged for the riff-raff he hangs out with. And he isn’t all that clean. He has a pretty rough reputation at the temple, and given the choice, he takes the gutter dwellers over the well-dressed church folks every time.

So don’t be fooled in your vigor to honor God. He doesn’t ask us to radiate a loud holiness. In fact, it’s much the opposite. He asks us to keep quiet about our personal commitment levels and not alienate those who haven’t caught the bug yet. I won’t expect you to accept the full creative palate of contrasting colors if you don’t expect them to clean up their act before welcoming them into our bookstores.

It’s time to tell our bookstore owners that love is more important than safety. If our reading material offends Christians, let them be offended and welcome in the riff-raff. Tell them that you reject the idea of insulating ourselves for narrow-minded customers. Challenge them to consider more books that could bring in some of those people Jesus is most wanting to reach, the neighbors he calls us to love. What if every Christian bookstore became a bookstore for God?

What if we loved others more than safe books? Maybe it’s time we started to hear the pleas of the one we claim to serve and unbar the door to the crying need of the world around us. Why can’t we feel that? What is wrong with our hearts?

Finally, in this push toward more freedom in our books, we must give equal measure to the quest for excellence. Quality before safety is the only way to ensure our fiction for God will both illuminate and honor our inspiration.