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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The "Christian" Book Industry

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.

So, should we give up on all Christian books? I don’t think so, but I do think we should quit the Christian book industry. For those who read a lot of Christian books I challenge you to stop buying and reading Christian books for a year. Read history, missiology, sociology, anthropology, current affairs, literature – read mystery novels! Yes, definitely exercise your mind, but give up all the starch in your reading diet. For those like me who do not read Christian books – don’t start! Instead, let’s make a concerted effort to see that voices who genuinely live out a Christ-shaped prophetic lifestyle are lifted up, whether through blogs, conference speaking gigs, or through social media. We are allowing market-driven focus groups to determine who the voices are we listen to! I feel like we have to fight a hegemonic, industry market-driven version of Christianity that is drowning out the small, still voices that are all around us if we will but look past the Vegas-style light and sound show and really look for those who are living out Christ’s love in hard-to-reach areas with hard-to-love people. They’re all around us if we will just choose to listen and learn.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What the Angel Might Say to Joseph if He were Fleeing Egypt Today...

In Matthew 2:13-18 an angel appears to Joseph and tells him to flee with his family, including baby Jesus, from King Herod. Here is my take on what an angel might say to Joseph today if Joseph thought about fleeing to the United States. Just a hint, as you read this the angel has a southern accent.

After all the community big-whigs and religious elites had left an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Dude, you gotta go. Seriously. Herod is gonna be pissed and when he gets pissed, man, he lops off heads. What can I say, the dude is nuts.”

“So, here’s the deal, you gotta get out of this place. I’m not talking about checking out Zillow and finding a corner lot with a fence and a swing on an oak tree in the backyard. You ain’t got time for that foolishness. I mean, you gotta leave like NOW. Just go.

“Now Joe, I see you sweatin' already. You don’t wanna go just anywhere. Herod is nuts, but unfortunately, his government is not the only one that done some crazy stuff. You gotta be careful these days.

“I say that because I have seen some of your dreams and heard some of your conversations with Mary; talking about how nice it would be to eventually settle down in the United States. Maybe you can get a small business loan and set up a nice carpentry business in the DC area (and since DC is one of the few places in the US that never felt the crunch of the shrinking housing market, that ain’t a bad idea). Mary could easily use her new skills as a speaker/writer (the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 was…well…magnificent!) I could totally see her doing some incredible work at local poetry slams. And what about baby Jesus? Oh yeah, he was made for the massive media markets in the US.

“That’s all fine and good, but the US is not the place of milk and honey you have heard about. You definitely do NOT want to apply for asylum there my friend. Listen Joe, when Uncle Sam says come, then you know it is time to STAY AWAY.

“I know you think you have an incredible case for asylum. I mean, you have a lunatic King who is going to murder all of the infants in and around Bethlehem because he is afraid of a baby. Yeah, being dumb and having a ton of power and time on your hands is NOT a good combination – we've seen too much of that already.

“You would think the US would be perfect for you and your family; a textbook case of the land of opportunity opening its doors to those who flee violence and religious persecution – just what the United States has long and loud claimed that it stands for. I mean, good grief, you got every politician with a mouth clamoring on about ‘family values.’ But their rhetoric rarely matches their actions or their policies – and I am talking about BOTH sides of the aisle.

“Joe, you might want to sit down for this, but in spite of the history of the US and in spite of the rhetoric of the US, the US detains families. No, I’m not kidding! Pick your jaw up Joe, I am being for real. They detain families. No joke.

“And you know why they detain families? Cuz it makes private prison corporations a LOT of money and because apparently, people like Donald Trump, Steve King and others are actually afraid of families from other countries. Yeah, I know, who wants to trade one Herod you are fleeing for a dozen Herods in your new country? Man, not me.

“But for real, the United States has a law in place that they HAVE to have 34,000 beds filled at any time and the private prison corporations make mucho dinero from this very odd policy. You only thought they would build prisons as they had need, but no, the United States builds prisons to create the need to fill them! Odd and inhumane, but very prosperous.

“And it’s not like you get detained at the Hilton either. Nuh-uh. The US has over 200 detention centers with 3 specifically focused on detaining families: Berks, PA, Dilley, TX, and Karnes, TX. Yeah, I have never heard of those places either. Might as well be in Butt-Crack, Nowhere. 

The detention facilities in the US….how shall I say this delicately…..well….they basically suck. The Detention Watch Network (Jesus is gonna like this group when he grows up) reports that in 2014, Artesia (New Mexico) was a large-scale facility that was infamously known as a 'deportation mill' and was the subject of a lawsuit and multiple reports of abuse and lack of due process, which led to its closure in December 2014. And, in the infinite wisdom of leaders in the Department of Homeland Security (did you catch my sarcasm?) many families ‘freed from Artesia’ were simply transferred to a larger facility in Dilley, TX also run by a private prison corporation (I told you this whole thing was about money!).

“Family detention facilities have been plagued by reports of subpar conditions such as physical and sexual abuse, inadequate medical and mental health care, children losing weight, inappropriate disciplinary tactics including threats to separate families if children misbehave, and fundamentally broken due process with little or no access to attorneys.

“Further, detention is psychologically damaging and completely inappropriate for children. Numerous studies demonstrate that detention poses a serious threat to individuals’ psychological health and further aggravates isolation, depression, and mental health problems associated with past trauma. These impacts are even more severe for young children whose development can be severely compromised.

“For my money, I suggest you go to Canada. Something tells me they need carpenters there as much as the US and they seem to actually welcome immigrants.

“But, whatever you do, just don’t go near the United States. It ain’t safe for people of color in general (and I can clearly see you, Mary and Jesus sure ain’t white), but it is definitely not safe for people seeking safety. Weird, I know. But I am just being honest. 

"Now, something tells me that Jesus, with his future being about pronouncing freedom to the captives, will have LOTS to say to the leaders of the United States; especially those leaders who claim to follow him but who benefit from mass incarceration. But if baby Jesus were MY baby? Oh no. Hell no. I wouldn’t let the United States anywhere near baby Jesus.

“But hang tight though, it could be a safe place again. If only they would put an end to the policy of family detention….