White Elephant in the room [1]

Well, so this is the big news: after having a nice exchange of about 150 words, iMonk has asked me to have a little palaver over the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). I have honestly meant to blog hard on this subject since I opened up this Blogger account, but I always seem to find other things which grab my attention which also seem to have a broader appeal. And no: iMonk is not the "White Elephant".

iMonk has sent me 10 questions, and one of the terms of the chat is that we're going to share the content between our two blogs. I'll be posting the intro and first Q here, and I'll be sending him Q2 and my response for him to post over there. The subsequent cross-posting and eventual collision of worlds will undoubtedly bring and end to civilization as we know it, but the hits should be amazing, so it was nice knowing you.

Along the way, I'll bet iMonk will have some follow-up Qs, and I'd be willing to field those as we go. I'm not running for the presidency of the SBC, after all: no need to screen questions. The only real ground rule is that I'm not going to answer questions which I think strike too close to home and might raise the ire of my full-time employer.

Fair enough? On with the show. iMonk's words will be like this.

I've been wanting to do some occasional posts on Christian publishing and its influence and effect on American Christians, particularly the local church. I know a few folks in the business, but none of them are as interesting and as potentially entertaining as my personal therapist, Frank Turk. I've been impressed with Frank's posts on the CBA and his asides about Christian retail in his comments are always interesting. So I asked Frank- a Christian retailer himself- if he would answer some questions about this topic, and he was gracious enough to accept the invitation. Any resulting t-shirts are not my responsibility.

Before we kick this off, there might be some "new" readers who are unaware of the history of iMonk and centuri0n, and rather than rehash that history let me frame up this exchange in a couple of ways.

First, iMonk and I both think there are problems with the contemporary American church. However, painting broadly, I would say that I think what iMonk represents is a large part of the problem, and (again, broadly) iMonk thinks what I represents is a large part of the problem. We may both be right.

Second, it turns out that we prolly agree that another large part of the problem is what passes for "Christian retail". The Q & A that iMonk proposed here and I accepted really is a kind of ex tempore stink-eye against an industry that somehow takes itself both too seriously and too lightly.

Last, I claim full responsibility for all t-shirts and overpriced gimmicks that get created and sold as a consequence of this exchange. Let's just not pretend that said gimmicks and apparel are in any way spiritually edifying: they are merely self-deprecating commerce.

1. Where, in the recent history of Christian publishing, do you feel there was a significant shift in the relationship between publishers and the church? (My nomination: Late Great Planet Earth.)

Well, I think your question oversimplifies the problem by a lot. A good comparison would be the question, "Which church council founded the Roman Catholic church?" I think you and I would agree that no church council founded the RCC, but that it was built up by a series of events -- some pragmatically good and some cynically bad -- over about 1300 years.

So even if we zoom in on the history of the publishing industry as it interfaces with church life in America in the last 100 years, to say there was "one" significant shift is a little reductive. Someplace in a blog entry I said (in words to this effect) that the problems with Christian retail (which includes the ECPA marketplace) have one foot in the local church, and the other foot in the local church. I'd say that the bastardization of the local church over the last 100 years has been the foundational problem with American Christian culture, and in that it is the foundational problem with Christian retail today.

To answer your question more narrowly, I think the greatest single damaging "event" which intersects both ECPA/CBA and the local church is the explosion of media ministries, beginning with the grand-daddy of media minsitries: the Billy Graham Crusades. Hal Lindsey is a small fish in a dirty pond compared to the damage I think has come about in the exercise of the local church mission due to media-based ministries which have convinced people they don’t need to "go to church" in order to "be a Christian".

I think the chain of causation goes like this:

- media ministries (MM) have supplanted local church ministry over the last 50 years. If we're 100% honest with ourselves, local churches ceded their position to media ministries in part because MM looked good on the outside and in part because local churches tried to be "like" MM.

- media ministries are more like media-based organizations than like ministries

- media-based organizations thrive of "spin off" or "franchise"; for example, a good book gets a movie; if the movie is target-rich, it gets trinkets (cf. Star Wars); if the movie is hit, it gets a sequel; the sequel gets a book; etc.

- media ministries propagate themselves like media-based organizations and not like Gospel-based organizations.

- Thus, the franchise-driven CBA channel of retail.

So what we really have is a media-based paradigm frankly over-running any and all paradigms contained inside the Gospel. I'm 100% ready to admit that the delivery of the Gospel is not necessarily restricted to guys with one cloak and one staff and a pair of sandals who only stay in towns were someone will put them up for the night, but I am also 100% sure that the Gospel is tied inextricably to local church bodies who are working personally to deliver the work of Christ in word and example.

To be clear: CBA is a tangle because the right-side-up version of Gospel ministry from the local church is not even upside-down but inside-out. That doesn't absolve CBA and ECPA from its complicity in this gigantic mess, but it does explain why CBA and ECPA has such an easy time remerchandising its goods every coupla months: there's nobody there to stop them.

You can follow the whole "interview" with these links:
[Q1] Q2 Q3 Q4 Q5 Q6 Q7 Q8 Q9 Q10