Thinking Out Loud

January 11, 2019

When Should Christian Bookstores Pull Authors from Shelves and Online Listings?

Some of you know that when I’m not writing this blog and editing Christianity 201; when I’m not leading or assisting in weekend worship at a local church; when I’m not occasionally speaking at a church; during the rest of the time I am making decisions for our local Christian bookstore.

One of the hardest decisions I made in 2018 was to remove books by Bill Hybels from our shelves. It isn’t that those books don’t contain much truth and that many of them have been personally beneficial to me. It was just that — with shelf space at a premium in our small town store — we didn’t need the distraction.

I didn’t just make the decision, but personally removed the books, title by title, and put them in a box where they remain today. There were more than a dozen titles. Bill was a big influence on me and I have to say doing this really, really hurt, but as long as there were new ongoing developments in the story, I felt we needed to do this.

Christian bookstores have pulled product many times in the past. I got into this business through the Christian music industry first as a broadcaster and then as a performer and later as a vendor of records and cassettes. I once sat in a restaurant in Newport Beach, California and was interviewed for the job of assistant editor of Contemporary Christian Music magazine. My friends called me a ‘walking encyclopedia’ on CCM, and I given about seven seconds of audio, could name just about any song and artist, including that obscure cut at the end of side two.

When Amy Grant and Sandy Patti went through divorce, many stores pulled product. Oddly enough, those divorces are still in their past, but their music is back on the shelves. Divorce became more widely accepted among Evangelicals. I would argue that the whole LGBT thing in the church is where divorce was a couple of generations back. And I expect that, as in the case of Ray Boltz or Jennifer Knapp, stores still actively pull product when an artist comes out.

Why all this today? Because I’m staring at the shelves under “M” for James MacDonald. Christian radio stations are rapidly dropping his program (see Wednesday’s column) and James is trying to control the situation by announcing the shutdown of Walk in the Word’s broadcast division. There are calls for him to resign. Unlike those who were divorced, or Hybels’ flirtatiousness, the issue with MacDonald seems to be money and the control of money. It’s definitely his Achilles Heel.

Once again, those books contain much truth. James MacDonald is a great communicator and his writing includes a constant, unabashed call to repentance. He has served many people well in that area of his life. But at this point, I wonder if those books are also going to prove to be a distraction.

This isn’t about judgment. It’s about a shortage of shelf space, and a host of new, upcoming, younger authors who deserve to be heard. Some of those will prove themselves as the leading Christian voices to their generation. The cream rises to the top. By their fruit they will be known. Some will disappear off the scene within five years. Again, it’s not about judgment.

It’s also too easy for stores just to keep ordering key names; somewhat akin to living in a county — as I do — where every time there’s an election, people simply vote for the incumbents. So Max Lucado, Tim Keller, Mark Batterson, Lee Strobel, Stormie Omartian, John Bevere, Joyce Meyer, Neil Anderson, etc.; are always assured their latest title will get picked up at the local store level.

And honestly, if the sales reps came around with new titles by Hybels and MacDonald there are store owners who simply aren’t investing time keeping up online and would simply order those titles unwittingly.

The best analogy I ever heard was when a local pastor called my wife and I “gatekeepers.” I never thought of our role that way, but it’s a responsibility that needs to be taken very seriously. Conversely, pastors need to guard who they quote in sermons. They can easily grant authority and credibility to an author whose life doesn’t line up with their teachings.

Chances are, at the end of today, James MacDonald will still be on our shelves, but we’ll monitor the situation closely before making a knee-jerk reaction. Prayer helps as well!

4 Comments »

  1. To what end should a person’s failings/comments/character impact their work? It was particularly interesting a couple of years ago when Eugene Peterson mentioned in an interview that he thought the debate about lesbians & gays vs Christians is over, and that he would officiate a same-sex wedding if asked. Turns out, he was very wrong — that debate is still raging, and major retailers were threatening to pull his material. Predictably, he retracted his remarks and bookstores could continue to sell The Message. So, a couple of comments stating his opinion about a hot topic was enough to potentially take down all of Peterson’s work? Work that is widely acknowledged as beneficial, orthodox, well-grounded, and helpful? Work that doesn’t touch on LGBT issues?

    The obvious counter-argument to this notion is the Bible. If we took the same standard, we would rip out the book of Proverbs because Solomon made regrettable choices later in life. We would reject anything David had to say because of his adultery and cover-up. The Christian scriptures are unique in that they reveal the failings of the protagonists. It reminds us that biblical authors and characters were real people who made choices that were good and bad.

    I appreciate that in your case there are other issues at play, like limited shelf space and a laudable desire to give exposure to new authors. But what I would really like to see is more nuance in our assessments. I think egregious examples like fraudulent claims (eg. Mike Warnke) should be treated differently than someone like Peterson who makes comments later in life that some disagree with. Ultimately, I think it would be good for work to be evaluated in and of itself, just like we must do with scripture. We accept biblical text as holy despite the fact that some of its authors were less than perfect. Yet we hold our successful authors and artists to a higher standard, willing to topple them and all their previous works if they stumble or reveal failings that we are all capable of.

    Comment by Mike — January 11, 2019 @ 11:24 am

    • I had forgotten about the Eugene Peterson case because it was over and done with in a matter of hours! You make some very good points here which I would love to publish tomorrow as a part 2 to this issue.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 11, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

  2. What an interesting perspective. I’ve never considered what someone goes through dealing with “well, what does it say if I keep this on the shelf? What does it say if I take this down?”
    There’s mercy and forgiveness but there’s also discipline and (balanced) judgment.

    Thank you for sharing your insights.

    Comment by sonworshiper — January 11, 2019 @ 9:20 pm

  3. Buy an extra shelf.

    Comment by The Purging Lutheran — January 11, 2019 @ 9:54 pm


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