There are few things in evangelicalism easier to mock than the annual meeting of the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). It is a Christian marketing epidemic and embarrassing to millions of thinking evangelicals. The problem is a great deal of the criticism is simplistic, which should be a point of embarrassment to those of us who consider ourselves thoughtful evangelicals. First the facts. Today over 13,000 delegates, representing all facets of the Christian retail industry, are descending on the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans for this year's convention. Though the CBA convention is #181 of the 6,000 U.S. tradeshows based on total exhibit-floor space sold, it is the biggest networking and buying event in evangelicalism, with representatives from all 50 states and over 60 foreign countries buying, selling, marketing, and publicizing Christian products at 1,712 exhibitor booths over the five days, July 8 to 13. It's easy to spot the excesses. The show officially opens today when Bibleman (a.k.a. Willie Aames) cuts the ribbon. Within minutes, you can run across Scripture Candy ("Reaching the world one piece at a time"), Arise Christian watches with inspirational phrases on the face ("Arise: telling more than time"), and Scripture Jewelry (the "Hinds' Feet on High Places" pendant goes for $100). And so on.To be sure, respectable book publishers (Baker, InterVarsity, Zondervan, etc.) can be found, as well as promotions for some of the best contemporary Christian musicans, like Jars of Clay. But no one—not even the attendees and Christian marketers—denies that the overall impression is one of Christian kitsch run amuck.So why do all those good Christian people, who admit it's a lot of silly hoopla, do it? The common criticism is that everyone is in it just to make a Christian buck. But the interesting thing is that no one at the convention believes this any more than scholars at Christian colleges believe they are teaching simply to make ends meet. The people at CBA say they are doing it for the ministry and—after dozens of conversations with all manner of publishers, book store owners, trinket salesmen, over many years—I finally believe them. Even in their private and unguarded moments (after I've primed them to finally admit what they're really about), they talk about ministry—getting the gospel out in any and every form imaginable. These people are nuts about Jesus.I spoke last night with a woman who has now published three spiritual warfare novels for a well-known Christian publishing house. I've not read her books, but I know the genre and the publishing house, and I'd be very, very surprised if these novels even approach what most serious readers would call literature. Why does she write them? Well, she admits she enjoys the notoriety that comes with being a CBA-published author, and I'm sure she doesn't mind the extra money that comes in (though as a mid-list author, it's probably between $5,000 and $15,000 a year, I'm guessing—which computes to a ho-hum hourly wage). But she did say this:"I've been most surprised by all the letters I get from men in prison. My books are about people discovering why God has put them where they are. I guess these guys have a lot of time to think about stuff like that. And they tell me my books help them. One prisoner recently told me that after reading my first book, he decided to become a Christian." At this the author adds, "As far as I'm concerned, I can die and go to heaven. That's what it's all about as far as I'm concerned."This sort of story is repeated endlessly; everybody has a tale how his or her product has changed somebody's life. There are so many of these crazy stories that the skeptic in me wears down. Even if many are urban legends, there are just too many to chalk them all up to self-justification for pursuing mammon in Christ's name. These sorts of things really happen.My conclusion is this: the American religious (and about to become religious) public loves things done in "poor taste." This will not surprise anyone who watches television, movies, or notes what magazines sell in grocery store checkout lines. Americans seem to crave the low-brow, the simplistic, the corny. If we want to reach the masses for Christ in America, we are wise to recognize this fact of American life.We knee-jerk critics of CBA can comfort ourselves with the knowledge of our intellectual superiority as we watch PBS or flip through Christianity Today or study the latest book on postmodernism. We pat ourselves on the back for doing our part to keep Christ respectable for the cultural elites we have to deal with. But if people like us were to try to reach the common people, as Jesus did, I'm guessing we'd fail miserably. No—I know we'd fail miserably. We "Christian intellectuals" simply have no idea how to reach common people in an early 21st century, consumerist culture. Condemn them for their poor taste and/or consumerist mentality, yes. But understand and reach them?CBA members seem to have a pretty good handle on how to do this. This doesn't mean CBA doesn't deserve its share of criticism (just as Christian intellectuals do). It does mean we who consider ourselves erudite believers have failed to do one of the things we pride ourselves in, recognizing the complexity of things.
Mark Galli is Managing Editor of Christianity Today.
The Christian Booksellers Association Web site mainly offers information about the CBA, though it also has bestseller lists and the text of CBA Marketplace magazine. For more on Christian books, music, and products, see Christian Retailing magazine.World magazine also criticized "how bumper stickers, stuffed animals, and retail kitsch are squeezing the books out of Christian bookstores" in its July 1, 2000 issue. But it's not as harsh as its July 12, 1997 cover story, " Whatever Happened to Christian Publishing?" (which was itself scrutinized in Books & Culture [print only]). Modern Reformation also published a critical "dispatch" from CBA in January 1999.Frederica Mathewes-Green, on the other hand, wrote a 1998 column for Christianity Today titled " Don't Blame the Publishers." "Get a bunch of Christian intellectuals together and pretty soon they'll start in deploring the CBA," she noted.
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