Thinking Out Loud

June 23, 2015

When Christian Authors and Artists Lives Get Messy, Should Retailers Pull Their Product?

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:58 am

no longer availableAs someone who has spent time leading worship in several different churches, I still get excited when I hear a new song. If the song really captures me — as one did recently — I’ll tell everyone I meet about it.

About a month ago I found such a song. It was a beautiful worship song that also contained teaching and exhortation — the best of all possible worlds worlds — and reminded me of some classic Andrae Crouch, or at least what he might write in 2015.

And then everything crashed. I was telling a group of people about the song and they proceeded to tell me a whole load of details about the artist, an affair, a marriage breakup and more. Hours later I went online only to discover everything they said was true, not that I should have doubted.

While I should have grieved over the artist’s sin (and my own), at that point my thoughts were entirely selfish. “Darn;” I thought; “I really liked that song.”

Two weeks later I decided to play the song on YouTube one more time. Still resonates. Then my wife and I had a discussion about whether or not the composition is in any way invalidated by the fact that the writer, like all of us, is flawed.

On Sunday night the discussion came up again in reference to an author. (See yesterday’s blog post.) Should Christian bookstores and online vendors simply pull his product off the shelves? If they do so, should this be permanent or just for a season? Is the truth contained in those books in any way invalidated by the author’s moral failure, or does the transgression disqualify it somehow?

Back in the day, Christian booksellers went through this when Amy Grant and Sandi Patti each were divorced. When Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz came out as gay. More recently, when Mark Driscoll admitted he plagiarized large sections of his books.

Of course, sometimes, the truth just isn’t there. The boy in The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven now admits he was never there in the first place. That’s a different type of situation. But last time I checked, those classic Amy and Sandi albums are back on the shelves, and this time around, some stores didn’t bother pulling Driscoll product at all.

I really like the song with which I began this discussion. I don’t wanna go all Charismatic on you and say it’s anointed, but it’s certainly special, at least to me. Does it not remain valid despite all the back-story? Didn’t God use a donkey once?

May 1, 2015

Connecting People and Resources

I’ve written before about the common thread in all the different ministry ventures I’ve worked with. With radio, I got to introduce people to new songs and new artists. With worship leading, I got to connect people to vehicles that could be part of their personal expression of praise to God. As a book and music reviewer, the motivation was more obvious. As a blogger, I get to share information about other voices online. As a link list curator for Leadership Journal, I was able, by the news and opinion pieces I noted, to be influential in the lives of Christian leaders.

radio-towerI guess I like facilitating a whole load of networking.

But let’s return to radio for a minute. If I were to return to it — and I did look into various avenues — I would no longer get to choose the songs being played unless I brokered the airtime and picked the playlist myself. Radio stations either use consultants or have their own formula for choosing what goes into the rotation. Even the morning show guys, when they’re done with their banter, simply play the next song on the list.

You could solve this, I suppose by being the consultant or music director, but there are only so many openings, and even in small-to-medium markets, it’s often just one guy who controls a number of regional stations.

With worship leading, similar formulas apply. There’s often a tacit understanding that if a new song was introduced by last week’s team, you’re expected to continue with that song over the next three weeks. In demographically wide churches, you draw from different sources representing different ages and tastes to create an eclectic music set.

Music reviews largely don’t exist. Unless you write for Relevant Magazine, you’re about 500 times more likely to receive books in the mail to review than a CD. (We’ve reviewed several here, but it’s the exception, not the rule.) Bloggers tend not to be excited about specific books as they were five years ago; as Christian publishing faces challenges there are fewer and fewer new writers stepping onto the scene; and there appears not to be the push by publishers to utilize social media.

With my role at PARSE now ended, I look for new ways to share the passion of sharing. The one role that never ends is my two days a week at the Christian bookstore. There, I still have some influence, though there is always the suspicion on the part of some that I’m wearing my shopkeeper hat, and not my role as friend, counselor, or helper. Where ministry and retail converge, it’s not always an ideal fit.

My observation there is always the same: The greatest connector for people and products is the local church pastor, but for that to work, the pastors first need to know about the book in question, and most don’t have the interest, the time, or both.

But trust me, from YouTube to the Christian blogosphere to the world of Christian music and publishing, there are a ton of resources out there.

Finding and utilize them will enrich your life, and the lives of family members, extended family, neighbors, co-workers and others in your circle.

April 12, 2015

Relevant Magazine and the Power of Print

Filed under: culture — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:23 am

Relevant Magazine CoverAbout a year ago my church library started stocking Relevant magazine. As no stranger to the website, relevantmag.com, and having great familiarity with the parent company (Strang Book Group) that gave birth to Relevant Media Group, I could have easily passed the print version by, but decided to borrow one, you know, just in case I missed something. Since then I’ve been borrowing each one as Paul and Elaine, our church librarians, place it in the rack.

This article isn’t about the magazine per se, but rather about the appeal of the print edition. But as to the magazine, its target audience is Millennials and people like me who want to be younger, or at least think younger; and its distinctive is that as it reviews current culture (movies, music, books, television, YouTube, etc.) the writers are not afraid to blend together two worlds that some would call ‘the sacred and the secular.’ Their writer base is diverse as are their interview subjects, and many of the differences that create division between different tribes of Christianity are seemingly absent.

Back to print editions. The internet has been very kind to me, and I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, but on Saturday afternoon I sat down with the physical copy around 4:30 and didn’t get up much before 5:30. Okay, maybe I’m a slow reader. And there was a short phone call. But there was something about getting lost in a magazine again that was, for lack of a better word refreshing not to mention that unlike the online experience, the print edition offers no off-ramps.

Relevant Magazine CoverI post this today simply to say I hope that Relevant does not go the way of other publications which have ceased print operations. At one time, CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) was the #1 Christian periodical, and now it is simply a web-only entity as is Discipleship Journal. Fortunately, Christianity Today and Leadership Journal (the latter of which employs me as a part-time writer) are also still in print.

As someone who is engaged in book sales, I obviously have a print-bias, but when you consider Relevant’s target market, and the presuppositions about that generation preferring to do everything online, the physical edition of the magazine is something I would hate to see lost to technological and economic factors. As the announcer says, “Available on fine newsstands everywhere;” I hope.

March 26, 2015

Big Box Book Stores’ Christian Shelves Lack Essentials

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Saturday night around 6:30 PM we dropped into a Chapters store. The Chapters and Indigo stores are the Canadian equivalent to Barnes and Noble, and whether I’m in Canada or checking out B&N on holidays, I love to hang out in the Religion section and see what conversations I can initiate.

This time it was a couple whose son was being baptized the very next day in the church where I was baptized many years earlier. They were looking at a couple of Joel Osteen books and when I tried to steer them away from those, they didn’t actually need much convincing. They immediately commented on the somewhat random assortment listed under ‘Christianity.’

“Why is Deepak Chopra here?” they asked.

“You could always move them around the corner;” I offered. I like to keep my options in these stores open, so re-shelving books isn’t in my repertoire.

Anyway, instead of just scanning the shelves out of personal interest, I tried to see it from their perspective and said to myself, “Okay, if we were standing in a Christian bookstore right now, what would I suggest to them?”

And then I hit the wall.

First, so much of the inventory on these shelves was new releases. There wasn’t much in the way of recurrent, perennial Christian books. The strength of the Christian book market has largely rested in the strength of what is called its ‘back-list’ titles. By this I don’t mean the classic writers who are now deceased, but rather simply the best books of the last 25 years. Some earlier Yancey titles. Experiencing God by Blackaby. The Lucado series on the crucifixion and resurrection. Even more recent stuff like Joyce Meyer’s Battlefield and the first two Case for… books by Lee Strobel were missing. (Having the classic writings of Andrew Murray, A. W. Tozer, Spurgeon, etc. isn’t a bad idea, either. The Lumen Classics series would be a good fit at low price points.)

Second, there are so many books which simply did not belong in that section at all. I saw title after title that was completely foreign to me. To sort this out you need two things. One would be an awareness of the publisher imprints on each book and a knowledge of who’s who. The other would be a combination of discernment and plenty of time to study each book carefully. Obviously trusting the publisher imprints is faster, but if it’s a truly special occasion — say a Baptism gift — you do really want to take the time to get the best book.

Given their son’s age, I decided to go for younger authors. I’d just watched the live stream release party for Judah Smith’s newest, Life Is _____; and then they had Jefferson Bethke, the guy whose launch was tied to a YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion.” But then, a book that seemed almost out of context: Radical by David Platt. I told them a bit about the book, and Platt and the Secret Church movement, and even though I don’t usually align with Calvinists, I said I thought this was the best choice overall. I left before they made their final decision.

…The reason this family was in the store at all was because the nearby Christian bookstore had just closed permanently. A friend of a friend was supposed to do a book signing and release party that day and had arrived to find the doors padlocked. These (for lack of a better word) “secular” bookstores are all that many communities have now, but finding the book you need is a major challenge.

The publisher reps who visit these stores are no doubt aware of strong back-list titles that would work, but the bookstore chains’ buyers are under orders to buy only the newest titles. To get their foot in the door, publishers need to be constantly re-issuing the older titles in new formats, but it’s hard when their orientation is to what’s new and forthcoming.

March 25, 2015

Wednesday Link List

Today’s graphics are a couple of Cheezburger classics from 2009.

cat-can-part-snow

Is the Modern Offering the Same as Biblical Almsgiving? – “I have never heard an evangelical sermon on almsgiving. Despite countless texts in the Hebrew Bible about generosity toward the poor, the example of the first Christians, and a long tradition of the practice, especially during Lent, I have rarely heard the word mentioned in my adult life as a Christian. ‘Tithes and offerings,’ yes of course, and many are the sermons I have heard about the generic subject of ‘stewardship’ or ‘giving,’ but rarely has anyone explained to me what ‘almsgiving’ means and how it relates to other kinds of giving practices…’Bible-believing’ churches…have gotten the subject of Christian generosity and serving others with our resources all jumbled up… Almsgiving is not grounded in the need to support theocratic institutions, but on the specific call to “remember the poor.”

Fans Continue to Make(up) Pilgrimages to See Tammy Faye – From January in The Witchita Eagle: “Since her death on July 20, 2007, fans and friends of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner occasionally make pilgrimages to where the ashes of the Christian television celebrity were laid to rest. There, they leave the types of cosmetic items – lipstick, mascara – that helped give Tammy Faye her distinctive look. In a Harper County cemetery, remote and unmarked, Tammy Faye’s gravestone is far away from the glamor, controversy and cameras that followed the woman who helped build three Christian television networks…” Widower Ron Messner said, “She was the most common, down-to-earth person you ever saw. The press always made her out to be some nitwit type of person. She was totally different. Her IQ was 165.”

35 Years Later, Bob Jones Retracts Idea of Stoning Gays – The Washington Post quotes him: “I take personal ownership for this inflammatory rhetoric…This reckless statement was made in the heat of a political controversy 35 years ago. It is antithetical to my theology and my 50 years of preaching a redeeming Christ Who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved… Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached.” The retraction came after a petition was begun demanding it.

The Divide Over Franklin Graham’s Facebook Comment – First Graham said, “Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that.” Then Jim Wallis responded, “It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color…” Other leaders signed on to his statement, while the discussion plays out in over 1,000 comments at Sojourners. (More coverage at CT Gleanings.)

Small Groups Based on the Sunday Sermon – This is an in-house link to a sister blog of PARSE that really struck a chord because we’ve had the discussion at our house many times over the past few years; and as it turned out, Ed Stetzer wasn’t just trying to sell more LifeWay curriculum: “Proponents of the sermon-based model love the synergy their people get; instead of bombarding them with different messages multiple times in a week, the church is able to hammer again and again the core truths of the week. It creates a greater sense of focus than you might otherwise have; that sense of focus is at least part of the reason for the growth in these types of groups. But with the benefits come a new set of challenges to effective disciple-making through sermon-based groups.”

USA Today Explores the Decline of Sunday School – “Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn’t help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. ‘You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school. It takes up all your morning. It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you’re giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week,’ says [LeeAnn] MacNeil. ‘By the time they come home, it’s 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid.'”

On Commercial Christian Publishing – Ed Cyzewski: “When I didn’t reach the sales goals I needed to meet, my future as an ‘author’ hung in the balance. I didn’t know how to survive without the approval of others for my work. Adding in the pressure to make at least some money from book publishing, I had created a toxic mixture of personal approval and financial pressure that poisoned my writing work… I never knew how tightly I was holding onto commercial publishing as the source of my identity until I let go of it.”

How Your Sponsored Child Picture is Taken – Some of the Compassion International children have never had their picture taken before and so it’s a pretty big deal.“They feel so excited to take the pictures that they come jumping and dancing to the project. At the time of their photo shoot, they become more serious, and we have to keep telling them to smile. Otherwise, they are enthusiastic.”

Men, Sinful Cravings, and Pornography – Two related articles; first, one by J.D. Greear when you wonder why God doesn’t simply remove the cravings: “[S]ometimes God allows us to struggle with a lesser sin to keep us from a greater one—pride. Because if you or I were immediately cured from certain sins, we’d become insufferably proud.” Second, Dave Jenkins with six essential ingredients necessary in repentance from porn: “The porn addict lives in a world where they go through a cycle of feeling sorry for what they did, but never coming to see the gospel seriousness of what they have done.”

Ten of the Worst Christian T-Shirts – and we’re sure there were plenty of runners up. “I’ve always found American Christian culture’s diminishment of the sacred to be extremely troubling. In a manner foreign to other faiths, evangelicalism often obscures the holy in a cloud of kitsch. Take, for instance, the Christian t-shirt. Now here’s a phenomenon that serves absolutely no purpose. Oh, I know that they’re sold as powerful tools for evangelism, but let’s be honest. Have you ever met someone who saw a ‘Lord’s Gym’ t-shirt and fell to the ground crying, ‘WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED!?‘”

Song of Solomon’s Ideal Woman – “At first glance, this might look like nudity. But I promise it’s just gazelles.” Okay, but it may not be safe for the church office. (And yes, we remember the Wittenburg Door version.)

A Refreshing Musical Voice – This time last week we had never heard of Heather Janssen who has been posting videos to YouTube for six years. Enjoy a minimalist acoustic guitar cover of Hillsong’s This I Believe, or the fuller grand piano sound of an original song.

I had enough material this week for two columns; be sure to check back on the weekend for more.

funny-dog-pictures-jesus-shepherd

February 26, 2015

Destiny Image Publishing Cancels Book by Progressive Christian Writer

I thought it was strange that the first I heard that blogger Brandan Robertson had become the Christian publishing news-maker of the week, it was a story at the online page of TIME Magazine, not my usual Christian information channels. The book in question was Nomad: Not-So-Religious Thoughts on Faith, Doubt, and the Journey In Between, scheduled for release October 20, 2015 by Charismatic publisher Destiny Image.

Brandan RobertsonThe article begins,

A prominent Christian publisher canceled a book project this week after the author refused to say that he did “not condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle,” the author told TIME.

Okay, so it was the gay thing again. End of story, right?

For its part, Destiny Image was dodging the issue:

When TIME asked [Don] Nori why Destiny pulled the book, Nori did not address the role that Robertson’s position on sexuality played in their decision: “There is nothing significant to report,” Nori says. “We did not reject or refuse. As with all books, a publisher decides what is financially viable. We released the book back to the author with our sincere prayers for his success. This occurrence happens every season.”

The implication is that here, in the first quarter of 2015, the sales force had already determined that there wasn’t enough interest in a book scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2015. Seems a bit far off, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, there was one report that the word gay only occurred one time in the final manuscript which the publisher had received only hours before.

The more I thought about this, the more weird it seemed that Destiny Image had tapped Robertson for a book at all. Destiny Image is a publisher of Charismatic books. Their top titles at Spring Arbor Distributors and Send the Light Distribution include The Maker’s Diet, When Heaven Invades Earth, The Lady in Waiting, Hosting the Presence, The Supernatural Ways of Royalty, The 40-Day Soul Fast, and God’s Armor Bearer and they have been home to authors such as Myles Munroe, Bill Johnson and T. D. Jakes.  Knowing that, I reached out to Brandan on Twitter:

Brandan, As a longtime veteran of the Christian bookstore business, I don’t know how the heck you ended up with Destiny Image in the first place.

But then two days ago Brandan wrote a blog post which got picked up by Huffington Post yesterday which sets the scene a little clearer:

…My former publisher, Destiny Image, signed me in March 2014 to be one of the first in their new “progressive” line of books along with books by my friend Benjamin L. Corey (who blogs at Patheos Progressive). As a then 21 year old senior in college, I was excited at the opportunity to turn so many of the thoughts that I had been sharing through my blog Revangelical into a book, a dream that I have had since I was a child. My book was to be a collection of memoir-essays that outlined some of the most important lessons that I have learned over the course of my spiritual journey thus far. I would be raw and honest, but also seek to write from an evangelical perspective to evangelicals. In order to do that, I intentionally kept out a chapter on sexuality, hoping to not detract from the broader message I was trying to communicate…

Okay, so it’s the progressive publishing imprint thing again. End of story, right?

Don’t they ever learn?

This is so reminiscent of the situation with Waterbrook. If you’ve forgotten, they published a book — God and the Gay Christian — which also caught some flak because of sexuality issues. But then, they argued that the book was issued under the Convergent imprint, not Waterbrook per se. That didn’t fly with anyone, since the other imprint shared the same acquisitions and editorial staff. So the company severed the two divisions, as they should have from the outset.

Destiny Image had not announced a different imprint. The book was listed at two industry sites as being issued under the parent label.

Like Rob Bell, Robertson’s book was not afraid to ask questions. The author is quoted on the book’s page at Ingram Book Company of which Spring Arbor Distributors is the Christian distribution arm:

Nomad - Brandan RobertsonToo often in Christianity we equate wandering with negative categories like eternal damnation, deception, and going “astray.” We have often stigmatized those who wander from our group as weak and easily deceived. But what if we’ve been wrong? What if ones tendency to go wander off is truly a gift? What if the driving force beneath the curiosity that leads a person to wander off the beaten path is not immaturity, but the wild, untamable Spirit of God, drawing them into the foliage to be refined, to discover fresh insights, and pioneer a new way forward for a new group of people?

That’s how I have come to understand my life and my calling. I have come to appreciate and not fear getting myself lost. In my disorientation, I am forced to attune myself to the gentle breeze of God’s Spirit and allow myself to be moved into new, unexplored territories. Sure, it’s scary sometimes. Uncomfortable most of the time. But it’s always rewarding.

So here’s my advice to Christian publishers: You want to attract an edgier type of reader? Fine. But if you’re playing with fire, be prepared to get burned. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have controversy without… controversy. Make up your mind to just go for it, and then be all in, or find a different avenue that will help you make your sales targets.

The book has been released back to the author, and after the publicity that has been generated, Brandan should have no problem getting it published, and may not have to wait until October if the new publisher decides to fast-track it to take advantage of the newly-generated interest.

Finally, if you think this is just desserts for an author that was probably too young to have this publishing opportunity bestowed on him in the first place, you might want to hold back that thought; his resumé is impressive. The information Destiny Image supplied to Ingram notes:

Brandan Robertson is a writer, speaker, activist, and the dreamer behind the Revangelical Movement. Brandan has a B.A. in Pastoral Studies and Bible from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (as of May 2014) and is pursuing his M.Div. Degree from Wesley Theological Seminary (August 2014). Brandan writes for Revangelical, Red Letter Christians, Sojourners, and IMPACT Magazine and has been a featured contributor to a number of well-read blogs and news outlets. Brandan is also the host of the Revangelical Podcast and the director of an action-oriented social justice initiative called “Revangelicals for a Better Tomorrow.” He is also a sought after consultant to churches, denominations, and faith-based organizations on issues of the faith of the millennial generation and issues surrounding building bridges across religious, cultural, and political divides.

In other words, while I’m sure the offer was flattering at the time, he doesn’t need Destiny Image to get his message out.

February 13, 2015

Family Christian Stores Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection

The management team at Family Christian Stores — the largest chain in the United States — believes that its best option to keep the stores open is to file for Chapter 11 protection.  Here’s the first few paragraphs on the story from Christianity Today:

Family Christian Stores (FCS) has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Yet the ministry assured customers yesterday that it “does not expect” to close any of its more than 250 stores or lay off any of its approximately 4,000 employees.

“We strive to serve God in all that we do and trust His guidance in all our decisions, especially this very important one,” stated FCS president and CEO Chuck Bengochea. “We have carefully and prayerfully considered every option. This action allows us to stay in business and continue to serve our customers, our associates, our vendors and charities around the world.” …

With 266 stores in 36 states, FCS is the nation’s largest chain of Christian stores as measured by locations, not sales…

Continue reading at CT Gleanings (news page).

The CT story also links to this FAQ page concerning the filing.

An article at Publishers Weekly itemizes the major creditors:

Publishers are on the hook for millions of dollars led by HarperCollins Christian Publishers [Thomas Nelson and Zondervan] which is owed $7.5 million. Other publishers owed large sums include Tyndale House ($1.7 million), B&H Publishing Group ($516,414), FaithWords [Hachette Book Group] ($537,374), and Barbour Publishing ($572,002). Ingram’s Spring Arbor distribution arm is owed $689,533.

While the video is very optimistic, this development highlights the seriousness of the state of the Christian publishing industry. The amount of exposure that HarperCollins has in this means that it and other creditors will be watching closely to see what they can expect to get out of the restructuring.

January 17, 2015

The Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven

Boy Who Came Back From Heaven product lineScreenshot of a book industry page listing product related to Alex Malarkey’s story.

Alex Malarkey, the boy in The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven has now recanted his story. The Washington Post provides the update:

Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher, has announced that it will stop selling “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” by Alex Malarkey and his father, Kevin Malarkey.

The best-selling book, first published in 2010, describes what Alex experienced while he lay in a coma after a car accident when he was 6 years old. The coma lasted two months, and his injuries left him paralyzed, but the subsequent spiritual memoir — with its assuring description of “Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World” — became part of a popular genre of “heavenly tourism,” which has been controversial among orthodox Christians.

Earlier this week, Alex recanted his testimony about the afterlife. In an open letter to Christian bookstores posted on the Pulpit and Pen Web site, Alex states flatly: “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.”

Referring to the injuries that continue to make it difficult for him to express himself, Alex writes, “Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short…. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

Continue reading at Washington Post.

I guess we have to take this at face value. Alex and his mother have been reported as trying to get the truth about the story out there for some time. Still, there’s something about Alex’s final comment, the idea that people should only read the Bible, that suggests he’s been influenced by some ultra-conservative or fundamentalist individuals or group.

Should we get rid of all the books in the same genre? Right now there is a huge backlash online concerning “Heaven Tourism” books like Heaven is for Real by The Burpos and 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. Although we carried the Piper book at the bookstore I’m involved with, I carried it in very small quantities until I was able to watch the hour-long video that goes with a curriculum of the same name. That changed my mind. And I think that Todd and Sonya Burpo have been very realistic about whatever it was that Colton experienced; there’s no denying that he was party to information after the experience that had never been shared with him, and that they, like Don Piper, were very reluctant to go public.

We ran this quotation a few days ago here in the link list:

“Among conservative Christians who think critically about these matters are Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, both of whom have written on the subject. In discussions with them, they seem to agree that while NDEs [Near Death Experiences] have debatable significance in giving us a glimpse of heaven, and little to no value in proving the Christian faith, they do have significant value in discrediting naturalism (the belief that there is no transcendence to nature) and scientism (the belief that science can explain all things). Why? Because, at the very least, NDEs give evidence that there is a conscious part of individuals that transcends the body and brain. NDEs give evidence of the soul.”

Read more at Parchment and Pen.

It’s not been a good year for Tyndale, either; they were also the home of Mark Driscoll’s Resurgent imprint. The earliest indications here in Canada are that suppliers will take inventory back, but subject to normal return policy; in other words, only stock you purchased in the last 360 days.

I also need to clarify that the last link is to a blog called Parchment and Pen, and the upper story contains a link to Pulpit and Pen. Confusing. The people at the latter are also part of the group called #the15 who are trying to hold LifeWay retail stores more accountable for the things they carry that are inconsistent with the store’s and the Southern Baptist Convention’s standards. Needless to say, they’re jumping all over this in the same way the mainstream press is jumping and punning all over Alex’s last name. For them, the timing couldn’t be better; however, this affects all of us who have retail stores.

“So,” I hear you saying, “You seem like a smart guy, why did you carry this book in the first place?”

I have a certain amount of skepticism about many of the titles customers at the bookstore order — we sometimes deny orders on certain subjects ranging from what constitutes hate speech under Canadian law in some titles, to books that encourage rather severe corporal punishment of children — but frequent ordering means that titles find their way into core inventory. (That’s what happened here, we passed completely on what are called ‘pre-pub’ or pre-publication offers.) But I don’t think it would be right to look at similar books in my store and say that we as owners, managers and staff lack discernment. Honestly, our “heaven tourism” books are all on a lower shelf. From Betty Malz to Aldo McPherson these stories have an appeal to a certain type of person, but then, I personally distance myself from most prophecy titles, yet there’s no denying that there are people saved and attending church today because of The Late Great Planet Earth and even the Left Behind series.

I’m not thrilled with everything the Christian publishing industry produces, but to toss everything except the Bible means to toss out a vast catalog of Christian literature that includes everything from the writings of the Early Church fathers to the great classics of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Furthermore, many of our spiritual heroes claimed a number of strange and mystical experiences, many of which we don’t talk about today.

To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to display ’em, and know when it’s time to take ’em down. This one is done.

January 1, 2015

LifeWay, the SBC, #the15, and God

#the15As I mentioned yesterday, the latest “tempest in a Tweet-pot” involves a group calling themselves #the15, who have expressed outrage on Twitter against the retail arm of LifeWay, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publishing empire, because they sell so many things in their store of which #the15 does not approve, while at the same time claiming to operate by the highest standards. One blogger noted the company even sells a book by a self-professed mystic and Universalist.

In one corner, we have #the15. [Update] In an earlier version of this article, I mis-characterized them as ones whose Calvinism compels them to the most rigorous study of scripture which translates in the real world to acting as judge and jury on every published work, be it written by a blogger or national author. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.  (Luke 11:46)

[Update] After more careful study, I realized I had fallen under a misconception created by Ed Stetzer, and that the original #the15 were desiring to see the retail chain do a better job of being gatekeepers of what people see, than the usual Calvinist judge-and-jury situation which is more common. 

The problem of course, is what gets in and what’s excluded?

The debate has been going on for days now, with members of #the15 and those who align with them taking Route 15 highway signs as their Twitter profile picture.

Some of the books that LifeWay sells are easy targets, such as Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. None of us who work in and around this industry saw the controversy going in, but it’s now quite clear the title is theologically problematic. In the little independent store I oversee, the title will be taken off display tomorrow, though remaining copies will be sold as requested. I’ve emailed our staff over the holiday, and the consensus is that we’ve got to act responsibly in light of what is now so plain.

But there are others I feel are being unfairly criticized like Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker. In the book, Batterson borrows a story from Jewish antiquity about Honi The Circle Maker and propelling that story into a challenge to all of us “draw circles around” the thing or group of things that constitute our greatest needs or righteous desires. Admittedly, it’s not the analogy I would have chosen. But rather than meet with Mark and get to know him and what drives him, the analogy was just a little too outside the scope of conservatives, even though Jesus’ own story of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains elements of the afterlife which may or not be the case. (Commentators always point this out, that Jesus wasn’t indicating that people in Heaven and Hell can communicate with each other.)

Furthermore, now that he is branded, these same conservatives would be unlikely to touch Batterson’s new work, The Grave Robber, which is an excellent study of the miracles in John’s gospel.  (Actually, of all the stuff in the market, I’m amazed the DC pastor would be lumped in with Sarah Young and that he’s become such a target. I would dare these critics to check out the newer book, published by David C. Cook.)

In another corner, are those who are quick to jump on #the15 bandwagon and side with them in this, but this is more a vote against LifeWay than a vote for condemning books.

Still another group consists of people wanting to be identified as Calvinists who do not support #the15.

And finally, in the last corner, we have LifeWay itself. I have written about them before, and don’t wish to burden regular readers here with repetition, so you can simply check out these posts:

For them, it’s all about money. And more money. Regular commenter here and fellow blogger Clark Bunch replied yesterday:

LifeWay exists for one purpose only and that’s to sell you stuff. Any volunteer VBS director that has ever ordered materials knows that as well as anybody. A box of 15 paper whatevers are easily divided into “selling units” that cost 3X what you could get them for at Dollar Tree.

Heaven is for Real is a book they sell at LifeWay Christian *gasp* Bookstore. LifeWay is not a group of seminary professors or a board of trustees. It’s Southern Baptist Walmart. Our church uses LifeWay Sunday School literature for all age groups. Thom Rainer writes good stuff. But LifeWay should NOT be and I don’t believe claims to be in a position to say “this is what you should believe and teach others.” If you are a Calvinist, non-Calvinist or don’t know the difference, you can walk into their store and buy what you want.

If that’s all it is, a Baptist WalMart, then so be it. Let them stock whatever people are curious to read and throw in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Book of Mormon while you’re at it.

In our store in 2012, for several months we had a section captioned, “Heretics Corner – Because every bookstore should have one.” It was my place to include people whose orthopraxy makes others uncomfortable, though we do not stock popular liberal theologians like Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong because they undermine the rest of what we carry. And that’s an important distinction. I wanted to allow other voices to be heard even if I disagree with some aspects: Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber and even Peter Rollins, despite the lack of a third name.

That’s the part of this story that’s so confusing. I find myself agreeing the book censors because I view LifeWay’s hypocrisy as the greater sin. But I don’t support a very narrow judgmental attitude where only a few books get in. I am always reminded of the Life cereal commercial where the kids say, “We’ll get Mikey to try it; he hates everything.”   I wish all the energy that goes into condemnation was being used to celebrate the good things that God is doing through a whole new generation of leaders and writers instead of mistrusting them. (Life Cereal, LifeWay…I’m sure there’s a punchline there just waiting…) And I’m sure God can use the little boy’s story in Heaven is for Real despite my misgivings, just as he used Left Behind to propel people into a study of the end times, even though it’s not my personal eschatological cup of tea.

So today’s discussion, for me at least, blurs the normal battle lines.

Either way, it’s the online story that ended 2014 and as of the morning of 2015 was still going strong on Twitter.

I’d write more, but I have to prepare my Rob Bell text for this afternoon’s Christianity 201 devotional. That’s right, Rob Bell. He wrote about The Good Samaritan and despite others’ misgivings about the direction he’s been heading, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Yes, in 2015 the lines are quite blurred.


Read more about one of #the15 protagonists here.

[Update] It gets worse: read more about him at this story.  This guy is a menace.

December 6, 2014

Thomas Nelson: The Macro Perspective

One thing I like about a new month is that I give myself permission to go back one year and look at old articles as candidates for possible re-blogging. But today, I want to go back only a few days, partly to add some things, and party because I think this story got missed.

Jesus Calling 10th AnniversaryIn a story posted late Monday night, we noted the claim from heresy watcher Warren B. Smith about the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young:

…[I]f you are more interested in protecting your product rather than in protecting the truth, you do everything in your power to make these problems disappear. One thing is for sure. Sarah Young and Thomas Nelson have made some of their problems suddenly disappear in recent editions of Jesus Calling—most especially in a special 10th anniversary edition of Jesus Calling released on September 30, 2014.

Perhaps taking their cue from the missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes from Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes, Sarah Young and Thomas Nelson have been systematically deleting controversial material from Jesus Calling. Adding, subtracting, cutting, pasting, and completely eliminating problematic words, sentences, and even whole paragraphs, Young and her editors do not hesitate to put words in the mouth of their “Jesus,” even as they take others away. But like the Watergate tapes, the missing evidence and their in-your-face tactics are doing more to expose their problems than cover them up.

We then went on to note:

It’s hard to find articles online critical of the book, since everyone is on the sales bandwagon, especially in some markets where the book has been #1 for much of the past few years. So I don’t have other corroboration of Smith’s claims.

Still, the book’s theological liabilities have not escaped notice. I’ve been following the discussion thread at Ryan Dueck’s blog for over four years now, and not surprisingly, the book did not fare well with Canadian blogger Tim Challies, who called it “a very dangerous book.” We covered those links here before, also noting two years ago that the genre in which it is written is not entirely new; and also linking to that rare occasion where author Sarah Young did an interview with Christianity Today.

On a personal note, I should say that at the bookstore where I hang out, a good 80% of the sales on this book over the past 18 months have been to the local Spiritualist Church. Until recently the store did not acknowledge sales of the book on its Top books chart, and also, prior to 2012, a book closely associated with it, God Calling was available there only by special order, even though the book is published by, among others, Baker Books.

For it’s part, Thomas Nelson is marketing the anniversary release as an “Expanded Edition.” Nowhere on the company website are words like “revised,” “edited,” or even “updated” used.

What you didn’t see that day however was a comment that I added myself on the original version of the story at Christian Book Shop Talk, an affiliate blog of this one:

BennyHinnI didn’t want to go to hard on Thomas Nelson, but this isn’t the first time they’ve found themselves in a pickle like this, is it? Charismatic faith healer Benny Hinn was reported to have some wacky doctrine that each part of the Godhead was also triune — that’s nine parts if you’re counting — that needed to be excised from one of his bestsellers. (The belief is called Tritheism.) It was also alleged that after the book went through an editorial process, Hinn reiterated the belief in yet another volume.

Check out this link and do a keyword ‘find’ for “Benny Hinn” and “Tritheism.” It’s also in  this piece.

Now that Thomas Nelson is owned by HarperCollins, Jesus Calling would probably be a better fit on its HarperOne imprint, not the more Evangelical imprints like Zondervan or Nelson.

Mark Driscoll 2But then I got to thinking about how this connects with the whole Mark Driscoll story, since the Seattle pastor’s Real Marriage was also caught in the plagiarism controversy.

And that got me thinking about the stable of authors the company has published in the last forty years. From ultra-conservatives who didn’t like the NKJV, to the concerns that Robert Schuller’s message was simply about positive-thinking platitudes with little resemblance to the gospel, all the way forward to doctrinal concerns in Heaven is For Real

It’s no wonder that doctrinal purists reject anything the company issues, or why for example, the New Calvinist community feels the need to create its own sales channels, where they can filter what is marketed and distributed.

When you look at the entire history of Thomas Nelson, Jesus Calling is nothing new for these battle-scarred warriors; it’s more of a minor skirmish.

 

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