Last week, I posted something that got a lot of people talking, both here and elsewhere on the Net. In it, I talked about the difficulties of being sequestered in the Christian marketplace, where, despite what I write about, mainstream readers will rarely find me — and patrons of Christian bookstores might not even be the right audience for what I do.
Around the same time, entirely by coincidence, my friend and fellow novelist Eric Wilson poured out his heart to readers with a post about his own issues with “Christian industry,” which also got a lot of people talking — only in Eric’s case, not all of the response was positive. Some was exceedingly negative, in fact. He boldly asked if it might be time for “Christian Fiction,” as a genre, to die, because it’s more of a hindrance to authors than a help.
This got me thinking about a conversation I had years ago with a friend of mine. When I first met Leo Partible, I decided to interview him for an article, because I was fascinated to learn that he was among a large group of Christians operating inside Hollywood, bold and unashamed of their faith. And none of these Christians were ever victims of “religious profiling,” if you will — aka, Hollywood’s well-known bias against Christians and Christian beliefs. I couldn’t wait to find out how they were getting away with this, and as we talked about Leo’s background, our conversation turned toward the “Christian” industries — Christian Music, Christian Movies, Christian Fiction, etc. — and their impact on society, or lack thereof.
Here’s the relevant part of the interview:
Robin: Do you find that infiltrating culture by being in it is like walking a tightrope?
Leo: You know, I don’t think it should even be a problem. Because I don’t think C.S. Lewis ever had a problem with it, or Tolkien or anybody else. So long as you’re very truthful about who you are and what you believe, then that’s it. I find that people who have a problem talking about their faith, are usually people who don’t know as much about their faith or how to communicate it. C.S. Lewis was able to move between worlds; he would use pagan imagery in stories and then he would use Christian imagery, and no one ever called him on it. Maybe it was a different time and a different world, but even in today’s world, you don’t have people getting mad at Bono for quoting scripture. Because everyone knows that he’s being honest about it.
The problem is that evangelical culture is way too aware of who they are. To the point that they feel like, “I must talk about Jesus now,” every moment of every day. But if you have to do that, then maybe you should question whether or not you really believe in Jesus Christ. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have to force yourself to talk about Christ — it would simply come out of you naturally.
We spend so much time being insular about our subculture. Christian bookstores, Christian t-shirts, Christian bracelets and bumper-stickers and all these things that have been stamped with the “Safe For Us” seal of approval. We’ve been programmed with this mindset for so long, it’s no wonder that some people are made uncomfortable by you working in comic books or Doug Jones acting in movies like Hellboy.
It’s sad for me, because I go to a Christian bookstore and I don’t see Madeleine L’Engle on the shelves. I see probably a quarter of C.S. Lewis’ books. I don’t see Lord of the Rings. I don’t see Anne Lamont or Flannery O’Connor or any of the other great Christian writers. It’s just sad.
Look at Left Behind. I’m not knocking those books, but not every Christian believes in Dispensationalism. That’s one example of some peoples’ opinions within the church; and it might be a valid opinion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gospel. Why aren’t the views of people like Anne Lamont and Madeleine L’Engle given equal exposure?
I can tell you why; my first job was at a Christian bookstore. Everything that goes through those stores must first go through a filter. Usually the filter is nothing more than the reputation of the publisher or record label or whoever publishes that product.
And whenever a customer would walk into that store, it went without saying that they knew that everything they would find inside those walls would be “safe” to expose themselves and their children to. The problem with that is that we’re relinquishing all power of discernment when we walk through those doors. We no longer have to take personal responsibility for the quality or accuracy of anything we expose ourselves to, and that terrifies me. You can check your brain and your faith and everything else at the door.
Exactly. You nailed it, exactly. My concern is that these retailers are not taking in all materials created by Christians — they’re taking in stamped and “approved” materials that are very mediocre. If it continues, then teenagers and young adults are not going to go there looking for their spiritual brainfood. They’re going to go looking for materials by Christians that’s outside the Christian bookstores.
Wal-Mart’s already gearing up for that, and other places are, too. If they don’t watch out, these big stores are totally going to take over and the mom and pop stores will diminish in great numbers. Either they’re going to move with where God is taking Christian culture, or they’re going to fade away.
It’s worth noting that this interview took place in 2004.
Oh, and that Christian bookstore that was my first job? It went out of business a couple of years ago.