Such is the modern mindset that many North Americans summarily refuse to read any kind of religious book. The particular point of view of a given volume does not matter. If the theme seems religious, the book is disqualified. To be worth reading, a book must be void of any significant theological or spiritual content.

Most book stores stock very few religious titles. This has resulted in the emergence over the past few decades of specialized book stores featuring Bibles and religious books. But the recent increase in interest in religions generally and evangelical religion particularly has seen a tremendous surge in the number of religious books, readers, and accordingly, of the stores that bring them together. Throughout the United States and Canada there are now about 3,600 such stores.

The proprietors of these Christian book stores are usually committed church people who want to minister to others. At first, few of them were sufficiently sensitive to or even aware of management and marketing techniques that are needed to make their operations flourish. But with considerable help from the twenty-eight-year-old Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) the picture has changed dramatically in recent years. CBA tabulations show average store volume up from $46,300 in 1970 to $93,900 in 1976. Average increase in gross annual sales climbed from 11.7 per cent to 19.3 per cent in the same period. The CBA held its annual trade exhibit and convention in Kansas City last month and nearly 7,000 people attended with more than 1,000 stores represented. The increase over the previous year’s attendance was the biggest in CBA history.

With the new stores and increased sales, the number and the size of book publishing also has grown. John T. Bass, Executive Vice-President of CBA, says that his industry is second only to electronics in growth. Improvement in production, packaging, and content undoubtedly has contributed to its expansion. Few books, with some best-selling exceptions, are explicitly evangelistic; most are geared to those who are already Christians. Through testimony and instruction they seek to relate biblical principles to flesh-and-blood situations. Religious publishers are quick to address themselves to most issues that concern the general population. Books on homosexuality, the role of women, nutrition, pornography, criminal justice, and drug abuse are abundant. Of course, as with regular publishers, there isn’t necessarily a relationship between quantity and quality. Testimonies abound. Celebrities have books by and about themselves. Ordinary people are more likely to see print if they are severely injured or are captured (then released) while serving as missionaries in a war zone, or if they are converted from heavy involvement in drugs or the occult.

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The sophistication of a new breed of Christian book stores is shown in the choice of such names as the Wet Net or the Vine and the Fig Tree. Other techniques are increasingly used to make their stores more appealing so as to draw customers who would be uneasy in a traditionally religious atmosphere. New stores continue to sprout up because of the potential for success; CBA figures show that the rate of failure was only 4.7 per cent last year, far lower than the figure for small businesses in general. Bass says the basic market remains the married woman between the ages of 26 and 48 because she is still the person in the family who can most easily shop during the day. Bass says that with all that growth only one in ten persons in an evangelical church visits a Christian book store. That leaves a huge market to develop.

A Pause For Appreciation

The mid-July power failure in New York City suspended what neither war nor weather nor any other circumstance had ever interrupted: the venerable daily report of Religious News Service. A note to subscribers explained, “With mail deliveries suspended, all electrical equipment dead, transportation, telephone, telex and cable facilities inoperative, it was impossible to produce a service. This is the first time in RNS’s 44-year history that the service was not issued on a scheduled publication day. We regret any inconvenience.”

RNS, operated by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, has become a basic tool for any North American intent on keeping abreast of religious developments. Under the very capable leadership of managing editor Lillian Block a package of stories totalling more than 5,000 words is compiled and distributed each weekday. The reportage is a model of fairness. Highly-charged issues are dealt with sensitively, and the result is better human understanding between people whose fundamental outlooks differ. The service was resumed as soon as power was restored, the break in the action having reminded many a subscriber that the material would be hard to do without.

Prime Time For Evangelicals

Last month CBS provided another example of the increased media attention to evangelicalism in a one-hour prime-time documentary called, simply, “Born Again.” The host, Bill Moyers, testified repeatedly to his own conversion experience, but he never specified whether he still agreed with the Bible teaching that precipitated it. He did make explicit that in this program he was a “neutral” reporter. One ought not to expect a secular network to do the work of an evangelist. What is expected is a fair treatment of the subject, while allowing for the limitations of time and of the medium.

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In general, CBS did fairly well. They might have concentrated on the ignorant or the shysters or the flamboyant or on those who blend evangelical rhetoric with ultra-right-wing politics, to the detriment of both. But CBS did none of that. Moyers started with the Campus Crusade-backed Here’s Life America campaigns and Athletes in Action teams. He implied that subtle manipulation was involved. But an articulate spokesman for Campus Crusade defended using any legitimate and modern means to draw people to Christ.

In the middle of the program the cameras focused on deep south revivalism, showing long established methods by which the same basic message is proclaimed as do the “city slicker” Campus Crusaders. Moyers suggested that adolescent vulnerability was being exploited. It is true that there is a fine line, often unwittingly crossed, between doing what one can to call forth permanent decisions for Christ and bringing social and emotional pressure to bear to produce a short-lived profession. But the decade from age fifteen to twenty-five is crucial for making permanent one’s earlier childhood decisions and for reaching out to potential converts. Certainly one should try to lower the number of spurious professions, but not at the expense of being so low-key that even genuine conversions are delayed.

The strongest part of the program, happily, was the last segment where Moyers separately interviewed Eldridge Cleaver and Harold Hughes, who made numerous references to Chuck Colson. Hughes parried the devil’s advocate question about a secular psychological explanation for his mid-life conversion by quoting the blind man of John 9: “Though I was blind, now I see.” When asked why there are political (not to mention theological and other) differences among born-again people Hughes distinguished between conversion and maturity. A baby does not know calculus, he said. He did not point out that most grown-ups don’t know calculus either.

Martin Marty, a media favorite for expert commentary on religion, said he approved of individual conversions, but wasn’t as impressed when they involved large groups. Marty decried an overemphasis on celebrities (even though Luke himself couldn’t resist reporting that “not a few of the leading women” were converted under Paul’s preaching, thereby showing both a classist and a sexist slant in one phrase). Marty revealed his ignorance of Joni, a current leading religious best seller, when he asked, “Where are ‘born again’ books for the crippled?” Joni is a quadriplegic. He rightly suggested that, biblically and historically, conversion to Christ should be a life-shaking experience. Too often, today’s born-againer continues to behave pretty much as before, perhaps dropping a couple of vices, but not really having his life-style inconvenienced. To the extent that this charge is valid it deserves heeding.

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For balance Moyers also could have included an intellectual more clearly identified with the born-again emphasis than Marty, an ex-Missouri Lutheran. When CBS reports on the more prestigious forms of Protestantism (and Moyers would be a good candidate to host such a show), they could use an analyst who is from the born-again camp. That would be still another sign of media maturity. Evangelicals would not only be reported on—even as one reports on South Sea islanders—but asked for their opinions.

Rhodesia’s Options

Two Protestant churchmen may hold the key to an orderly transition to black rule in Rhodesia. Christians around the world should pray that they will act responsibly and that black Rhodesians will rally round one or the other or both. Although United Methodist bishop Abel Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole are political rivals, both are relative moderates.

Prime Minister Ian Smith, who also needs our prayers, is obviously aware that dealing with Muzorewa and Sithole will be far easier than negotiating with militants operating from neighboring countries. Smith has called for a parliamentary election August 31 and has spoken of “a broad-based government incorporating those black Rhodesians who are prepared to work peacefully and constitutionally with the present government in order to establish a base from which we would be able to draw up our future constitution.” This statement was widely interpreted as hinting that Smith would prefer to achieve a settlement with Muzorewa and Sithole.

Muzorewa returned from a six-week tour last month and was hailed by a crowd of 20,000. “That was the largest throng ever to support a black nationalist leader in Rhodesia,” Religious News Service reported, and indicated that Bishop Muzorewa “may be the popular favorite of Rhodesian blacks.”

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