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What's Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You

How competition to publish celebrity Christians crowds out theology.
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Having recently entered the publishing fray, I read with interest Mark Taylor's article, "The Values and Perils of Competition," for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. (Thanks to Justin Taylor and Al Hsu for linking the article.) Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, bemoans the effects of competition on his industry. It seems agents and large royalty payments, commonplace in the wider publishing world, have become the new reality for Christian publishers.

Taylor explains the process. An agent approaches the publisher with a can't-miss book proposal by a big-name Christian author. The publisher likes the idea. The agent lets the publisher know that other houses want the book. This project demands a serious advance. Perhaps against better judgment, the publisher bites.

"So we get the deal," Taylor writes. "We pay the advance. The manuscript comes in. We begin to wonder why we paid so much for this average manuscript. We edit it and market it and sell it and process the returns. And at the end of the day we take a huge write-off. If we're lucky, the book earns a net contribution to overheads. But in most of these scenarios, the book generates a loss even apart from overheads. Competition (and perhaps some greed) has nearly killed us."

What does all this have to do with theology? I won't guess which Tyndale books Taylor has in mind. But I can guess the genre. And it's not serious theology or catechesis for our churches. Al Hsu, an acquisitions and development editor at InterVarsity Press, explains the consequences. "[G]ood books (with less 'commercial potential') get squeezed out of the market and displaced from bookstore shelves to make way for high-profile books that publishers need to sell a boatload of to break even on."

This is business in the American market. I don't suspect Christian publishers will successfully collude to suppress author advances. At least the principle doesn't work in professional sports. So if the supply doesn't change, then demand must. Agents can pitch these books because we the readers often love our celebrity authors more than we care for sound doctrine. Consider the example of Hollywood. Movie studios would sooner take their chances on a star-studded cast with an iffy script than an unknown actor with a promising concept. It's a safer bet. Likewise, some Christian publishers will cast their lot with authors whose faces they can slap on the front of a book. If you don't like what you see in Christian bookstores, vote with your pocketbook. Lead not Christian publishers into the temptation of big advances for bad books. And when you do see good theology, drop some change.

RIP DJK

Many tributes to the late D. James Kennedy have rightly centered on the remarkable training program, Evangelism Explosion. In addition to helping thousands meet Jesus, Evangelism Explosion has shaped evangelical theology. Yet I suspect few will remember Kennedy primarily for evangelism. The Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church pastor, a television fixture, played a key role in the ascent of the Religious Right beginning in the 1980s. During trips through the South, I often see lawn signs reading "Reclaim America for Christ," a reminder of the influence of his now-defunct Center for Reclaiming America. Of course, in order to reclaim America for Christ, Jesus must have once claimed America. Far from simply a political view, this perspective has tremendous theological implications, with many questions begging for answers. What does it mean for Jesus to claim a modern nation-state? Is that like God claiming Israel in the Old Testament? How does God want us to reclaim America—by preaching the gospel, effecting political change, or both?

Writing for the God's Politics blog, Diana Butler Bass offers a few kind words about Kennedy. But mostly she exhorts readers to bury American Christendom with Kennedy, who she says, "mixed evangelicalism with classical Reformed theology and a kind of soft Christian Reconstruction, creating the spiritual fuel for a right-wing political and media empire that meshed with the longings of a certain age."

Butler Bass says younger evangelicals do not recognize the Protestant America of Kennedy's youth. Thus, "as the Christendom generation passes away, a post-Christendom faith will, most probably, take its place," she writes. "That may take some time, but it will eventually recreate Christian political theology in America."

Many will recognize Stanley Hauerwas as a leading Christian critic of attempts to reclaim America. Can Hauerwas (born in 1940, 10 years after Kennedy) divorce American Christians from their proprietary love for America? Will legions of Duke Divinity School graduates lead the way? Do I detect the seed of postmillennial optimism in hopes that Christian America will vanish with the Greatest Generation?

Conference Worth Noting (Even Attending)

Convergent Conference

When: Sept. 21-22, 2007

Where: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina

Cost: $30

Speakers: Mark Driscoll, Danny Akin, Ed Stetzer, and others

Subject: "The emerging church is, by nature, difficult to categorize. Is it a divergence from orthodoxy or the extension of it? What is the litmus test for orthodoxy anyway? Has the traditional church lost touch with culture or has the emerging church become saturated with it? Is it a question of methodology or theology—or both?"

What They're Saying: Driscoll promises, "For the record, I will not be drinking, cussing, or sprinkling infants and calling it baptism but do hope to honor Jesus with my message."

Contact Southeastern Seminary for further information. Registration deadline was September 7.

Quick Takes
  • Baptist blogging strikes again. An anonymous seminary professor targets leading Southern Baptist theological educators Al Mohler and Paige Patterson. (Responses have been swift.)
  • Reclaiming the Mind Ministries posts hundreds of Evangelical Theology Society papers. "The goal of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries is to make theology accessible," says C. Michael Patton. "I hope these papers will go a long way in doing so."
  • Danny Akin explains "Why Theology Matters." "When you wed solid theology to a commitment to the Great Commission, you will bring a balance to your theology that will be healthy and fruitful," says Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary. "We must remember that the best missionaries are capable theologians, and the best theologians are passionate missionaries."
  • Christian scholars debate C.S. Lewis on gender roles. Charges of Arianism ensue. The dialogue between Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and Adam Barkman (available in print only) illustrates how the Trinity has become a key front in the gender wars.
Quote for the Fortnight

"Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death. It can also be—this is in fact its purpose! —the conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas."

Helmut Thielicke in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large.



Related Elsewhere:

The first Theology in the News column was "From the Seminaries to the Pews."

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