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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  • Amanda

    One point I make very often in discussions of modern Christianity is that it really is a cultural expression far more than a religious one. You, again, have hit the nail on the head.

  • sophia8

    One thing I’ve noticed about Christian bookstores is that they always have at least a couple of shelves full of anti-occult books and “I used to be a baby-eating devil-worshipping drug-addicted blasphemer until I found Jesus”-type books.
    But look at an occult/New age bookshop, and I can guarantee you won’t find a single anti-Christian text or “How finding Wicca saved me from xxx” book. Some of them even stock books of Christian mysticism.

  • Friend of the Predigtamt

    *ding ding ding*
    Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!
    They would have “Charismatic Interest”, “Devotionals for $GENDER”, or “Teen Issues”…but you would be hard pressed to find one Catholic book there, except a New Jerusalem Bible. No crucifixes there– you’d have to go to either the Lutheran seminary bookstore or to the Catholic store downtown. The Chick tracts are available, but not encyclicals. No biography of Bach, but they have books on how Rock N Roll would possess your kid’s minds.
    Thanks to you, I’m planning to go get my camera phone and exhibit the very few of the non-evangelical books at these stores.

  • Jesurgislac

    I went into a Mormon bookstore once for a gander, and was slightly surprised to find not one novel by Orson Scott Card, who has got to be the most famous Mormon writer ever. Not even his SF-ized version of the Book of Mormon. But lots of stickers and such for envelopes, and posters, and so on. It was a very dull shop. I was the only one in it.

  • RedEnsign

    The catholic bookstores where I live in the UK seem to be full of nick-nacks and godly gifts, but the protestant ones seem to be *gasp* all books. Either the religious in England are more literate or Anglicans don’t go in for lots of cheesy junk with their god… probably a bit of both.

  • David

    C. S. Lewis is an odd case, as he appears to be admired by every major branch of Christianity, including Evangelicals, high-church Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox… though this doesn’t always mean that Evangelicals have any idea of Lewis’ doctrinal beliefs. I was in a group of Evangelicals once where a debate started about “Is it possible for someone who believes in Purgatory to go to heaven?” — which seemed a silly question to me, as though the mercy of God can cover every kind of violence, lust, hatred, and so on, but finds itself utterly insufficient to handle someone with (allegedly) slightly mistaken ideas of what the afterlife is like.
    Anyway, I silenced the conversation by pointing out that C. S. Lewis believed in Purgatory. Several people seemed pretty shocked about it :-P

  • Amanda

    The so-called Bible Belt of California (the central San Joaquin Valley) has more than its share of Christian bookstores, and usually they are primarily books — but also have the section for knick-knacks, jewelry, wall hangings, toys for Jesus, etc.

  • cosmicdancer
  • Simon St.Laurent

    “Bookstore” seems to be a strangely misused word. Fred’s right about the “bookstore” in “Christian bookstore” usually meaning “gift shop”, but on the other side of the tracks, “Adult bookstore” also uses “bookstore” as “gift shop”. There are, of course, lots of meanings of “adult”, from XXX to senior citizens to mature to old enough to get drunk legally. The “adult bookstore” folks seem to have a similarly constrained definition.
    There are a few Quaker bookstores out there – they seem mostly to offer books on Quakerism and related subjects. I haven’t been to one in person, though, so don’t know what tchotchkes lurk in the stores. (I haven’t seen many of the works of James Michener listed there, even when he wrote about Quakers, though John Greenleaf Whittier turns up.)

  • A. Kennedy

    or Anglicans don’t go in for lots of cheesy junk with their god… probably a bit of both.
    I resent that. I am an anglican, and I love both cheese and God (in, of course, vastly different ways.) Mmmmmm… gouda and homily… gorgonzola and communion… brie and confession! What a wonderful world we live in!

  • hf

    Jesurgislac, that does seem odd. Maybe they don’t like the fact that he thinks he can write human gay characters as long as they suffer or decide to marry and have children.

  • Reverend Ref

    “I used to be a baby-eating devil-worshipping drug-addicted blasphemer until I found Jesus”-type books.
    Which, curiously (or not, depending on your thought process), are right next to “How To Talk To Your A Catholic About Jesus.”
    I also enjoy cheese; I lean towards traditional mild cheddar (Tillamook) and Provolone. And speaking of Tillamook, they have a great cheese and ice cream place over in there home town (Tillamook, OR) that has some good stuff. There’s a smoked cheese that’s to die for.
    Hmmmm … Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I’ll get me one of those “I Love Cheeses” t-shirts that I’ve seen over at Lark News.

  • joel hanes

    I can’t hear you.

  • hapax

    Actually, the “book”store at my Episcopal (=American Anglican) cathedral *sells* cheese. And jams, jellies, incense, soap, peacock feathers, etc. etc., along with crucifixes, music, jewelry, and plenty of books — all at dreadfully inflated prices, I have to say.
    I confess, the first time I walked in there (it’s in the vestibule, directly adjacent to the transept) I was moved to exclaim in a too-loud voice, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

  • adam

    Christian bookstores catering to the functionally illiterate and you’re one of the few people brave enough to point it out? Inconceivable.

  • Jeff

    I understand and appreciate the main point, and subsequent discussion, but I’m a little confused about Fred’s list. I’m not at all familiar with many, but I have read Anna Karenina, and would no more expect to see itin a Christian bookstore than I would expect to see “Bodice-Rippers of Mars” by Harlequin Press in an s/f bookstore. (Golden Apple, one of the largest “comic-book stores” in LA, has nearly as much display space for tchotchkes as it does for comics.)
    I only glanced into the little Christian shop near me. It seemed to have a good mix of books and doo-dads (and I don’t think it called itself a “bookstore”. I’ll have to go explore.)
    Roasted Brie and Elephant garlic — ummm, that’s tasty!

  • Stephen

    I love cheeses, and cheeses love me. Gruyere, Jarlsburg, smoked gouda, all cheddar, brie – oh cheeses, you are so good to me!
    Christian bookstores are depressing. I would be ok with all the gifts and such if it wasn’t all so kitschy and pointless. The books they do stock are so shallow, so redundant and so irrelevant to the real world they give me a headache.
    Oh, but if I ever need an NIV Chicken Soup for the 42-year-old Recently Divorced Man Carrying 25 Extra Pounds and Employed as a Project Manager Soul Study Bible With Cross-references, Maps, Pictures of the Temple and Bullet-pointed Bible Studies All Bound in a Red Faux-leather Cover, then I know where to go, I guess.

  • Colin Toffelmire

    First of all, cheese is indeed one of the great wonders of the world. I particularly enjoy a nice peppered stilton with a Washington Merlot (I, apparently, am not an evangelical either ;) ).
    My only slight beef with Fred’s post is that it isn’t just the “Christian” “book”stores that sell knick-knacks and trinkets. Here in Calgary it’s just as easy to buy movies, vases, and baby shoes at our local Chapters as it is books. Of course, the ratio of book to other junk is far higher than at a Christian joint, and the books are far far far better.
    The other question I have is this: Isn’t this discussion very much akin to Fred’s earlier post concerning casting millstones? Are we really railing against the evangelical booksellers or against their customers, who seem implicitly to be regarded as drooling, sub-human morons? I shouldn’t be too critical of course, as I pretty much always speak loudly and derisively whenever anybody drags me into one of those ridiculous stores.
    My solution to the nonsense of the Christian marketplace in general (bookstores, music, publishers [excluding academic works of course], etc.) is to ignore it entirely. This is more about my own personal sanity than any attempt to bring down these booksellers (read here junk-pushers) by denying them my $20/visit.

  • Lila

    (late to the party)
    Jesurgislac, I bet the Mormon bookstore didn’t have any Zenna Henderson either.

  • txredd

    Praise cheeses.
    My brother was sorely disappointed that they didn’t have the t-shirt proclaiming “Modest is Hottest” in his size.
    I always want to ask whether they carry anything by Bonhoeffer.

  • Hootsbuddy

    Good post. I immediately thought of one I put together a couple of years ago linking to Michael Spencer, the “Internet Monk.” His post and yours make good companions. Enough material for a little book, but no one needing it would be allowed to buy it. Heh!

  • inge

    What I remember from the time when I still frequented Christian bookstores and bookstands was that they had mostly non-fiction: environmental, third world and social justice issues, peace movement, biographies, bible commentary. That thread would continue into the fiction they had.
    I did never see the “Christian” book (scare quotes are appropriate) that finally caused me to give up any attempts at theism in any of those stores, but in a mainstream book store under some nondescriptive label (popular culture, or something like that.)
    Which supports the theory that it’s all about culture.

  • ako

    Are we really railing against the evangelical booksellers or against their customers, who seem implicitly to be regarded as drooling, sub-human morons?
    I don’t think so. You can criticize a business for their marketing strategy without suggesting that all customers have to be dumb to fall for that. Taking a poke at, for instance, the increasingly specialized niche marketing for Chicken Soup for the Soul, isn’t necessarily putting down everyone who read or liked the books; it’s just pointing out that there’s something silly in how they present themselves.
    The whole discussion seems to be pretty much aimed at the people passing their specialty gift shops as bookstores. If it has that charicature in the corner, showing how stupid or subhuman the people who buy something there are, I haven’t spotted it.

  • sievetronix

    This is a trend that is happening all over.
    Remember record shops or book stores? at most you get a huge box store or some knick knack shop thinly disguised as a store.
    I could kill for an old school dungeon of nerdery that was once called a comic book store instead of the general all purpose pop culture shoppe you usually get now.

  • stinger

    The high church, beer-guzzling Oxford don became a US evangelical icon because most of the latter group who have read him have read only his fiction. His non-fiction and letters are much more explicit as to doctrine, whereas you can “interpret” his fiction to suit.

  • Hagsrus

    Dreadful warnings:

  • Julia

    I occasionally go to the coffee shop/bookstore (lots more books than coffee, although it’s easy to brew up more coffee on short notice) at a certain Episcopal church, but I started going as a result of delivering stuff to one of the folks working there, rather than wanting to go to an Episcopal bookstore. It’s small. The coffee is good, apparently. The green tea is just fine. (I couldn’t say anything about the black tea.)
    There are a fair number of books. There is some gift-ish stuff (I picked up something gift-ish for someone for Christmas when I was there in November), but mostly it’s books. Just never the exact Madeleine L’Engle book I was trying to track down the last time I was there. (I found a copy at Half Price Books a week later, so I’m good.) I like going there and just looking at titles, staring at cover designs, and smelling the whole thing. (With the coffee shop part, it smells pretty nice to me overall.)

  • Dahne

    Speaking of Dostoveysky, The Brothers Karamazov, or at least the chapters Rebellion, The Grand Inquisitor, and The Devil, should be required reading before you’re allowed to call yourself a Christian.

  • movablenu

    I used to work at a Christian bookstore, and the ‘section code’ for the knick-knacks and gifts, that they printed on the price barcodes, was ‘HH’, which stood for ‘Holy Hardware’, so at least they had sort of a sense of humour about it. The customers, on the other hand…

  • Lila

    Holy hardware, Batman! (sorry, couldn’t resist)

  • Dahne

    Oh, and John Irving can bite me.

  • Dahne

    Okay, inge, somebody has to ask–
    I did never see the “Christian” book (scare quotes are appropriate) that finally caused me to give up any attempts at theism in any of those stores, but in a mainstream book store under some nondescriptive label (popular culture, or something like that.)
    What book was it? (Unless you’re talking about Left Behind, and I’m just being dense.)

  • Amanda

    Dreadful warnings
    I like the advertisements.
    “HEALTH MYTHS EXPOSED: How Western medicine undermines your health”
    “Christian Persecution, Learn the Truth! Sign up for the FREE Voice of Martyrs monthly newsletter”

  • jw

    Two thoughts come to mind.
    Even the magnificent Powells Books now carries a long list of gift items. Fortunately the books to kitsch ratio remains high.
    One measure of a movie has to be its quotability. The Princess Bride ranks mighty high on that measure.

  • inge

    sievetronix, I’m so glad the local hole-in-the-wall comic book store has become a four-story comics-and-books-and-games store where I can actually browse instead of going in with a list and say “please order these for me” that I’ll easily forgive them the knick knacks on the ground floor. Although I miss the coffee machine.

  • JessicaR

    I think that all that needs to be said about the Christian store (I don’t even know if it bothers with the “book” part) at the local mall is that it carries a print of The Most Horrible Painting Ever

  • inge

    Danhe, I wasn’t trying to be mysterious, I only thought that an obscure German title wouldn’t be recognized by anyone.
    It was Ulrich Baeumer’s “Wir wollen nur deine Seele”. (“We only want your soul”.) It’s been a while, but from what I remember he claimed the Beatles were satanic because one of them had once spent a night in a house in Scotland that used to be owned by Aleister Crowleys cousin, or something. And the Eagles were evil because someone in Sacramento had got killed.
    It was the first book from an evangelical context that I ever enountered – after sixteen peaceful years of being agnostic Lutheran – and it caused upheaval among my friends, all-around doubts of everyone’s sanity, and hours of embarrassment in the record store, pretending to be a country fan while a friend tried to make everyone in an Iron Maiden jacket to see the light and buy American Christian Rock.

  • inge

    Eh, Dahne, sorry for mistyping your name.

  • ako

    “Christian store”
    I like that. Those places always seem to have a weird vibe, like they’re selling doses of Christianity or something. Like cheap knick-knack and self-help books bought there are supposed to exude an aura of virtue that will induce right-mindedness.
    There’s kind of a paradoxical effect, too. If you want to make sure your book is, in fact, preaching only to the converted, the best way to do so is get it prominently labeled as Christian, and sell it only in Christian bookstores. Then you can be absolutely certain that only a tiny minority of your readers don’t agree with your theology. I wonder how many writers are actually going for it.

  • dr ngo

    I like to think of myself as a tolerant man, who lets all kinds of heterodoxies and even heresies pass without comment here, simply in the interest of interfaith dialogue and freedom of speech.
    But to suggest that an Oxford don “guzzled” beer – rather than sipped it, pint by pint, hour after hour, in a genteel manner – is beyond the pale!
    Slacktivist, you are On Notice.

  • Oliver Trenton

    It’s all about censorship. After all, censorship is becoming America’s favorite past-time. The US gov’t (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like “America Deceived” America Deceived (book) from Amazon and Wikipedia, and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings.

  • Erick Oppeen

    My objection to a lot of “Christian fiction” (read: evangelical-Christian fiction) is not that it pushes a particular worldview. It is that it pushes that worldview with all the subtlety and grace of a runaway train, and is usually poorly written, with villains and anatagonists made of purest cardboard, opposing viewpoints caricatured, and dialogue that resembles spoken English only vaguely, if at all.
    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it bears strong resemblances to the dreary propaganda novels that were churned out by the ton under Communism. Instead of finding Marx or Lenin, the hero finds Jesus.

  • Corbie

    The best Christian bookstore (that I’ve been to, that is) in the Washington, DC area is the one at the National Cathedral. Yes, they have gifts, too — including needlepoint kits, b/c many people admire the needlepoint on the kneeler cushions — but the book selection is excellent. You’ll find everything from Bonhoeffer to the Dalai Lama.
    Back in the late 80s when I was still attending Truro (one of the churches now seceding from the Episcopal church) they did, at least, stock C.S. Lewis in the church bookstore, but most of the other reading material was the usual pablum. The nondenominational church I attended before that didn’t have a bookstore (but they did put on “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” as a play).
    I agree — most Evangelicals have read Lewis’s fiction, but not his nonfiction. If you read his books on Christian apologetics, you get viewed as “overly intellectual”, and therefore become suspect for thinking too much (or too independently). It’s not a libel to say that the evangelical movement is anti-intellectual. You’re supposed to go to church, take notes, believe everything the pastor says without questioning, and tithe. Inquiry into theology, church history, or anything beyond the currently accepted “safe” topics is definitely discouraged, because that might lead you out of the church. (Which is how I wound up where I am, I suppose.)

  • A Texan in Bavaria

    Corbie: “Inquiry into theology, church history, or anything beyond the currently accepted “safe” topics is definitely discouraged, because that might lead you out of the church. (Which is how I wound up where I am, I suppose.)”
    Yep, that’s how it happened for me (well, that and all the “wives submit graciously to your husbands” overemphasis – more important than several other things they could have voted to place in the Baptist Faith and Message?)
    And I’m with ya on the National Cathedral bookstore. Among other things, I picked up a great beginner’s guide to Celtic knotwork drawings.
    What on earth have I done with it in the last 9 or so years?

  • A. Kennedy

    What I’m getting from this discussion is that we Anglicans have the best Cheese and the best bookstores. This is very good, considering the “blessed are the cheesemakers” thing!
    Still, if you pentacostals and baptists &c. want to go around without having accepted cheeses into your heart, that’s your decision.

  • McJulie

    It’s not a libel to say that the evangelical movement is anti-intellectual.
    Ding Ding Ding
    This anti-intellectualism also causes a sort of cultural runaway selection, as anyone who is unable to turn off their brains eventually gets driven from the fold, so over time the culture just gets stupider, and stupider…
    Also, it’s one of those areas where evangelicals consider themselves superior to Catholics (who cede some spiritual authority to the Pope) yet what they do in practice is just the same, only worse — they cede spiritual authority to the loudest and most hateful idiot with a TV program.

  • hapax

    “if you pentacostals and baptists &c. want to go around without having accepted cheeses into your heart, that’s your decision.”
    Anglican cheese? We don’t need no Stinkin’ Bishop!