White Elephant in the room [3]

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5. What responsibilities does the publisher- or the retailer- have to the consumer in terms of knowing the basic doctrinal orientation of a book? For instance, should retailers have information available (on computers, for example) that could help a customer know what's actually in a Joel Osteen book? Isn't this one of the strengths of online bookstores? They can make more information available?

Again, I think this is a better question than you intend. I think it ought to work something like this:

- Someplace, there's a doctrinal affirmation in place which can be looked to for common ground which stays inside the essentials of the faith. For example, the A.C.E. statement is mighty fine; the new T4G statement is adequate, I guess. Personally, I like the LCBF or the WCF if we can haggle over sacramentology on the side.

- The result of a doctrinal statement is an ecumenical consensus. That's not "ecclesiastical body" but "common ground for common action". I get twitchy every time I see our brothers at Sharper Iron on about "separation". Dude: we have more in common than not if we are affirming the Gospel.

- Inside an ecumenical consensus, inside the "common ground for action", we can then start talking about what we can do for each other. This ought to be the playing field for CBA/ECPA.

Now, in this framework, the local church can look to the doctrinal affirmation and take some comfort: Nice list, looks like what the Bible teaches, we can admire that from a "go and make disciples" standpoint. But the affirmation has to be more than lip service. It has to stake out the territory that we are not going to let things in the margin get by us.

This is the White elephant in the room, by the way -- if you'll allow me to mix up two metaphors. On the one hand, CBA is and in many ways ought to be, a White Elephant sale of sorts -- it ought to have a veritable shmorgasborg of Christian books for reads who what Christian worldview and Gospel edification. We're not living in the apostolic age. There are between 1 billion and 2 billion Christians walking around the planet, and with that many Christians there ought to be at least 10 million pastor/teachers preachin' it every Sunday. 10 million guys who have to talk between 20 minutes and an hour (and some of them can't stop at an hour) every week should be compiling their sermon notes (which are good enough for the pulpit, btw) and publishing them for the edification of all Christians.

But what no one will talk about -- the elephant in the room -- is that first of all most sermon notes are simply not good enpough to be published, and second of all there is no standard to which these notes can or should be measured for Christian decency -- and by that I mean whether or not they stay on the doctrinal blacktop or wind up in the doctrinal ditch. You can't bring it up in CBA without getting the cold stares of publishers like Warner Faith who just gave Joel Osteen a $15 million advance on his next book.

I made a post at TeamPyro a while back half-heartedly defending CBA/ECPA because about 70% or some such thing of the top 100 books were at worst non-offensive. Listen: that's terrible. While it's better than Barnes and Noble (since you bring them up), if 30% of the gas you put in your car was sugar, you'd sue your local filling station. There's no reason for 30% of the books in the channel to be outside the scope of orthodoxy.

And the problem, by the way, is not laziness or ignorance. If it were that, you could almost forgive the lot of them for being a little like fat friars who are too busy making bread or whatever to consider that the common man outside the friary might like a bite to eat. The problem is frankly an intransigent attitude toward the matter of orthodoxy.

I say this because every time I personally bring it up inside the industry I get caster oil looks from 90% of the people at whatever situation it happens to be: “you can’t offend blah blah blah,” “you can’t exclude blah blah blah,” “you can’t divide blah blah blah,” and my favorite, “who are you to judge blah blah blah.”

It’s amazing to me, really. If you press the issue and ask them, “well, when do we start letting Mormons in as Christians in CBA,” the dismissal is as if this is not the point – that somehow it’s self-evident that Mormons have it wrong, but to think that TD Jakes has it wrong, or Randy Phillips has it wrong, or Rick Joyner has it wrong, or Mary K. Baxter has it wrong ... dude: you’re a divisive person. You’re a trouble-maker. As if the ones making the trouble with truth are the ones telling the truth like the Presbyterians, and Baptists, and the better Anglicans, and even some of the non-conformist Charismatics.

CBA and ECPA does not perceive that while orthodoxy may be a broad net it is also a threshing floor – a place where the wheat is allowed to stay and the chaff has to get blown into the fire. Being “sensitive” to stuff like the rejection of the Trinity or someone claiming to be a Prophet in the “thus saith the Lord” OT sense of the word ... I have foresworn using the vulgar barnyard expression which means empty and worthless, but if we can’t tell which doctrines are and are not “Christian”, and we’re allegedly selling books, we better call Hercules out to clean the stables because it’s getting mighty deep and stinky in here.

And let’s not kid ourselves: Amazon and CBD and LifeWay.com do not do any kind of a decent service in sifting out the raisins from the rabbit pellets. I don’t want to get all Grad School on anybody here, but what’s the interpretive grid? If the grain of the grid is so big that you can sail baseballs through it, it’s not a filter. The filter ought to be applied at the publisher’s end and it ought to be reviewed at the local church end. That’s accountability. Challies new adventure in relaunching DR is interesting and I have high hopes for it, but it’s barely a start.

I disagree with the “clearing house” methodology of having a database of books with 500-word reviews that tell the user blah blah blah. It’s hardly comprehensive, and only barely useful. In my bookstore, my employees are tasked with reading books. When they have questions about books, they talk about them with me. I have one young feller who started off as a rank Wesleyan (¡madre tamale!) and, after working in the bookstore for a year while attending the local university and taking a couple of courses (like “theology of worship” from a [!]Presbyterian) he finds himself in the under-appreciated position of knowing he was wrong about a lot of things when he started. But because his boss was ardent that he ought to read up first on what he thinks he believes, then also to read what is required of employees to know in order to assist customers, and then read because it’s pretty great to be a reader, and because he also had to pass a class being taught by someone who has a much more traditional and systematic view than he had, he is no longer mired in a theology that today he will admit was pretty flimsy. Is this young feller a reformed storm trooper? Why no: he is not. My point in relating this is simple: if you ask him to tell the difference between what he believes and what, for example, Charles Spurgeon believed, he could tell you. And CBD can’t. It doesn’t have that kind of time.

And that, in my book, is better than a static blurb. Some young guy who is studying his theology and reading books is a better resource than some fixed corporate web page every day. That is also why Christian retail ought to be beautiful: it is missional in the broadest sense, reaching both inside the church to bring some to maturity and reaching outside the church in a non-church setting to those who have questions, if I can say “missional” without condemning myself of being Emergent.

The strength of the local retailer ought to be that we are a bunch of crazy (in a nice way) people who love the Gospel and the church, and who read books as if they were more important than our next meal – which is something no chain and no web site can replicate. CBD and Amazon are price/assortment market strategies, and if they try to make “service” (as in: there’s someone you can talk to about your purchase before you make it) part of their paradigm, they are going to go out of business. It’s too expensive to do at a 4% gross margin.

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