Christian numerologists take note: the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center encompasses the equivalent of 7.77 football fields (or 350,000 square feet), including three halls, two enclosed outdoor eating areas, and half a dozen food vendors—and there are two floors above that. The industry that caters to evangelical Christian specialty stores—members of the CBA—managed to pack it to the rafters with almost 500 booths, some the size of small houses.
Given the great number of companies vying for the eyes of the several thousand CBA dealers, it also amounted to one of the greatest shows on earth. Publishers stopped just short of carpet-bombing you with products, and the pressroom was lined with 36 feet of table, always covered with promotional materials.
Book signings existed within an inverse Bizarro universe: Authors signed the books, gave them to you, and thanked you for expressing an interest—any interest. I walked away with six bags full of stuff, including 14 books (a low figure because of my hatred for lines), a dozen magazines, and countless catalogues, posters, and assorted knickknacks. When I got back to my office, a bidding war broke out over my Jews for Jesus shopping bag.
But just as guns don't kill people, products don't sell themselves. The sense of salesmanship on such a massive scale created a wonderful primordial capitalistic frisson that crackled through the air and encircled you like fins jutting out of the water. There was oneupmanship aplenty. One of the jovial Canon Press guys told me that their book on raising boys was "way better than [radio personality James] Dobson's." And, of course, the good old-fashioned naked grabs for attention. Plenty of publicists launched themselves at me when they saw the scarlet color-coded nametag that signified I was a member of the press; as I sat down at the Christianity Today International booth to rest my feet, one author came up and told me that "you guys" should cover her work and then jokingly threatened to hunt me down if "we" didn't.
When traditional tactics failed, suppliers found other creative ways to attract attention. Word Entertainment was the most ostentatious, with spotlights, popcorn, and—I am not making this up—one of those vacuum chambers in which people try to grab dollar bills that are tantalizingly at hand. And then there were the inflatable sharks I'd seen kids carrying around since the doors opened. They were about three feet long—sleek and gray with a fine row of teeth. I didn't even know what they were promoting, but I wanted to take one home. I just needed to find the booth.
There were a lot of aisles to search, and I kept getting distracted. One booth—featuring a stop sign that had been altered to read "STOP liberals!"—promised "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation." Fascinated by such an uncommercial, finger-in-the-eye booth at a manifestly slick convention, and wondering just how one can have half a thesis, I sat down on one of the chairs in the booth. Ed Stevens, president of the International Preterist Association, noticed me after a few minutes and asked what I was looking for.
I asked him what he had against liberals. Ed said that "the liberals" are claiming that Jesus is a false messiah because he didn't come back within the lifetime of some of his initial followers. I asked Ed what liberals are saying this. He proffered a book by John Noe that began by quoting from Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian.
I started scribbling a timeline in my notebook and asked Ed to help me make sense of his beliefs. According his view, Jesus did come again, in A.D. 70, wrought horrible judgment on the Jewish people and their temple, and then left, having inaugurated the promised "new heaven and new earth." In fact, we're living in it.
"What do you do about sin?" I asked, meaning, hey, this sure doesn't feel like a new heaven and new earth.
Ed seemed like a nice guy—albeit one who doesn't understand the genre of the apocalyptic—but in his answer, and in the conversation that followed, we were pretty much talking past each other. So I moved on, without asking about that half a thesis, and made one last attempt to locate the elusive inflatable shark.
I finally found the shark booth just before I had to leave, only to learn that they were all out. I turned away disappointed and, for some reason, a passage from W.B. Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" came to mind as I was heading out the door:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is;
Maybe not. But it knows what it wants.
Jeremy Lott is the 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern for Reason magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier Books & Culture Corners on CBA include:
Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: The Culture of Euphemism | A dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association convention. (July 17, 2000)
Other Christianity Today articles that have addressed the state of the Christian book industry include:
No Secrets about Agents, Man | Did an author's business arrangement blind him to important questions about Christian publishing? (June 10, 2002)
No Longer Left Behind | An insider's look at how Christian books are agented, acquired, packaged, branded, and sold in today's marketplace. (April 12, 2002)
Dead Authors Society | We're no longer interested in tasting death but only little morsels of cheer. (Mar. 28, 2001)
Behold the Power of Cheese | A dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association (July 12, 2000)
Don't Blame the Publishers! | Publishers are not forcing shallow books on an unwilling community. (Feb. 9, 1998)
World magazine 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]).
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
Stop, Drop, and Cover … | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files … | … with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is … | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)