Teetotalist gift shops

Following up on the discussion of "Christian fiction" in the comments to this post

Question: What do the following books have in common?

• Jayber Crow; Godric; The Emperor of Ocean Park; The Man Who Was Thursday; Teaching a Stone to Talk; Crime and Punishment; The Bishop and the Missing L Train; Monsignor Quixote; A Prayer for Owen Meany; WLT: A Radio Romance; Traveling Mercies; While I Was Gone; A Good Man Is Hard to Find; The Thanatos Syndrome; Anna Karenina; Saint Maybe; Brideshead Revisited

Answer: You won't find any of them on the shelves of a "Christian bookstore."

That's a bit odd, isn't it? You expect the selection in any niche bookstore to be limited by the scope of it's particular niche, but it's strange when so many books that would seem to be part of that niche are still excluded.

Imagine walking into something called a "Mystery Bookstore" and not finding anything by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald. So you ask at the counter and the clerk says, "I'm sorry, we don't carry those. This is a mystery bookstore and we only carry mysteries"

You try again — "Yes but these are …" — but it doesn't get you anywhere. The store simply isn't using the word "mystery" in the usual accepted way. That word, for them, apparently means something else.

That's exactly the sort of experience you would have if you walked into a "Christian bookstore" assuming that either of those words was being applied in the usual accepted way. These words, here, are not meant to mean what they usually mean.

Your first hint of this will be the fact that books are a rather small fraction of the inventory in this "bookstore." You'll see row upon row of Precious Moments figurines and all manner of gadgets for God, but far fewer actual books than the word "bookstore" might have led you to expect. You'll soon recognize this general selection as a kind of inventory you have seen before and you'll realize that despite their use of the word "bookstore," it's really a gift shop, one with the same ratio of books, cards and knick-knackery as you would find in a Hallmark store or in the gift shops found in airports and highway rest stops.

OK then, by "bookstore," they mean "gift shop." What do they mean by "Christian"?

One possibility is that they're using this word to signify only a particular subset within its broader religious meaning — that by "Christian" what they really mean is "evangelical Christian." That would help to explain why some of the books above — those by authors such as Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy — are nowhere to be found. Such authors may be "Christian," but they are not evangelical Christians, and so their books are not carried by the gift shop.

That is part of the explanation, I think, but it only leads to a trickier question, one that is notoriously difficult to answer: How do we define "evangelical"?

This seems like a religious question — a matter of doctrine, creed and theology. But the apparent meaning of these apparently religious terms is the heart of the confusion here. The word "evangelical" — like the adjective "Christian" as applied to this gift shop — is not religious, it's cultural.

This is why attempts to come up with a doctrinal definition of "evangelical" are so notoriously misleading. A former colleague of mine expressed this point succinctly when explaining why the Dutch Reformed — a conservative Protestant group that might seem to fit any such doctrinal definition — were not evangelicals. "We drink beer," he said.

That distinction isn't wholly adequate as a definition of "evangelical," but because it is cultural and not strictly religious, it comes closer to the mark than does any attempt at a doctrinal/theological definition.

Remind me to return to this point as I want to attempt to offer a functional, cultural definition of "evangelical" — one that can account for why so-called Christian bookstores don't carry most Christian books. (We'll also need to explore how a beer-guzzling Oxford don became an evangelical icon.)

For now let me just say that in the case of such bookstores, that word "Christian" — I do not think it means what you think it means.

Update & P.S.: For the record, Berry, Buechner, Carter, Chesterton, Dillard, Dostoevsky, Greeley, Greene, Irving, Keillor, Lamott, Miller, O'Connor, Percy, Tolstoy, Tyler and Waugh.

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