‘Christian bookstores’ and the unsustainable bubble of the evangelical subculture

Some evangelical “gatekeepers” imagine they can still control the boundaries of their subculture and thereby can continue to control the lives and souls and thoughts and imaginations of those within it.

Or, if you prefer to put the most charitable spin on it, these gatekeepers imagine they can still guard the boundaries of that subculture and thereby protect the lives, souls, thoughts and imaginations of those within.

That used to work. It doesn’t anymore. The gatekeepers are still ferociously guarding their gates, but the walls on either side of those gates have crumbled into dust.

Consider the latest losing battle for these gatekeepers — a lopsided defeat in which they seem to imagine they’re still the winners: LifeWay Christian Bookstores will no longer be carrying DVDs of the movie The Blind Side.

Pastor Rodney L. Baker of Hopeful Baptist Church of Lake City submitted a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention, demanding that LifeWay pull the PG-13 film over its language content.

“BE IT RESOLVED that the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in annual session June 17- 20, 2012, in New Orleans, expresses dissatisfaction with ‘The Blindside’ and any product that contains explicit profanity, God’s name in vain, and racial slur,” reads the resolution in part.

The resolution will be introduced to the Southern Baptist Convention at its Annual Meeting next week in New Orleans.

Although LifeWay has already agreed to pull The Blind Side, Baker still intends to submit the resolution as a way of sending a message about LifeWay and the content of its products.

Marty King, communications director for LifeWay, [said] he had hoped the move on the part of the book store would remove the controversy from the New Orleans meeting.

King understands how this works. “Controversy” is Step 1. Step 2 is to resolve the controversy by banning anything that any gatekeeper suggests might be “controversial.”

The Rev. Rodney L. Baker’s resolution didn’t pass, but he still got his wish — ensuring that good Southern Baptists in good Southern Baptist bookstores will be protected from profanity and Sandra Bullock. But if Baker imagines that this will somehow keep Southern Baptists from buying, owning and enjoying this movie, then he’s living in a fantasy of the distant past.

Here is the Amazon listing for The Blind Side on DVD. You can buy it new for $7.56 or used for $1.50 or so. The page also features tons of five-star reviews from viewers who describe it as “family friendly,” “inspirational” and “uplifting.”

LifeWay Christian Bookstores is a large and still-influential chain with 165 locations across the country. But which do you suppose sells more DVDs — LifeWay or Amazon? Do you think it’s even close?

More people shop at Amazon. More Southern Baptists shop at Amazon. More conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Southern Baptists shop at Amazon. Southern Baptist evangelicals are still buying and watching The Blind Side, but LifeWay no longer sees any of the revenue from those sales.

The walls are gone and no one — not even conservative, sheltered, evangelical-leaning-fundamentalist Southern Baptists — needs to go through the gates or the gatekeepers anymore.

Mass media — from television to FM radio — chipped away at those walls for decades. Then the Internet came along and bulldozed them to the ground. (See earlier: “The evangelical bubble cannot be sustained, part 1” and “The evangelical bubble cannot be sustained, part 2.”)

But even though those walls are gone and cannot be rebuilt, the gatekeepers still maintain some of their power — partly through inertia and custom, partly through demagoguery that convinces their intimidated followers to pretend the walls are still there.

The so-called Christian bookstores still help to shape the evangelical subculture, even though its borders have become much more porous. Their timidly, tepidly cautious conservatism eschews all potential “controversy” and they have, through long habit, trained Christian publishers to adopt a similarly cautious, timid and tepid approach.

Rachel Held Evans discusses the chilling effect this has in a recent post titled “Christian bookstores and their chokehold on the industry“:

Christian bookstores have developed a reputation for producing a highly sanitized customer experience, purging from their shelves any language, content, or theology that doesn’t meet their uber-conservative standards. Walk into your local LifeWay and you will find plenty of Precious Moments statues, specialty Bibles, Veggie Tale movies, and Thomas Kinkade prints … but little trace of art or literature that intrigues, agitates, and inspires — as true art should! The Christian bookstore experience is, in a word, safe. But safe is not how Christians are called to live, and safe is not what artists who are Christians are called to create. In fact, based on LifeWay’s own standards, the Bible itself — which includes profanity, violence, and sex — should be banned from the shelves.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that the problem of sanitized Christian bookstores extends far beyond the inventory on the shelves to create an entire Christian subculture that is so sanitized and safe it often fails to produce art that is relevant to our culture or our lives.

Now I’m going to say something that will probably get me into some trouble, something that many editors and writers are afraid to say for fear of losing their jobs or their book contracts, but something which desperately needs to be spoken out loud: Christian bookstores have a chokehold on the Christian publishing industry. And this chokehold not only affects the inventory you find on Christian bookstore shelves, but which books are contracted by publishers, what content gets edited in the writing and editing process, and the degree of freedom authors feel they have to speak on their own blogs and platforms. As a result, the entire Christian industry has been sanitized, while its best artists look elsewhere for publication.

Evans gives several examples to illustrate the point, then describes how this chilling effect also influences the theology, politics and academic credibility of the evangelical subculture:

But what is perhaps most disturbing about this whole culture is the pervasive, stifling fear it has created among writers, editors, and publishers. I have spoken to former editors who left Christian publishing because they were exhausted from living with the fear that they would be fired for sticking their necks out and championing “edgy” projects. I know authors who are afraid to share their egalitarian views on their blogs because they might lose their book contracts. I too have hesitated before being honest about my views on gender, politics, and homosexuality for fear of repercussions. No one seems to like that the industry is this way, but many are just too afraid to challenge it.

For all the amazing people who work in Christian publishing, and for all the amazing books they produce every year, there is this undercurrent of fear and insecurity that undoubtedly stifles our collective creativity. And this fear and insecurity is a direct result of the unreasonable standards held up by Christian bookstores.

All true. And desperately sad once you realize just how little it takes for a project to be regarded as “edgy.”

Oddly, though, I think I’m more optimistic about all this than Evans is. That’s kind of a role reversal. She’s supposed to be the hopeful young idealist challenging evangelicalism from within, while I’m supposed to be the jaded old cranky exile, lobbing cynical criticism from the outside. But again, inside and outside don’t mean that much anymore now that the walls are down and all that remains of the old boundaries is a scattering of fortified gates standing alone on the open landscape.

So I don’t think that Christian bookstores can maintain their chokehold on Christian publishers much longer.

Those publishers finally seem to be realizing what Warner Home Video — the successful marketer of The Blind Side on DVD — already knows: You no longer need Christian bookstores to reach Christians.

Yes, old habits die hard, and many publishers remain fearful of doing anything that might jeopardize the once-necessary imprimatur of LifeWay and the other bookstores that were once so influential within the former boundaries of the subculture. But being publishers of books, they’re in a better position than most to also realize the inevitable truth about bookstore chains — which is that if they’re very lucky, they may just barely out-survive newspaper chains. Even the most timid and subculturally captive Christian publishing companies have already begun relying more on Amazon than on any of those old-guard brick-and-mortar chains. The publishers have already seen what the future will look like, and it doesn’t include much of a role for LifeWay, et. al.

The walls are gone. There’s no longer any need to pay the toll to use the gates.

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