Profiting from the Past
Publishers today know they can't make much money trying to sell history to Christians. That's especially true of a hardcover book about a German theologian that runs 600 pages and costs $30.
But some 160,000 copies later, Eric Metaxas's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges the publishing maxim that the Christian market does not support serious history.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published by Thomas Nelson, has sold briskly through mainstream outlets. Christian bookstores were slower to pick up the book when it debuted in April 2010, according to Thomas Nelson publisher Joel Miller.
Bonhoeffer doesn't match the profile of spiritual growth and practical-living titles that fill these outlets. But now they are featuring the book prominently, Miller said.
"Bonhoeffer's life was so compelling," Miller said of the Lutheran pastor who participated in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and died in a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War II. "He was sold out for true and authentic Christianity. He's a person with whom to identify in that move from history to today."
Scholars devoted to studying Bonhoeffer's complex theology have widely panned the work by Metaxas, who previously wrote the best-selling Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. But critical reviews have hardly dampened the enthusiastic popular response.
Metaxas, who found the courageous Bonhoeffer to be "more like a theologically conservative evangelical than anything else," appeared on Glenn Beck's Fox News show in December. If anything, the allegations that Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer as too conservative fit Beck's common refrain that liberals have covered up the real story.
Perhaps the commercial success of Bonhoeffer, then, will inspire publishers to consider other history titles. The challenge, according to Miller, is that publishing forecasts still don't indicate widespread clamoring for history and theology. Even the History Channel has largely abandoned documentaries for reality TV fare such as Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers.
So why, then, does The New York Times's nonfiction bestseller list routinely feature so much history? Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, about a World War II prison camp survivor who became a Christian during Billy Graham's 1949 Los Angeles crusade, topped the February 6 hardcover nonfiction list. One searches in vain, however, to find history other than Bonhoeffer on the list of 100 best-selling Christian books of 2010, compiled by Thomas Nelson.
Meryl Zegarek handled publicity for Bonhoeffer, and she is working with Zondervan on the forthcoming book Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI's Story of Faith and Courage. She observes that evangelicals flock to contemporary conversion stories, citing former President George W. Bush's book Decision Points, number three on the Times list, behind Unbroken. "History books that convey both a fascinating time in history and bring to life an individual's faith will appeal to Christian readers," Zegarek said.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Bonhoeffer include:
Redeeming Bonhoeffer (The Book) | The problem with Eric Metaxas's portrayal of the German hero as an evangelical. (February 7, 2011)
The Authentic Bonhoeffer | Eric Metaxas explains how the German theologian lived a life worth examining. (July 1, 2010)
Bonhoeffer Stood Fast| Martyred German pastor showed theology has consequences. (May 5, 2010)