In Defense of Christian Bookstores, Christian Publishers, and Southern Baptists

By Daniel Darling

It seems there are three, quick, easy, cheap ways to score points if you’re a hip, up-and-coming evangelical. Say something negative about Christian bookstores, Christian publishers, and/or Southern Baptists. If you hit on a criticism of all three, you’ll really get a lot of back pats and your blog will probably have a lot of new unique visitors. You might even get a book deal. You’ll definitely want to buy those cool, new “Rob Bell” glasses.

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I’m going to defend this seeming unholy trifecta, the supposed enemies of Christian awesomeness. A few weeks ago there was a big controversy about Lifeway Christian stores. In response to a pastor from Florida, Lifeway pulled the movieBlindside from their stores because of some objectionable content. (for the record, I highly recommend the movie. It’s great). It’s apparently an evergreen story, because I keep reading fresh blog posts on the subject. Nothing drives web traffic like Christian controversies, apparently.

This was a silly move by Lifeway, but what I found even more offensive than this decision was the way “progressive” evangelicals used this opportunity to tee off on Lifeway, Christian bookstores, Christian publishers, and Southern Baptists in general. Rachel Held Evans wrote a widely distributed blog post that was pretty much a broad-brushed rant. She has some history in this struggle with her fight to have her book include a rather graphic body part. Her publisher, Thomas Nelson, agreed to keep it in, but not before Rachel got a lot of mileage and blog posts and Tweets in, all with disparaging digs against anyone who would dare edit her work in any way. And she is not the only one who expresses these feelings. I hear and read this complaint all the time, from both evangelical left and right.

To be sure, Christian bookstores, publishers, and denominations like the SBC deserve a fair share of the criticism they receive. But let’s remember they are brothers and sisters in the Lord. There are very good, wonderful, Christ-honoring men and women who work in these organizations. We should treat them with love and respect. It’s amazing how the people who scream for tolerance the loudest have the least amount of it for those with whom they disagree.

But let’s also consider this idea of Christian publishers and bookstores wanting to sanitize their content to make it safe for Christians. Perhaps they sometimes go too far, and we try to create a safe, sterile Christianity that doesn’t reflect the violence and messiness of the gospel story. At the same time, we are called by Christ out of this world to be different (1 Peter 2:9). So Christian books should not be as vulgar, violent, or explicit as nonChristian books. They should be different and publishers and bookstores are right to filter some of this content. Not simply because the people who patronize their businesses want this (though this isn’t wrong), but because they have a deep conviction that God’s people are to be holy. Baptists in business suits didn’t write 1 Peter 1:16. The Holy Spirit did, using the pen and personality of a fisherman who had seen his share of gospel messiness.

Secondly, there is a misconception about “edgy” Christian literature. If edgy means cutting edge storytelling, penetrating, haunting tales of suffering, I’m all for it. If it means presenting life as it really is rather than how we’d want it to be, yes let’s be edgy. But for many young, progressive, postmodern evangelicals, “edgy” simply means “I want to use indiscriminate cuss words and I don’t want anyone to stop me.” If edgy means fighting to the death to include words that intentionally offend your Christian brothers and sisters, words that have no bearing on your overall book, then you’re not being artistic or edgy, you’re just being purposefully offensive. And that, my friends, is wrong (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Count me as one young, millennial Christian leader grateful for some level of Christian editing, some kind of filter that lets me know that when I pick up a Christian book it’s going to have wholesome, Christian content that will edify rather than unnecessarily stir up passions best left quiet.

Lastly, it must be said that there is a sense of entitlement among some authors, artists, creatives who constantly push the boundaries in Christian publishing. As if that bookstore and that publisher owe them a contract and they should have no say over what is put in their books. I’ve met these types. They look at the publishing executives in CBA as ignorant rubes who don’t understand their exalted art.

Let’s take a step back here and realize that no publisher owes me or anyone else the time, investment, and business risk of publishing my book. And no struggling small business (because that’s what Christian bookstore owners are) owe me shelf space. If what I write offends their constituency, the publisher doesn’t have to publish it and the bookstore doesn’t have to stock it. For me to demand this, because I want to make some kind of outlandish point, is ridiculous.

The bottom line is this. Yes, sometimes bookstores, Baptists, and publishers are unnecessarily censorious. Sometimes they may make decisions that frustrate, even offend. But to paint all of these good brothers and sisters with such a broad brush and demand they do what I say, well, that’s just not the way of Christ. It’s a privilege to speak for God, not a right.

We’d do well to adopt a bit of humility.