When I was a teenager listening to rock music (okay, so I’m a midlifer who still listens to rock, but that’s another story), among my friends the worst thing you could say about a musician or a band was that they had “gone commercial.” The idea was that pop and rock existed on a continuum, with “pure musicianship” at one end and “money-grubbing sell-outs” at the other. As teenagers, we really couldn’t grasp the subtlety that in a free market society, all art is commercial to some extent — we just had a sheep and goats mentality, where bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes were seen as true artists, while the Bee Gees, Styx, Boston and Foreigner were derided as the sellouts. Of course, after the punk rock explosion a new line of demarcation emerged: you had the new wave and the dinosaurs — but I’m talking about the mid-70s, when it was still cool for rockers to have long hair and even longer guitar solos. In those halcyon post-hippie days, artistic integrity was bound up with being unconcerned about something as base and dirty as album sales.
Okay, thirty years later I can chalk all that up to youthful naiveté, but while I eschew the black and white thinking of my youth, as an author I continue to ponder the question of artistic integrity in a market economy. If a book (or song, or whatever), can’t sell, it doesn’t get published. If you have the resources to publish it yourself, great, but maybe then the word is it shouldn’t get published, as it’s a waste of your resources which could have been saved for a more worthy project. But of course, this is a dicey business. It’s legendary how creative juggernauts like Dr. Seuss or the Beatles had to endure rejections from editors or producers who were convinced that their work lacked commercial potential. The original British publisher of The Lord of the Rings calculated that he’d lose £1000 (no small sum of money in the 1950s) by publishing it, but did so anyway because he thought it was a work of genius (now there’s a case where intuition trumping business sense paid off handsomely). But of course, this works the other way around, where much-hyped and ballyhooed creative properties are released to thuddening commercial failure. Take, for example, Wikipedia’s list of Box Office Bombs: movies that grossed less money than they cost to produce. Some of these movies are critical failures (The Golden Compass) while others are regarded as artistic triumphs (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). You never can tell, can you?
So, where am I going with this? Well, the issue for me is the question of the marketability of mysticism.
Several years back I had a conversation with the owner of a large independent publisher of spritual audiobooks. I was pitching the idea of a program on mysticism, and she cut me off. “I’m not interested in mysticism, it’s too vague, I can’t sell it.” The conversation rambled on, but I mentally filed that comment away for future reference. Then, just last week I was talking with another friend, who is a professor of New Testament exegesis at a Jesuit university. He told me that when he was in graduate school he considered doing his dissertation on a topic related to Christian mysticism, but was advised against it, “because it’s not marketable.” As important as the contemplative life is to him, he now feels that this was advice well-given and well-heeded.
So if mysticism isn’t marketable — either to the mainstream spiritual consumer or to academia — then why do I keep writing about it? There are two issues at work here. First of all, I write about it because I love it. It’s a grand and glorious tradition, and it’s a viable arena for real, meaningful, transformational spiritual practice, here and now. So I can turn mysticism’s “lack of marketability” on its head and see this as a topic whose time simply hasn’t yet come. But the other issue has to do with that word the publisher used: “vague.” Mysticism doesn’t connect with people because no one really knows what it is, and it’s one of those words that has become so diluted by different usages in different contexts, that its imprecision has just become an almost insurmountable liability. No one is going to read (let alone, buy) a book on a topic that seems squishy and formless.
So I’ve taken to thinking like a marketer. If mysticism has an image problem, it needs a makeover. Okay, this is dangerous, because we don’t want to end up with something like the “Catholicism Wow” marketing campaign (featuring the “Buddy Christ”) from the movie Dogma. But I think those of us who love and care for contemplative spirituality might find new ways to share it with others, without devolving into “Mysticism Wow.” Maybe the word itself needs to go — after all, mysticism is a highly contested concept particularly among conservative Christians, and while its root “mystery” goes back to the Bible, the word “mysticism” only dates back to about the sixteenth century. I just don’t know what would replace it: experiential Christianity? Christianity beyond words? the Spirituality of the Presence of God? One of the monks in Conyers thinks we should be talking about Trinitarian Communion rather than mysticism. But is this just replacing one ambiguous term with another? And every now and then I get an email or a comment posted to this blog from someone who thinks I should quit writing about mysticism and just talk about Christian discipleship. But that’s like saying we should do away with colors like “crimson” or “scarlet”, because after all “red” is good enough. Just as not all mysticism is necessarily Christian, so not all Christian spirituality is necessarily mystical. And while that may bother those who think in terms of purity, I rather like the fluidity this entails. And I think in our postmodern world, others would too.
I discussed this with Jasmin and Mike Morrell over lunch Saturday after Sara Miles’ workshop in Atlanta; and later Mike emailed me and suggested that perhaps mysticism needs to be celebrated in relation to two other strands of Christian spirituality: the work for justice and the postmodern conversation. I think he’s on to something, but it’s still not quite a bingo yet. Mysticism, as the heart and core of Christian discipleship, is like a glittering diamond. What setting is worthy of it?