I remember when I worked at an urban ministry one of the responsibilities I had was to teach and facilitate an Urban Ministry Institute, a year-long school/internship for those who felt called to urban ministry but who did not want to go to seminary. We focused on the theological, biblical, anthropological and societal aspects of urban ministry and in one class each year we visited the local Christian bookstore. I told the students to meander throughout the store and take in the messages about Christianity the bookstore was making. Look at the book sections – at how they are arranged and under which headings. Look at the t-shirts and specialty items and knick-knacks, and look at the paintings that they sell.
Now, the students had just finished 3 straight weeks of 9 hours a week reading and discussing the hundreds of passages in Scripture about poverty and justice. So, by the time we got to the trip to the Christian bookstore the students were utterly stunned and horrified at what they saw.
See for yourself. Go to your local Christian bookstore and see the enormous section of books located in the “Christian Living” section – which is Christian for “self-help.” Sometimes they have sections for prayer or spiritual warfare and then some sections for Bible study. But despite hundreds of passages on poverty and justice, in more than 20 years of visiting Christian bookstores throughout the United States, I have never found a Christian bookstore with a section on poverty or social justice. In fact, the only section I find even remotely dealing with these issues is called “Current Affairs” and it is almost always stocked with books about the apocalypse! Do they know something we don’t?
And this doesn’t even begin to cover all of the knick-knacks that are fused with bible verses and American flags. The paintings carry not-so-subtle messages that the U.S. is God’s new chosen nation and although one third of the Psalms are “city-Psalms” all of the pictures of God’s refuge and care take place in serene rural settings.
All of this to say, the Christian book industry earns book publishers hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but, if Christian bookstores are any sign, they are a terrible illustration of what biblical fidelity should really mean.
The Christian book industry is simply more industry than Christian. Let’s face it, books about poverty and injustice are typically not big sellers. In fact, I seriously have to question whether it is even possible or appropriate for that matter for there to be a “popular” prophetic writer. (Can you imagine Amos on a book tour, walking through US malls pitching his book?) But sadly, the industry has figured out how to market even prophetic books with some catchy titles, clever graphics, and a cool cover. I know some of those who write under this growing segment of the industry and I know some who are genuine and faithful people. I am not calling the character of all of those who write in this genre into question, but it is quite possible to write and publish in this field and know little about it in any experiential way.
Quite a number of years ago I was at a conference for college students and a popular writer and speaker was there talking about the “revolution” that Jesus came to start. I was not a little surprised when the revolution of which he spoke never once was talked about in any political or economic aspects and was entirely contained in personal relationships. Jesus’ revolution, to the speaker, was located entirely in our personal relationship with Jesus and in our personal relationships with those around us. The catch phrase for the talks that the speaker used incessantly was, “We are called to change the world” – let’s all say it together – “one person at a time.”
Please puke now if you’ve heard this before.
Beyond this catch-phrase not making any sense and certainly lacking a solid biblically, prophetic basis, this is what happens when you take a genuinely prophetic voice and force-fit them into industry standards that dictate that marketable messages must be individualistic and hyper-spiritualized. Mentioning corporate sin and repentance, describing systemic racism or oppression, or critiquing the current economic or political order that marginalizes those at the bottom is verboten. Scripture be damned!
Personally, I rarely – and I mean rarely – read Christian books. And the primary reason is because the books are so dominated by an industry that is ruled tyrannically by an individualistic, hyper-spiritualized version of pseudo-Christianity so that I can scarcely identify the biblical faith any more in its faithfulness-by-formula pages. I do see some possible healthy movement in the growing monastic movement and in some missional books, though I still have been hesitant to read too many Christian books.