Jesus Sells

Jesus Sells May 21, 2012

First published…well, a long time ago:

No doubt the evangelical Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) picked the Anaheim Convention Center for its annual convention last year because the place is enormous and has a certain architectural inspiration. Conventioneers can pause as they approach the huge lobby, with its three-story glass wall, for a view that seems to offer a glimpse of heaven. Unfortunately, Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride is always in the way.

When I joined the CBA attendees in Anaheim last summer, row upon row of mostly white men and women dressed in their Sunday best were filing into one of the big conference rooms. CBA President Bill Anderson welcomed us; those present, he said, represented some 50 states and 60 nations. Then he got down to business, as it were.

What followed had all the trappings of a religious service — songs, testimonies, a sermon. Technically, itwas a religious service. But it was overtly commercialized to a greater extent than any religious gathering I had ever observed (and as the son of a Baptist minister, I’ve seen a lot of them). The printed programs, for example, were underwritten by the publisher of Pastor Lee Strobel — he’d preached the sermon — and featured an ad for his many books. The singers at the service were in town to promote their latest CDs to retailers.

If the participants felt any shame about the nakedly commercial nature of the event, they did a good job of hiding it. In his invocation prayer, Anderson addressed God on behalf of “a group of colleagues working together under Your Lordship.” Strobel, between jokes and stories about his days as an “atheistic reporter” in Chicago, commended the retailers for doing the Lord’s work and assured them that “we’ve got the truth,” thus giving them “an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas.”

The CBA was nothing if not a marketplace. At 350,000 square feet, the floor of the convention center is nearly the size of eight football fields, including three halls, two outdoor eating areas, and several restaurants. Over the next few days this huge space would be home to almost 500 display booths, over 12,000 people, and even a special Internet café. In its zeal to grow and serve its market, the Christian culture industry mirrors its secular counterpart. As important, it shines a light on how both true believers and non-believers use culture to create all sorts of identities and communities.

Many glass cases displayed such wares as crosses, paintings, color-coded Bibles, T-shirts, mugs, greeting cards, bracelets, CDs, necklaces, children’s videos, diet books, jigsaw puzzles, backpacks, board games, and decorative plates. And that was just in the lobby. It wasn’t until I got past the security guard, flashing my scarlet-lettered press pass, that I had a chance to see what was on the sales floor.

All of the major evangelical Christian publishers were present in force, with some booths the size of small houses. Older mainstream names such as Doubleday, Penguin, Random House, and Oxford University Press were well represented. Young upstart publishers such as Canon Press and Relevant Books — publisher of such tomes as Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 and The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (do unto others and then split?) — had smaller but still impressive booths. There were several Spanish-language publishers and a couple of African-American presses, along with a few Catholic ones. A number of children’s publishers sat alongside hawkers of Christian comics. The book area was surrounded by “personality booths,” where authors autographed and gave away lots of free books to dealers in the hope of pumping up sales.

Books were only a part of the story. Also pushing their wares were such movie companies as Cloud Ten Productions, music and multimedia booths run by companies such as Word Entertainment, and plenty of Christian “gift” outlets in a section of their own. In addition to the items in the lobby, these gifts included everything from Scripture Mints shaped like little fish (“reaching the world one piece at a time”) to hand puppets.

Word Entertainment took the prize for best attention grabber with spotlights, free popcorn, and — I am not making this up — a “Catch the Cash” booth with money swirling around: You stepped into it and grabbed as much as you could as fast as you could. Other memorable promotions included inflatable sharks, Jews for Jesus shopping bags, a guy in a kilt, and one booth that featured a stop sign altered to read, “STOP Liberals!”

The CBA may be the only trade show that sets off spasms of conscience among its own participants. Several editors and publishers told me, under condition of anonymity, that they were appalled at some of the products on the floor — and they weren’t necessarily sparing their own titles. The Rev. R.C. Sproul Jr., son of a famous Calvinist polemicist, published a brief Internet commentary that considered the possibility of driving out the moneychangers, though he finally concluded that it is, after all, a trade show. Christianity Today review editor Doug LeBlanc complained to me about the “buffoonery” of such crass gimmicks as the money booth. The promoter with the inflatable sharks sent me a note that made fun of the fish-shaped mints (“Mmmm, minty fresh Scripture”).

Nor is this discomfort a new development. In his 1997 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America, Columbia University professor of religion Randall Balmer tells of his trip to the 1988 CBA convention. He describes a gathering similar to, if slightly smaller than, the one I attended, including wild promotions, a cornucopia of products, and, of course, fretting by evangelicals over how commercial and gaudy the industry had become. John Pott, an editor at Eerdmans, confessed to finding the whole scene “utterly demoralizing.” Publisher Lisa Shaw admitted that she had gotten “so fed up with the whole thing that I went…to my hotel and cried for two hours.” If blatant commercialization is cause for tears, it’s a wonder that Shaw stopped after only two hours.

The Christian culture industry, as represented both by the CBA convention and by its member stores, may have been less concerned with sales in the past, but I’ve found little evidence of that. The sense of guilt that hovers over the convention may reflect the growing pains of an industry that is expanding its services to a slice of society whose cultural demands grow each year.

Most Christian book companies started as small family affairs or as publishing arms of Bible colleges; many CBA stores started as mom-and-pop operations. Through a process of sifting much like what goes on in the secular publishing and bookselling industries, some went bust while others innovated, grew, and sold out to secular publishers who wanted a piece of the Christian action. In fact, most large Christian publishers are now owned by otherwise secular houses. Random House, for instance, owns Zondervan, a leading Christian house. While no Christian chain yet rivals Barnes & Noble, Family Christian Bookstores has several hundred outlets across the country.

The older presses that have not sold out to the secular giants either struggle or get religion, the religion in this case being marketing. One editor of a very conservative holdout told me the only question his publisher asks about a book is whether it will sell. (Theology does play an indirect part in the selection process: If a book’s message is likely to offend readers, it probably won’t sell.) Publishers that have typically peddled more highbrow fare are experimenting with different sorts of titles. The current catalog of the high-toned house Westminster John Knox Press, for example, features The Gospel According to the Simpsons.

In fact, the publisher Thomas Nelson, one of the few holdouts to make it big, recently reversed the familiar process and started a secular imprint, WND Books.

It features such newsmaking authors as former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (now a member of Congress) and shock jock Michael Savage.

Not only is the Christian book industry itself huge, its borders are getting hard to define because so many of its works are published and sold by secular firms. It’s difficult to fix the dollar figures with any kind of precision, but sales through CBA member stores and distributors — a large segment but by no means all of the industry — came to $4 billion in 2001.

The best-selling novel that year was not a John Grisham or Tom Clancy number but The Remnant, the latest installment of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series, a feat that landed the authors on the cover of Time. As a result, mainstream publisher Bantam Dell signed LaHaye to a reported $45 million book contract for a separate series. Other Christian titles, such as Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez, occasionally make ripples in the secular publishing world, and most large bookstores have expanded their sections of religious books and novels. Not long ago, if someone wanted a work by Christian horror writer Frank Peretti or lay theologian Philip Yancey, they would have had to visit a religious specialty store. Now they can find it at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

Evangelical Christian pop music — popularly known as Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM — now rivals country as the most popular radio format. Several acts, from Michael W. Smith to Jars of Clay, have tried “crossing over” to secular markets, with varying degrees of success. New quasi-religious acts like Creed and Litehouse engage in heavy flirtation with the CCM market without explicitly joining it.

Christian filmmaking is also starting to emerge from the swamp of poor distribution and lousy production values. On display at the CBA were such films as Waterproof (starring Burt Reynolds), To End All Wars (dubbed a film “to end all Christian films” by the religious periodical Books & Culture), and Hometown Legend (think Rudy minus the Hail Marys). The cloth strap that held my convention ID doubled as a promotion for the new Veggie Tales movie, Jonah, which according to Box Office Mojo had taken in over $23 million by Thanksgiving 2002.

Not everybody is happy with the shape and success of the modern Christian culture industry and its growing crossover appeal. In response to the huge LaHaye book deal, critic Bruce Bawer warned on of the “growing ties between New York publishers and evangelical Christian authors.”

Bawer, author of Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity and A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, expressed nostalgia for an earlier era of publishing when “no reputable New York publisher would have published such books” as the Left Behind series in order to get its mitts on vaguely sinister-sounding “evangelical money.” “Some of us,” explained Bawer, “still cling to the old fashioned idea that the publishing of books in a democratic society, in addition to being a business, is also a profession that carries with it certain moral, intellectual, and aesthetic obligations….The current move into premillenialist prophecy novels and other works of hard core fundamentalism seems a giant step too far.”

In case readers missed the other-shoe-dropping implications of his screed, Bawer took a swipe at the patriotism of Bantam Dell and company for “capitulating” to Bible-thumpers “at a time when the United States is waging a war against fundamentalist intolerance and illiberality — against minds and hearts possessed by irrational dreams of violence.”

Other lines of criticism come from the constituency of the Christian culture industry itself. To many evangelicals, who after all are Protestants, the gaudy excesses of the industry trigger vague cultural memories of ancient controversies over relics and indulgences. The Reformers viewed the marketing of religious artifacts and get-out-of-purgatory-free passes as a sign of decay. It’s a pretty good bet that John Calvin or Martin Luther would be none too thrilled by the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph action figures or the Christian self-help books (as one author put it, “It’s like a regular motivational book with Bible verses sprinkled in”) displayed on the CBA convention floor.

This queasiness is reinforced by an anti-materialist streak that American evangelicalism seems to have absorbed during the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, evangelicals’ professed contempt for material things can rival the anti-consumerism of the most ardent Naderite. A popular anti-materialistic evangelical song from the ’60s featured the refrain “they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.” When I suggested to evangelical acquaintances that it’s just as likely that “they’ll know that we are Christians by our stuff,” it produced a lot of exasperated sighing.

Another criticism of the culture industry, expressed from within as well as without, is that it has a tendency to reinforce a certain insularity in evangelicals. In the 1980s evangelical singer-songwriter Steve Taylor mockingly expounded on the benefits of the industry: “You’ll be keeping all your money/in the kingdom now/And you’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.” In the 1990s a secular narrator of one of the vignettes in Douglas Coupland’s novella Life After God expressed this distance by reporting on his attempt to understand the “many many” Christian radio stations he happened upon as he drove through a desert. He sensed a real enthusiasm he ultimately failed to penetrate:

“The radio stations all seemed to be talking about Jesus nonstop, and it seemed to be this crazy orgy of projection, with everyone projecting onto Jesus the antidotes to the things that had gone wrong in their own lives. He is Love. He is Forgiveness. He is Compassion. He is a Wise Career Decision. He is a Child Who Loves Me.”

Critics are right about the apparent insularity of evangelical culture, but not as right as they think they are. The hand wringing that the Left Behind series has engendered, for instance, is irrational. Though Bruce Bawer’s piece is an extreme example of overreaction, a few nonreligious friends have privately explained to me that the existence and popularity of such books — “wish fulfillment fantasies about non-fundamentalists suffering apocalyptic torment,” as Bawer put it — worry them. The reviewer for the determinedly anti-religious Free Inquiry likened the series to The Turner Diaries, the anti-Semitic survivalist underground classic that helped inspire Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

Yet, other popular nov elists, Stephen King among them, are often just as apocalyptic as LaHaye and Jenkins, without inspiring dire warnings that America is about to embrace a fascist theocracy. True, King and company don’t take their apocalypses seriously. On the other hand, the end of the world has been a popular subgenre for many years. Exactly what has drawn readers to so many secular total destruction fantasies is a question that’s hard to answer, but that answer is unlikely to be compassion for humanity.

In any event, one might hazard that the incomprehension of secular outsiders has contributed significantly to the birth of the commercial Christian pop culture scene. That is, while the books, music, and videos in CBA stores may not have been of the highest quality or featured the best production values, they at least took seriously the beliefs held by evangelicals, who may constitute anywhere from a quarter to a third of American society. The move by secular presses, movie studios, radio stations, and record labels to cater to this market could be viewed as a victory for commercial self-interest over religious intolerance.

In fact, the economic embrace of Christian pop culture by mainstream producers may be straining the original Christian cultural scene. Now that evangelical novelists can be published by secular presses, they can avoid relatively stifling moral guidelines that have been constraining them (no swearing, no sex out of marriage unless it has disastrous consequences, the requisite amount of God talk, etc.). New Christian music acts are now routinely courted by secular record labels. That allows them more freedom to inject their faith into the mainstream culture in a way that simply wasn’t done by secular labels before, even while removing the more popular groups from the Christian labels’ lists. Christian publishers are being squeezed at both ends as bookstores demand steeper discounts while increasingly influential mainstream agents secure better contracts for Christian writers. In turn, Christian bookstores face new competition from secular bookstores.

Sales of Christian books through nonreligious bookstores are also rectifying a long-running, quasi-conspiratorial grievance of many evangelical authors, because it allows their books to climb bestseller lists from The New York Times to USA Today. Such lists only count sales through mainstream bookstores, which in the past effectively excluded even the most wildly successful evangelical bestsellers from recognition. This division of secular and religious book sales, like the division of secular and religious culture in general, had the effect of removing evangelical culture from the view of those who were not a part of that subculture.

Now that this industry is increasingly in plain sight, its relationship with its consumers can be studied. It turns out that the industry is neither as sinister and monolithic as secular critics claim nor as secular and venal as religious critics fear.

Randall Balmer, the religion professor, describes Christian culture as the product of a separatist impulse that managed to yield results very similar to the secular culture Christians sought to escape. Superficially, he has a point. As I wandered down the aisles of the CBA, I asked the same question: Hasn’t the industry simply replaced self-help and pop psychology books with pious variants thereof, the secular Butt Ugly Martians with the religious Veggie Tales, Altoids with Scripture Mints, Beanie Babies with Holy Bears, and secular schlock apocalyptic novels with tamer, preachier Christian schlock apocalyptic novels? On first blush, it sure looks that way.

But the distinction between the material and the sacred, or the commercial and the spiritual, can be tricky. To pick an obvious example, there is no more sacred book to evangelicals than the Bible — more tradition-minded Christians sometimes accuse them of “bibliolatry,” the worship of the text — and there is no product of the Christian culture industry that is more effectively exploited and marketed than the Good Book.

At the convention were dozens of different translations and paraphrases of the Bible — the New International Version, the King James, the New King James, The Message — along with hundreds of specialty Bibles with commentaries (by rock musicians as well as serious Bible scholars), and countless freestanding commentaries on individual biblical books. (The existence of red-lettered editions of the Bible, in which the words attributed to Christ appear in red, serves as the set-up for an awkward situation in Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun. The clueless hero asks a Bible-reading guard if the red writing highlights all the juicy parts.)

Or take other, more suspect items from the convention: those Scripture Mints, holy diet books, spiritual key chains, Thomas Kinkade paintings, biblical action figures — all items that your local evangelical bookstore is likely to carry. Surely these items are shameless and naked grabs for evangelical filthy lucre. What possible purpose, skeptics ask, can such kitsch serve?

Are many of these products merely a way to make a fast and cynical buck? They probably are. But the more revealing question is not about what the products do for their producers; it is about what they may be doing for their consumers.

The anti-materialistic/anti-consumerist criticism overlooks an essential fact: that material artifacts, even kitsch, can embody real meaning for those who use them.

The products, good and bad, that dominated the CBA both reflected and validated the subculture that generated the demand for them. The people who read the books, listen to the music, hang the Thomas Kinkade paintings in their homes, and use the other products of this industry are surrounding themselves with artifacts that reflect their values and beliefs, that validate who they are. For such consumers, the Left Behind novels, the evangelical pop music, and all the rest serve as the building blocks of a shared evangelical cultural identity. In brief, evangelicals are using the market to fashion and refashion themselves, and to project the resulting identity to others, in just the way that all consumers do.

Therein lies the real significance of the Christian cultural industry. It is fixed enough to support a religious group identity for millions of people but fluid enough to accommodate myriad arguments and interpretations. And it gives this minority religious group the ability to make the wider culture take it seriously — to punch above its weight in the market contest it has entered.

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