What’s wrong with evangelical publishing? Two bad best sellers

I mentioned in a blog last week that I was irked about two new popular titles, and that I wanted to share my frustrations. Sorry I have posted lately–we’ve been on the road a bit—selling books with pastors of small churches at a Presbyterians for Renewal gig, for instance, and setting up a UCC retreat on the theme of hope in the writings of Desmond Tutu. We were at a glorious wedding in Western Pennsylvania and I am speaking at the chapel of Eastern University in, well, Eastern Pennsylvania. We’re preparing for an important conference on sexual trafficking and human rights at the John Newton Center in Carlisle, PA (October 27th) which will end with a free showing of Amazing Grace at the lovely downtown theatre. (The DVD of that important film, by the way, will be out soon, so do contact us to order it.) We are happy that our new van (with only 69 thousand miles) can journey the miles dispatching our books hither and yon.

And, these books are—we are happy to say–really diverse. We are told that we have a mix in our inventory that is really wide-ranging, and we hope you like the thought. Unlike some so-called “Christian bookstores”, we stock books on a really wide variety of topics, and from a really wide range of theological perspectives. We like the clarity of John Piper, the broad thinking of N.T. Wright, and the neo-Calvinist worldview of Abraham Kuyper. We appreciate the deeper spirituality of Richard Foster and Henri Nouwan, and have enjoyed selling books with Catholic sisters like Joyce Rupp, or contemplatives like good friends Russell Hart, Kent Groft or Graham Standish. You know that we’ve often named Os Guinness and Ron Sider as friends and mentors, and we often write about social concerns, cultural engagement, and the reformation of higher education. Cal Seerveld on the arts and Steve Garber on how to relate learning to a lifetime of moral seriousness are among our favorite books. We stock books for all kinds of church groups, and love telling people about novels and memoirs. Nurturing the Christian mind ought to be a high priority for a bookstore, and our work on worldviews and the integration of faith and learning can be easily seen by looking back to the “top ten” lists on these topics we did here and here, in August.

Why do we do all this? Well, because the Bible tells us to, I suppose. Christ is the King of all creation, and as renewed agents of His reconciliation, we are trying to advance a view of faith that relates discipleship to each and every zone of life, fostering conversations about social innovations and culturally relevant ministry. We hope this is why you sign up for the blog subscription, so we can tell you every time we announce new books or post new reviews.

What we tend to sell a lot of here in the Dallastown shop, though, and what has been common in Protestant bookselling over the last several decades, has been what only can be called faith lite. Simplistic and cheesy stuff is easy to spot, and the popularity of the repetitive and shallow Joel Osteen notwithstanding, it is our delight to get folks who have never read a religious book, or have only read the most crass and silly ones, to move a step towards thoughtful discipleship, and books that are beautifully written and practical in their application, even though they are clear and easy to follow and down-to-earth. I do not expect everyone to tackle Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat and their provocative postmodern reading of Colossians (Colossians Remixed)– even though I raved about it here repeatedly. I am aware not everyone wants to read my friend Ned Bustard’s good anthology on beauty and the arts (It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God.) Heck, I know that some might even be flustered by the deeply warm and graceful prose of Ruth Haley Barton in her important call to solitude and silence. (Invitation to Silence and Solitude.) I was pleased that we’ve gotten a few orders from UnChristian which I reviewed last week—but more came from mail order than from folks here. These are all books that Hearts & Minds fans will know about, as I’ve noted them here often. But we don’t sell many of these. But I am happy, most days, to sell Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll, two of the most popular and balanced and clear and accessible inspirational writers of our time. Considering what other less reliable authors are sometimes popular, I am grateful and happy that folks want to read whatever they write.

And therein lies my beef. I could write more thoroughly about this, but I will just protest now, and send something off to Nelson, their publisher. As the two premier popular-level Bible teachers, esteemed by many as balanced and useful, they both have dropped the ball big time.

These two men are perhaps the two quintessential evangelical authors. (And they both have sold millions of books!) Two months ago they both released brand new titles. Chuck has tackled perhaps the quintessential Old Testament summary verse, one of the most popular texts in the entire Bible, Micah 6:8. And he gets it way, way wrong. Max has tackled what is undeniably the most popular New Testament verse, John 3:16, and, guess what? He botches it.

What in the world is going on here, when two level-headed and esteemed evangelical pastors write on two of the most popular passages in the most popular book in the world, and neither can exegete their way to even using the correct words? This, dear readers, is what is wrong with evangelicalism. Despite their history of being Bible believing, and their passion for making Bible truth come alive in vibrant ways for ordinary folks, the desire to make it accessible and real and middle class has caused them to scrub down the passages, truncating their meaning, missing the point and, too often, superimposing a personalistic and middle-class message of self-improvement (with God’s help, of course) onto a misreading of the text.

Micah 6:8, as I trust you know, answers the rhetorical question of what God requires of us, and it is the subject of Swindoll’s newest book, A Life Well Lived. And the first phrase in the tripart answer is to “do justice.” Believe it or not—for reasons that I cannot even speculate upon—Chuck Swindoll doesn’t use the word. His chapter tells of personal integrity and honesty. There is not an iota of a demand for social righteousness, public justice, concern for making things right, mercy for the poor, covanantal goodness, none of the good stuff that is conjured by the Hebrew word in the text, the word typically translated justice. Is Swindoll the only evangelical left who separates faith from politics, who fails the wholistic call to an integrated faith that is both personal and public, concerned about personal kindness and public justice? Some authors may overstate the trajectory in the text towards public justice and utterly politicize the text. But for an evangelical publisher to allow a leading celebrity author, mega-church pastor, radio preacher and former Seminary professor to stand so ineptly before the Word of God is a travesty.

Lucado is increasingly the main evangelical star, writing children’s books, stories and parables, inspiring gift lines, very cool greeting cards, even contemporary praise CDs. If Swindoll has been typically down to Earth and a moving, clever wordsmith, Max is a master; his books have wonderfully tapped in to the real hurts and anxieties of ordinary folks and have reminded us of God’s love in Christ, our acceptance through God’s merciful grace, told with a wonderful knack for the turn of a phrase. Given all the truly odd Christian writers, and all the poor wordsmiths, Max has been a huge blessing to the publishing world, bringing simple faith into common language, yet in a way that soars with sentiment and care. A bit purple, at times, perhaps, as he nearly overdoes the tender sentences, but we have been fans. His new book is called 3:16 The Numbers of Hope.

It does not surprise me, though, that Max misses, as most of evangelicalism misses, the cosmic scope of the theater (Calvin’s word) of God’s redemption when the passage famously says that God loves the world: the cosmos (also sometimes spelled kosmos in some translations from the Greek.) John 3:16 is a key verse in my spiritual journey, as I realized that the text clearly does not say that God died for our souls, or our religious lives, or our churches. Christ died, the passage says, for the whole created order. Romans 8 reminds us, similarly, that the whole creation is groaning, awaiting for people to get right with God (a la the whosoever will of John 3:16b) so that it might be released from the bondage of brokenness, and be set free. The Biblical theme of (re)new(ed) creation is very, very important, and, along with the theme of the Kingdom of God, is perhaps the most important Biblical insight of our time. From the Orthodox (who have always be strong on this) to the Reformed worldview folks, from mainline writers like Pannenberg or Volf to recent Catholic writing, to the emergent conversation, everyone is writing about how God’s healing reign is a reintroduction of the ordered shalom of creation back to his fallen world. Creation-fall-redemption-consumation. For God so loved the world.

Does Mr. Lucado say any of this? Does he even tell what the word world means in its original Greek? He gets it flat wrong, ignoring the plain meaning of the word, and implying that God loves all the people of the nations. This is true enough, but not what the text says.

This truncated view of the gospel, this pietistic and sentimental virtue stuff about honesty and personalized salvation is such a half-truth to be hardly a truth at all. I want to hear the real truth: that God in Christ is buying back his whole fallen world, and that the Kingdom is coming (“on Earth”) and that Christ is Lord of every aspect of life, and that this demands stuff like standing for social justice and creation-care, like Micah 6:8 says and as John 3;16 affirms. In these two books, Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado are a hindrance to faithful discipleship—but how do we tell nice customers who don’t know any better??

We sell Chuck and Max, and will continue to be glad that fine Christian leaders like them can handle words so well, and inspire us with books of basic Christian growth. But I have recommitted myself to be discerning of the wrong-headed and misguided stuff that the big evangelical publishers push. I want to glorify God by selling books that talk about His sovereign grace over all things. I want books that honor the complexity and nuance of this rowdy and demanding book called the Bible. And I want to hear about social justice and I want to hear about the ways in which God’s atoning death brings wholeness and restoration to all of creation.

Chuck Swindoll slaughters Micah 6:8 and I will be sending the books back, with a firm letter of protest to Nelson. (And if there is any justice, they will pay for the shipping costs.) How dare they mishandle the Word of God like this? What were they thinking? What’s next, Swindoll watering down Amos, with personal integrity flowing down like a mighty water? What, Isaiah 58, saying we should be nice, and then God will hear us? This justice for the poor, this demand for structural change, this call to redemptive economics and righteous policy, that is all so un-pious and un-American! And, apparantly, so easily ignored. Aaaaggh.

Max Lucado misses the full import of the meaning of the word world and thereby diminishes the glory of grace, God’s inclination to incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus. It robs us of the vast implications for those who have faith, the daily relevance of their believe, the proper scope of redemption, and the very nature of the everlasting life the text so gloriously proclaims. That the book has this market-driven feel to it—the cover has this nifty logo of the numerals 3-16, and it was released on 9-11–which I must admit leaves me with mixed feelings. (I’m a sucker for the genius behind such marketing campaigns and clever graphics. Yet, sometimes, it seems like somebody came up with an ad first, and then built a slight book around the big idea of the advertising. Did the book follow the tee-shirt, or the CD? Yes, indeed, this is what makes working in the business so darn complicated: shallow books that disregard the very Words of God, presented in a very, very cool package.

Two great contemporary authors on perhaps the two most beloved passages in the Bible. Soon, I will recommend some that get these passage right. And celebrate some of the very solid and useful books that are coming out from evangelical presses. Things are not all bleak. But the mainstream marketing power, making these hugely popular authors immediate bestsellers will misguide many. Let’s redouble our efforts to talk about the best books, the most honest Bible study, the most relevant application. After all, as Swindoll has told us, it is important to be honest.

4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with evangelical publishing? Two bad best sellers

  1. B–
    Great words, man. Great passion. I was not aware of either of these books, as I rarely enter a “Christian” bookstore these days, fasting until I can make it to yours. Marketing and the business side of the industry does seem to sour our stomachs.
    PS–I’ve been unable to “subscribe” using the tab on the left.

  2. Byron,
    Well you were right, you did have a couple in the works, books that is, that you were going to take exception with in your blog. Imagine my surprise when they were Lucado and Swindoll. I wonder if it is possible for an author to give what he does not possess. For Swindoll, who has been a favoriite of mine through the years simply for his casual and engaging style, I wonder if his heart has been gripped by the issue of justice. Some of us come on these things rather slowly, and I say this to my own shame.
    For Lucado, I have found a couple of his books enjoyable, devotionally speaking, in fact my daughter and I read one together after she had encounted a bad patch of road in her life and it was very helpful. But I have never thought about him as my first source for theology. Indeed, I suspect that his writing on John 3:16 will conform to the majority of his readrs’ opinions and understanding. At the risk of being perceived as ungracious, my impression is that most Christians do not think deeply on these matters these days.
    That is what I appreciate about your blog, you offer resources with some commentary that has the potential to take me down roads I may not have taken on my own. Finally, I assume the upside down covers are Byron’s two thumbs down.
    Bill Wood

  3. Great comments, Byron. You would have enjoyed our 2006-2007 chapel series at Fuller on Micah 6:8–our preachers focused on one of the three clauses for an entire academic quarter. I spoke on the last cause and related it to the life of William Wilberforce, who saw the importance of individual salvation but also the salvation of his country and the abolition of slavery.
    I have McLaren’s new book but haven’t read it yet. However, I’m a bit concerned about the direction of some of his current activities–he wrote a positive squib about Marcus Borg’s new book on the Nativity narratives and he is speaking at a conference with Borg. Borg’s universe tends to be a universe far away from Christian orthodoxy. He’s more comfortable with Spong than he is with Luther.
    One of the challenges that I see in some [note, only some, not all] of the emergent church theology is that it contains a hopeful universalism–a belief that God will ultimately redeem everyone and everything, thus lessening the need for personal evangelism and conversion. In some ways, it seems they are traveling down the same path as the liberal Protestant theologians of the early 20th century. Dr. Eddie Gibbs, one of our scholars who studies the emergent church, has the same concerns.
    But, what do I know? As my daughters say, “Daddy, you’re old!”
    Howard Wilson
    Fuller Theological Seminary

  4. Hey, Bryron,
    Noticed John Wilson wrote a short review of 3:16 in CT. Disappointed (and surprised) that he failed to point out the glaring omission that you did.
    But I suppose that’s par for the course for CT. Every once in a while there are real signs of life. But those recent (reactionary) cover stories on Atonement and the “new” Paul make think otherwise. Or take Colson. On the whole, he’s great. But, man, can he sound crotchety sometimes. You think he forgot to take his meds or something– assuming you can medicate crotchetiness.
    Anyway, again, keep up the good work.

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