October 20, 2017

Another Look: Selling Jesus By The Pound

Chaplain Mike wrote earlier this week about the demise of Borders and how the Christian Booksellers Association says their member stores need to fill the gap. I have worked in Christian publishing for a number of years. I know the ins and outs fairly well of this field, so I feel I have the right to share my thoughts in this matter. I wrote the following more than a year ago, but thought we might revisit it again in light of what Chaplain Mike shared. I think this gets to the heart of the issue.

(We often provide links for products mentioned in these posts that will take you Amazon where you can buy them. This is both for your convenience as well as being a revenue-generator for InternetMonk.com. We are providing no such links in this essay, as we cannot in good conscience recommend most of the products mentioned here. If you want to buy any or all, you are on your own. Also, before you read this essay, take a moment to read why Michael Spencer, the original iMonk, stopped shopping in Christian bookstores.)

My friend Jen has a novel she really needs to finish. It starts with a man talking with his therapist. This man owns a Christian gift store, even though he is not himself a Christian. He has found Christians to be extremely gullible and easy pickings when it comes to making money.

But he recently came upon a challenge. He had a box of leftover WWJD bracelets he couldn’t sell. What to do with them?

“Then I had this great idea,” he tells his therapist. “I hung up all the bracelets on their rack, and made up a new sign: What Would Jabez Do? They sold like hotcakes!”

I have told Jen she has to finish this novel. The only problem is it will sound much more like truth than fiction.

Why is it that Christians buy so much religious crap? Is it really a problem that religious trinkets are such big business? And would you buy a What Would Jabez Do bracelet?

Confession time. I worked in the Jesus junk business in one way or another for many years. My first payroll job (as opposed to cutting lawns in the neighborhood) was working at a Zondervan Family Bookstore in Kettering, Ohio. That was back when the stores sold everything a Christian or church would need. Books. Bibles. Bible studies. Bulletin blanks. Wedding invitations. Records albums. (Before CDs, we old people would listen to music on round vinyl discs with a tiny hole in the middle. You could not push these into a slot on the dashboard of your car. To listen to music in your car, you had what were called 8 track tapes. But that is a discussion for another day.) The books we sold included those of strong, good theology, written by people who spent a lot of time with God and his word instead of those who simply spoke in front of large churches and were good looking.

But we also sold some Jesus junk. Pencils with Bible verses. Toothbrushes with Bible verses. Bumper stickers and combs and spinning tops and sparkly stickers—all with Bible verses. These were often bought by Sunday school teachers as rewards or bribes or however they used them, but they were also purchased by parents as rewards or bribes to keep their kids quiet as they shopped.

By today’s standards, the Jesus junk we sold in the 1970s was very tame. But I still felt awkward selling some of that stuff.

I moved on to work in Christian radio, where we ran ads for Christian crap. When I switched from on-air to sales, I quickly learned an important lesson. If a business had the word “Christian” in its name, or any other pop-religious word (like “agape” or “icthus”) we required cash—the green stuff—before we would produce and run their ads. If the business was run by an alcoholic reprobate with three wives and a drive-up heroin fulfillment center on the side, we were good extending them credit. It always worked that way.

For the past ten years or so I have worked in Christian publishing. I am going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Most publishers do not care in the least what is between the covers of a book. And when someone says, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” you need to remind them that is the only way someone judges a book they have never heard of before. That’s why a potential author’s “platform” is so important. If you write a manuscript that is so great, so unique that I feel every true follower of Jesus needs to read it right away, but you are not a TV personality or pastor a megachurch, I won’t even be able to get a publisher to return my phone call about you. On the other hand, if you pastor one of the nation’s twenty largest or fastest-growing churches, and you have a slick and smooth delivery on TV, bingo! You and your agent can get a strong six-figure multiple book deal. What will your book be about? Who cares? It just doesn’t matter. You won’t be writing it anyway. That will be the job of a ghostwriter hired by the publisher. Your job is to protect your pretty face and your good reputation. And that pretty face on the cover is what will sell the book, not the content (or lack thereof) inside.

(And if you don’t protect your reputation, well, that can be the topic for your next book.)

And who can blame these publishers? Consumers don’t rush to buy books that make the reader—gasp!—think. They want bullet point lists that tell the secret to having a better life right now. No pain, just gain. That is why Joel Osteen sells by the million, while Eugene Peterson and Robert Capon and N.T. Wright and other great thinkers and writers sell, well, much less than a million copies. Thinking is hard work. Let me open my mouth and you can feed me, thank you. Pablum? Sure. But spoon enough sugar on it and I can swallow anything.

Have you really walked around your local Christian bookstore lately? What are they selling that really offers anything with nutritional value? Well, you say, they do sell Bibles. Ok, let’s take a look at the Bible isle.

The American Patriot’s Bible, complete with stories showing how a “light from above” shaped our nation.

The MacArthur Study Bible

The Everyday Life Bible (Joyce Meyer)

Aspire: The New Women Of Color Study Bible

Holy Bible: Thou Art Loosed Edition

Manual: The Bible For Men

I think you are getting the idea. Today you might have trouble finding a Bible that is just a Bible with no Christian celebrity endorsement or agenda attached as a companion to Scripture. The Bible is a great work of art, but we have reduced it to a vehicle to advertise our brand or promote our specific political bent.

Look, I have no problem with businesses making a profit, if the goods or services they sell are legitimately needed by consumers. For instance, blue jeans are a necessity, especially in Oklahoma where they can pass as formal wear in most situations. But does anyone really need $200+ jeans? The answer is no, they don’t.

And I am all for books and music and other forms of art that draw a person’s heart upward to Christ. But is there ever a need for Scripture candy? The answer again is a resounding No.

So, just why are Christians so gullible? Why are we such easy targets for those simply out to make money? In short, why will we buy any item that has a Bible verse or religious-sounding phrase on it? I can think of at least three reasons.

Safety. We are seemingly obsessed with protecting ourselves and others (especially others) from sin in any art form. You do know that the rating system we use for movies today was developed by Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, who based it firmly on Catholic theology. This was an attempt to keep movies “safe” for families as well as promote religion. The promotion of religion has gone by the wayside for the most part, but we still cling to the safety factor, setting limits on the rating level our kids can watch. We feel better about ourselves when we keep our kids from seeing things that might make them think about sin.

The same goes for books, music and visual art, like paintings we allow in our homes. We expect them to present to us a “safe” view of life, one where if sin is committed, it is punished swiftly. Where crime does not pay. Where we think only on nice things. Where the sun always shines, birds always sing in tune, and life is always wrapped in a neat red ribbon. We demand that our artists conform to this vision of safety. They cannot explore issues of life like sexuality or doubts about faith, because that might make the consumer of the art uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, lead them to sin themselves.

And as you might imagine, safe art is no art at all. For art to reach into one’s soul, it must address four issues:

1. Who are we?

2. What makes us unique—what is our purpose in life?

3. What has gone wrong?

4. How can we get back?

A great song that addresses this issue is Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Stardust, golden—that is who we are and what we were made for. And while we may not hear how to get back, we do hear where “back” is: The Garden. But it’s the billion year old carbon line that would have this song banned by many Christians. Why, someone hearing this might be lead to think about evolution. And just to think about that is tantamount to sin. Thus, out goes Joni Mitchell and her song about Woodstock. We will never know how to get back to the Garden if we don’t listen. But listening—or viewing or reading—reality is a risk, a big risk. And our safety-mindedness just will not allow that.

Religiosity. This actually goes right along with safety. There is great safety in religion. Religion is form and procedure and policy. It is rules that are followed or else. It is easy to see if you are on the right side: You just have to measure your thoughts and actions against the yardstick of religious do’s and don’ts. If you are on the right side, you pass the test and are religious. And we know that God likes religious people—at least those who are religious the way we are religious. Those who do what they shouldn’t and don’t do what they should are not religious and God does not like them.

A large number of the items on this religious measuring stick have to do with art. Going to see Toy Story 3 is good. Going to see The A Team is questionable at best. Going to see Get Him To The Greek is a sure ticket to hell. You can measure the music you listen to (12 Stones—good; Rolling Stones—evil), books you read (Clay In The Hands Of The Potter—good; Harry Potter—evil), and paintings you view (clothes on—good; clothes off—evil).

We want to feel good about our religious efforts. And why not? What is religion for if not to make us feel good about ourselves? And if we are not feeling good, we might as well give it up and just do what we want in the first place. So we place restrictions on the art we consume to meet these religious standards. When we don’t, it leads to the final reason for buying Christian junk.

Guilt. Oh sure, you used to like listening to Christina Aguilera, but now you are a Christian, so you listen to BarlowGirl, not because you like their sound or their lyrics, but you would feel guilty listening to and enjoying Christina Aguilera now that you have been saved. You used to love reading science fiction by Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin, but now you read Left Behind. You used to go study the works of Van Gogh, but now you look at a picture of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door.

Are you enjoying your new choices in art? No, not really. But you would have a terrible feeling of guilt if you continued to consume that which you previously enjoyed. After all, if you like something, it has to be wrong, right?

So we buy Christian crap, not because we want to, but because we feel guilty buying “non-Christian” works of art. We keep Christian stores in business, buying water bottles that say “Seek the living water.” T-shirts with ripped-off corporate logos like “Things go better with Christ.” And books and music that are such inferior examples of their media they would be laughable if their effects weren’t so horrible. So much Christian art causes us to become people who cannot think for ourselves, cannot determine what is solid food and what is baby food, cannot distinguish between what is beautiful and what is a very poor imitation of beauty.

Comments

  1. Good article. This is exactly why I got so sick of Christian bookstores. They sold all kinds of junk and not nearly enough substantial books on subjects like theology and apologetics. I found more of those at Borders than my local Christian bookstore.

    “But does anyone really need $200+ jeans? The answer is no, they don’t.”

    Quite true if we’re talking American brands like True Religion and 7 For All Mankind, which charge tons of money for the brand name, as well as hideously tacky washes and hype. But the nice Japanese brands can justify high price tags by making their products domestically with well-paid skilled labor, using superlative denim made from good cotton and indigo dye, milling and sewing with inefficient but high-quality vintage machinery, and putting everything together with a level of detail that’s not possible in cheap Chinese slave labor-made brands. But I am a denim nerd, please forgive me for going off on a tangent.

    • It’s amazing what they can sell. All you need to do is slap on a scripture verse and someone will buy it. Where does it end? Condoms and other birth control perhaps with versus from the Book of Songs or Ecclestiates on it? 😛 And then I read this post when Family Christian Stores send me a brochure in todays mail for the newest Joyce Meyer book I agreed to reading the book “Knowing God” by JI Packer and to discuss it with a friend. Low and behold the few times I gathor the courage to venture in a Christian book store they don’t have it!! I could pick up something by either Joel Olstein, Marc Driscoll or John Piper 😛 (Eagle reaches for his barf bag…)

  2. I approve of this message 🙂

    However, before I get too comfortable turning my nose up at bad taste, I have to remember that (a) I have never knowingly bought a book of theology, either in Christian bookstores or elsewhere (I devoured Lewis in my late teens/early twenties and practically bought out the Waterstones’ stock of his works, but that’s not Serious Theology) and (b) although the vast amount of tat available in, for example, the stalls at the shrine in Knock is truly of dreadful standard, there have been times when I’ve wanted a cheap plastic rosary, holy medals made out of tin (and “Made in China”) and the gallon-sized plastic container for the holy water – all of which is easily and cheaply available in those very stalls.

    So yes, guilty as charged. I can, however, say that I have never and will never buy any kind of self-help book, Christian or otherwise. No Jabez bracelets here!

    One explanation for the cheap rubbish seems to be, at least according to this 2006 book, that many pilgrims – particulary those to Marian shrines – are disabled, elderly or on low incomes, thus they don’t have much disposable income and so the cheaper, the better as far as souvenirs are concerned, plus the container (the Our Lady-shaped holy water bottle) isn’t important, it’s the contents (the water from Lourdes).

    And let’s face it: the plain people of any nation don’t have very high-brow tastes. I don’t like the “Soccer Jesus” statues or the wimpy angels, but I think they do a lot less damage than the books by popular pastors or preachers who sell Christianity as “God wants you to have a big car, a mansion, and no speck of trouble in this life or the next, plus you’re getting an express ticket to be raptured away while the heathen burn in the end”.

  3. As for me and my house, we shall listen to Joni Mitchell…

  4. I stopped shopping at the local Christian and Catholic (note….two different stores) for one reason: Neither promoted Jesus’ number one teaching which is to “love one another.” The local Christian bookstore refused to sell anything Catholic (ie: crucifixes, rosaries, religious medals, Catholic bibles) because “Catholics aren’t Christians.” The Catholic bookstore only carried fundamentalist Catholic products, they carried nothing (even by Catholic authors) that explored anything beyond “that which is explicitly handed down by the magesterium.” Both had developed their own brand of “Christianity” and determined through their inventory choices who was saved and who was not. Because of their mutual adherence to separation and judgment, I was forced to look to Amazon.com to find any Christian books that supported Jesus’ message of love.

    • Why do the religious hardliners always win?!? Why is there a Christian Taliban movement afoot?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Catholic bookstore only carried fundamentalist Catholic products, they carried nothing (even by Catholic authors) that explored anything beyond “that which is explicitly handed down by the magesterium.”

      Uber-Trads. (Rally round the Tridentine Latin Mass, boys.)

      Ever heard of the phrase “More Catholic than the Pope”?

  5. I am a recent (less than six months) convert to Catholicism. I have added a few icons to my apartment, I bought some prayer books and a rosary, and I wear a crucifix and a medal of St. Michael on my dog-tag chain. I confess, I am a natural packrat, and I check myself occasionally to make sure that I’m not just buying religious “junk” because it’s pretty.

    But after considering it, I really do think it’s spiritually helpful to have visual reminders of my faith around my house and on my person. For instance, having a crucifix in my bedroom reminds me every morning to say my prayers, and it really is a help against temptation. I see it, or I feel the items on my chain gently whack me in the chest every time I walk, or I fidget with the chain when I’m bored, and it reminds me of the things I wanted to remember. Often when I’m feeling particularly spiritual or devout, I think, “If only I could feel like this all the time!” Of course, I frequently get distracted and do what I wanted to avoid doing. But having something physical that frequently catches my eye and reminds me of the presence of God has been very helpful for me. (For the record, I bought all my religious items either online or in a historic shrine in New Mexico.)

    When it comes to Jesus candy, however, I don’t think that would be a very ENDURING reminder of anything much. Unless the candy was gross!

    • If you like icons, consider learning how to paint with egg tempera. There are icon writing instructions online with patterns to paint your own. Even somewhat unusual patterns like a St. Francis of Assisi (who was after the GS). It’s certainly a thrifty art form as you can get by with just inexpensive earth pigments (the iron oxides, ultramarine, and titanium white) and once you have the pigments, the only expense is eggs and painting surfaces.

    • Kate – I understand what you are saying, and I have a similar outlook. My salvation came late in life, 2003, and I began wearing a simple pewter cross on a chain around my neck, never displayed, but never taken off. I don’t wear it because it has some “magic” power that protects or enables me, but because through the Holy Spirit it reminds me of the incredible price that was paid by my Redeemer for my sinful, unworthy self. I think of it as my “price tag”, representing the price paid by my Saviour who loves me and reached out to me.

      peace and grace,

    • Oh, the cheap tat has its place, and we have to be careful that we don’t confuse “good taste” with “spiritual advancement”.

      The problem is when the only products on offer are the Heinz babyfood jars, so to speak, and none of the meat is provided. Cutesy angel figurines of the Angel of Faith (a thingamajig which leaves me scratching my head and going “Holy Mother of God…”) are okay as ornaments for the Christmas tree, but as TV Tropes (insert obligatory warning for clicking on link and becoming trapped in a timesink) puts it, Biblical accounts of angels leaves them looking more like some sort of Eldritch Abomination.

      (Actually, on second thoughts, that Angel of Faith thing does look like some kind of Eldritch Abomination) 😉

    • Kate…you know there is a dartboard with John MacArthur on it? That could go well in your apartment also? 😛 Let me know when it’s up and invite me over and we can play darts!!

  6. Jeff, I would recommend this article to my Christian friends if it were really safe….safe for the whole family, I mean…

    I passed a church sign yesterday that read, “Faithbook…God has sent you a friend request.” After I threw up in my mouth a little, and called my wife and swore for a few minutes, I pondered the reasons for such foolishness. I wonder sometimes if we Christians don’t think the Gospel has legs enough to stand on its on, so we feel we have to dress it up like the culture, to trick people into believing we are MORE cool and MORE relevant than the MOST cool and MOST relevant things that are currently capturing people’s attention.

    As for me and my house, we watched the A-Team, and were not offended. We started Get Him to the Greek, but Russell Brand just irritates both me and my wife. You know, I heard he’s the reason that sweet little Katie Perry isn’t a Christian singer anymore…:o) (I’m joking). I spent a good hour dancing around the living room the other day with my 7 month old listening to “Best of the Doobies” on vinyl (guilty pleasure, I know). I’m sure glad no one burned that one back in the 70’s or 80’s because it said “Doobies” on the sleeve! Do you think my little girl will wind up smoking Doobies because I listen to the Doobie Brothers? I don’t…

    Yet more reasons I am post-evangelical…pastors/Christians who say they never watch rated “R” movies, but seem to own several in their personal DVD collections; who question your commitment to your faith when you tell them about how incredible a homemade Bulgarian wine was that you tried on your last mission trip (I consider a good wine or microbrew a work of art in and of itself); and who leave pamphlets lying around their youth group area saying things like “If you listen to Megadeath, you will like Chevelle”.

    • By the way, great post, Jeff…

    • “I wonder sometimes if we Christians don’t think the Gospel has legs enough to stand on its on”

      hey Lee…..you. nail. head.

      I liked your whole post!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Faithbook…God has sent you a friend request.”

      “Faithbook: Just like Facebook, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

      “If you listen to Megadeath, you will like Chevelle”.

      “Chevelle: Just like Megadeath, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”?

      Sorry, guys, I can’t stop snarking about this sort of crap. Especially after discovering “Praise Ponies: Just like My Little Pony, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” last week.

      • My personal fave is the statue of Santa Claus kneeling in prayer next to the infant baby Jesus. The first time I saw it, I speculated that it was the first in a series…You know…Santa as the money changer, and Jesus turning over his table; Jesus on trial, and Santa washing his hands; Santa nailing Jesus to the cross; finally culminating in a victorious scene of the rolled-away stone and Jesus coming out of the grave, and Santa cowering in fear, covering his eyes…

        I will likely spend a great deal of time in Purgatory for the things that pop in my mind, and subsequently come out of my mouth…

        • “Jesus coming out of the grave, and Santa cowering in fear, covering his eyes…”

          No, no, no, Lee! That’s just silly!

          It would have to be the Easter Bunny cowering in fear 😀

        • I’ve mentioned this before, Lee, but I was delighted by a friend’s idea for an inflatable Christmas lawn decoration. Instead of Santa hugging Rudolph, how about St. Nicholas slugging Arias at the Council of Nicea? I like it . . .

      • Portending war, famine, pestilence, and death, I assume…?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          No, those are Apocalypse Ponies, from the Robot Chicken segment. (And a popular subject for Pony customizers.)

          Praise Ponies appear to be direct knockoffs of G1 Ponies, repackaged as CHRISTIAN (TM). The pictures were too small for me to get a good look at their cutie marks, but I suspect their cutie marks were Bible verse references. (This would fit the general pattern of Christianese knockoffs.)

          Here’s the only picture I was able to find.

  7. Jesus is really illustrating poor ball control in that picture… You can’t just hold the ball out there like that. If Jesus is the coach, He needs to brush up on the basics.

    • For Pete’s sake, Phil, he’s playing football in robe and sandals. Do you think that’s easy?

      If someone doesn’t believe in predestination, does that mean that Jesus calls audibles?

      • If I was Jesus, I would predestine the opposing team’s linebackers to blitz when I was running a quick slant. But that’s just me.

        • If I was Jesus, we would have an ecumenical team, made up of people from different denominations. And all the players would be educated from the perspective of historical Christianity. Heck, if he was fast, I would even put a muslim on my team. And we would have a contract with NBC, giving them exclusive rights to show my team, and my team only. And we would be called the “Fightin’ Irish”…

          Wait a minute…

  8. I’ve tried reading a few “Christian” novels and yeech! I am saddened that these bookstores promote these light, fluffy books that are so poorly written and that hoards of people think this is good literature. Some of the great authors of the world– like Dostoevsky– are ignored because they are kinda hard and have (gasp!) characters in them that aren’t wholesome. I seek a faith with some depth, not the shallow silliness that I see around me.

    • Suzanne, have you ever read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers? A novel based on the book of Hosea? It’ll rock your world, if it hasn’t already.

      • Rebekah, I was once housesitting for my sister-in-law and picked up her Francine Rivers book, hoping for some hip-ironic amusement. I was surprised, it actually was very good (though she did seem to try to make a thinly-veiled nexus between ancient Rome and American political issues).
        I got ribbed incessantly by my wife for that one.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Christian (TM) novels are consolation prizes so those Christians (TM) keeping their noses squeeky-clean to pass the Rapture Litmus Test can have their pop culture just like Those Heathen without risking contamination by Those Same Heathen. The reason “hordes of people think this is good literature” is because they either have never encountered the real thing (again, a negative view of Holiness) or it is all they have to read and they make the most of it. When you’ve never known (or are forbidden to touch) anything else, even crap makes your mouth water.

    • I miss the days that Zondervan (or any book store now) had an entire shelf devoted to the novels of…. Taylor Caldwell, traditionalist Catholic, Bircher & later reincarnationist.

      The comment about Roberts’ Rome-America comparison brought good ol’ Taylor to mind.

  9. In many ways, I think the type of consumer culture exhibited at Christian bookstores is really just a microcosm of the American consumer culture at large. It’s not as if Americans in general are reading great works of literature, watching great movies, or listening to great music. We are a nation that thrives on novelty and, really, we’re perfectly fine entertaining ourselves to death. Christians have just decided they want a piece of this action.

    I don’t buy things from Christian bookstores, but I try to avoid shopping at many “secular” stores as well. It’s not because I think that they’re evil and in of themselves, but I just don’t want to feed the beast. So much is disposable now. We buy cell phones knowing full well that we’ll be getting rid of them in less than two years. The way I see it, the consumer culture at large is really the issue.

    • Good point, Phil. Yes, it is the culture at large. But why do we as followers of Christ feel we need to follow such a culture? Is “becoming relevant” really worth it?

      • I don’t really think it’s even about being relevant so much as it is about making people feel better about themselves, which is more or less what you said in your article. I remember when I was in high school, and I was way into the Christian music scene, it wasn’t for evangelistic purposes at all. It was mainly so I could feel cool listening to my cool music. It was like, “yeah, you guys (non-Christians) have your cool music, but I have mine, too!” I think Christian retailers know this sort of sentiment exists, so they market stuff that feeds into it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yes, it is the culture at large. But why do we as followers of Christ feel we need to follow such a culture?

        Not just follow it, but clone it wholesale with cheezy Christian (TM) knockoffs?

        Is “becoming relevant” really worth it?

        Repeat after me, kiddies: “NOTHING GETS OLD-FASHIONED FASTER THAN OVER-RELEVANCE.”

        Type example: Remember Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In? Cutting-edge & uber-Relevant at its time in the mid-1960s? Groovy, Man…

  10. “Thinking is hard work”

    So to apparently is thinking for yourself, which is why so many people seem to clamor to both the good (insert your personal favorite deep thinker here) and the claptrap (insert your favorite target of derision here) to be told what to do.

    Frankly, I find the bulk of Christian literature and music boring and saccharine. My preference is writing with sex, ultra violence, fratricide, infanticide, war, greed and political intrigue – so the Bible fits the bill quite well and is available for free in any hotel room.

  11. Good stuff here! Both Jeff’s archived article and Micheal’s.

    In my experience I still struggle with music and movies, though I love them both diversely. I was raised to believe that they were both inherently bad, but alas, I rebelled against both teachings and freaked my mom out with such albums as Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil, which I later broke into tiny pieces on my front step in an effort to change my life (which did absolutely no good btw!)

    “It is easy to see if you are on the right side: You just have to measure your thoughts and actions against the yardstick of religious do’s and don’ts. If you are on the right side, you pass the test and are religious. And we know that God likes religious people—at least those who are religious the way we are religious. Those who do what they shouldn’t and don’t do what they should are not religious and God does not like them.”

    A funny thing happened to my insides when I read those words……YES. THIS. I bailed on the whole stupid thing because of this feeling. I wasn’t on the right side back at 12, so I left. Now, 4 years into my return Home and I can honestly say I’ve considered bailing again a few times, once very recently……I can’t get on the right side of this whole thing, I’ve attempted, shallowly mind you, and everytime I know I’m being fake and I piss myself off. It just feels wrong and bad and fake and shallow and fake (oh, oops, did I say that already?) So, the devil on my shoulder says, “See? You’re just not cut out for this.” And the battle wages on.

    • wow! Rebekah I feel you on this one! But at the same time there is this hunger and love for Jesus that Is always with me. I am not cut out for this either! But I just know that Jesus is working it all out in me in His time and in His way! None of my “good works” or lack there of can change that! SO I have decided to just hang on for the ride.

      • Oh April, I have the same hunger for Jesus…..it’s His people I have a problem with 🙂 I’m sure you know what I speak of when those condescending looks, comments and otherwise religiocity comes out of their mouths and I’m left going, “Huh? Where am I? I thought I was exactly where God wanted me to be. But now I’m left with this big flippin’ question mark on my head that figures this ol’ prodigal rebel got it wrong. AGAIN. And if I were more like this person or that person, I’d be more accepted.”

        Ugh.

        There is nowhere else to go. He is the One who offers Life.

        • Every time a member of the congregation I used to be a part of runs into me and tells me “we sure miss you” I remind them that I haven’t moved, changed my email or phone number.

          The message hidden in their “miss you” that I hear is “hey, you’re supposed to be a part of our Sunday AM events, and since you aren’t, it’s proper, necessary and correct for us to remind you of that obligation through subtle, insincere platitudes.”

  12. “Selling Jesus By the Pound”?
    Jeff, are you an old Genesis fan?

  13. Great piece and comments. As I teenager I worked one summer in a Christian bookstore that had a small selection of what I called holy hardware.

    Just two days ago I dropped into a C bookstore for lunch (!). I sat opposite a shelf of Bibles, all those alternative types, wrapped up pretty or hard. Including a Manga Bible. What? Is this even a Bible I thought as is sipped my organic, fair-trade green rooibos tea with a citrus after-note. Got a bit sweaty thinking about all those people who don’t yet have a bible in their language. And we have them in our sub-cultures.

    Let me explain I was In Africa for 12 years and have been back ‘home’ for 4 now. There’s a heap of stuff I don’t get anymore. including advertising. Especially in Christian mags, which I don’t subscribe to. Picked up a old issue recently of a mainstream one here in the UK and got stressed by all the ways I should be living the life, all the conferences I’d missed, all the speakers i’d never heard of let alone heard… Nooooo.

    End of rant! I enjoy iMonk a great deal. Anyone know of something similar from the UK?

  14. Truly, I think it comes down to the whole “us vs. them” mentality that pervades American Christianity. If something is labeled “Christian,” it’s automatically better than what you get in a regular store. We go for it because we have bought into the secular vs. sacred argument and since we are no longer of this world, we don’t want to participate in any more of it than we have to. Jesus said you will know them by their fruits, so we want to make sure there’s no doubt about whose fruit we are bearing, and external trappings are a quick, easy way to proclaim that we are not one of “them,” those unwashed hell-bound gay liberal tree-huggers.

    • CJ, your comment made me giggle. And I like giggling. The funny and not funny “ha-ha”, but funny “strange” thing about what you said is that “fruit” listed in the Bible isn’t stuff, Bible translation, where you shop, don’t shop; what you listen to or don’t listen to. The real fruit is much harder to “prove” on any given day to complete strangers. Or on Sunday mornings to fellow pilgrims.

      I, for one, want to be out in the world but not of it. To be the salt and light because of the One I serve and wordhip in my heart. And I do believe I can do that and rock out to a little Rolling Stones and watch a rated R movie.

      All of this is just another reminder how so often we make much ado about nothing. Lord have mercy 🙂

      Thanks again for the laugh!

      • You’re welcome! And my point was exactly that: the stuff we buy is much easier — and more fun — to display than the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Guess I should have put it that way to start with, but then you wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much! 😉

        • Zactly! Although it was the last sentence that made me giggle:

          those unwashed hell-bound gay liberal tree-huggers.

          Still funny.

          • “You will know them by their fruit….” Would that be the fruit on our branches that’s vibrant and alive because we’re still connected to The Vine, Jesus? Or that which is purchased in the fruitless (urf!) attempt to reconnect it to the branches that have separated themselves from The Vine, Jesus?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I, for one, want to be out in the world but not of it.

        And the Christianese Enclave Bubble (of which Jesus Junk is but a symptom) is “Of the world but not in it,” self-isolated in a sanitized and bowdlerized knockoff of pop culture.

        …since we are no longer of this world, we don’t want to participate in any more of it than we have to. Jesus said you will know them by their fruits, so we want to make sure there’s no doubt about whose fruit we are bearing, and external trappings are a quick, easy way to proclaim that we are not one of “them,” those unwashed hell-bound gay liberal tree-huggers.

        And that attitude is obvious to “those unwashed hell-bound gay liberal tree-huggers” on the Outside:

        “And Tommy ain’t a bloody fool —
        You bet that Tommy sees!”
        — Rudyard Kipling

  15. Richard Hershberger says:

    Insert my usual criticism of conflating “Christian” with “Evangelical Protestant”, as if the two were synonymous.

    By way of contrast, you might take a look at http://www.augsburgfortress.org/, my church’s denominational press. It has its share of crap, but there is a lot of substance, too. It has a different mission than the sort of “Christian” publishing you describe, which seems to be purely profit-driven.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Insert my usual criticism of conflating “Christian” with “Evangelical Protestant”, as if the two were synonymous.

    Thing is, American Fundagelical Protestants have hijacked the word “Christian” without any modifiers to mean their brand of Christian alone. Like “Intelligent Design” got hijacked to mean Young Earth Creationism’s latest coat of paint.

    I’m going on 20+ years in Furry Fandom. There is only so much you can do to distance yourself from crazies who hijack your name and loudly proclaim that they are what your name means; changing your name doesn’t work as nothing prevents the crazies from hijacking that name too.

  17. If a succulent piece of Scripture Candy(TM) saves just one person, isn’t it worth it?

    I wonder if they make a sugar-free version so I can witness to my diabetic friends.

  18. Has anyone considered a business making Holy Hooch? I mean, the Benedictines and Franciscans both have liqueurs, and the Trappists have brewed ale (really, really good ale) for ages. Do the evangelicals want a liquid gold gap on their hands? Besides all those Reformed chaps seem like they’re allowed a nip now and again.

    • Nope. If you’re right-wing fundegelical — and especially if you’re Southern Baptist right-wing fundegelical — drinking is a one-way ticket to Heck.

      • Maybe they’d go for Mystic Monk coffee, ground by real monks out West . . . No, probably not.

        • Let me tell you, the best red wine I ever tasted was one I bought in Bulgaria. It had an icon of Jesus on the label. I found out later on that regular people generally didn’t buy it, but it was made specifically for priests to serve at communion. I’ve looked for it in the states for years, and can’t track it down.

          There is a beer marketed specifically to Southern Baptists. It’s called Miller Lite. It comes with a towel, so you can cover it up in the bottom of your fridge when it’s your turn to host Bible study…Sorry, “Community Group”.

    • In Utah there’s a micro-label called “Polygamy Porter” (“You can’t have just one.”) A commercial for it showed two Mormon missionaries inviting someone to “baptize your taste buds.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Back in the Old West, one of the names for trade whiskey/Skull-pop/Coffin Varnish/Oh-Be-Joyful was “Brigham Young — One gulp and you’re a polygamist seeing double!”

  19. As I’ve mentioned before on here, I long ago got fed up with our Christian bookstore. And I remember the Zondervan’s in Kettering! Now we have the Family Christian Store. I won’t say where it is, but I no longer go there. Instead I go to the Barnes & Noble across the street, to Books and Co at The Greene or Towne & Country, or just online to B&N or, more likely, Amazon. (NOT to Christian Book Distributors, thank you. One example of their ineptness was more than enough.)

    But you actually mentioned Ursula K LeGuin! I love her books! Well, most of them. Not all are my cup of tea. I found out about her because her novels were immediately after Madeleine L’Engle’s on the library shelves. I’ve bought all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books (at least the fiction ones) and many of Ms. LeGuin’s.

    And while I read movie reviews, I usually do an online search for them, or just look at the synopsis or reviews offered on Fandango. I’d not even heard of Plugged In (Dobson’s reviews) until a church friend mentioned it. Oh, and I don’t listen to Dobson, either, though I do have many of his books. But I finally quit getting them, as they all (almost) seemed to say the same things over and over and over….

    • Black Cat — have you read any of Madeleine L’Engle’s devotional stuff? A Circle of Quiet and Bright Evening Star are two of my favorites

      • I recently read L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet and then her Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. I loved them both and will read more of her things. I have only read one work of fiction by her so far.

  20. conanthepunctual says:

    I love Orson Scott Card. He’s Mormon and yet somehow doesn’t just write for the Mormon bookstore.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Orson Scott Card is also an excellent teacher of his craft. He’s written several non-fiction books for Writers’ Digest Books on various aspects of fiction writing (especially in the imaginative genres). His Characters and Viewpoint is one of the best books for a beginning fiction writer I have ever come across.

    • You ever read his explanation of the story of the woman caught in adultery? In maybe the second or third of the Ender series. Wow. It’s worth looking up.

  21. I wonder how much of a profit Family Christian and Lifeway are making?

    Obviously thought-provoking books and music aren’t going to make much of a profit, certainly enough to keep them in business. Hence, the Jesus Junk and the celebrity-endorsed Bibles and (ghost-written?) books and the Amish romance novels.

    What I am grateful for is the internet, and the ability to read books and listen to sermons and podcasts not approved by the evangelical family-friendly bookstores and magazines. Though it’s sad that there are a lot of good authors and books you’ll never see in Lifeway, it’s great that you can access them instantly online. It’s even greater that we’re no longer subject just to whatever Christianized old media decided to promote.

  22. Just so you know, Family Christian Stores supports widows and orphans in the U.S. and South America through its James Fund, which benefits from proceeds from product sales, and just about every Christian store supports local or global ministries with surpluses they might have and outreaches they might organize. I think I would rather support that than pedophilia authors from Amazon. Last year in a national campaign, Christian stores sent $60,000 to help three ministries working on the ground in Haiti trying to help people make it through the ruins of the earthquake. If you think people are getting rich with Christian bookstores, you obviously don’t understand the situation — especially for most independents who do this work to make Christian resources available beyond simplistic best-seller lists.

    People who only see “jesus Junk” in Christian stores probably haven’t picked up book to read in years anyway.

    • Eric, I have worked in Christian media for decades. I’ve worked in retail, for two major publishers, and as a literary agent, so I have every aspect of the industry in my experience belt. I know independent stores are closing at a rapid rate, mostly thanks to Amazon. But when I walk into a store and cannot find books by Buechner, Bruggleman, Capon, etc., I stop shopping there. I, too, turn to Amazon. I’m not satisfied with Christian cotton candy any longer. There are many who are, however, and thus we will continue to have Christian bookstores stocked with pure fluff.

      I realize your job demands that you stand in support of Christian bookstores, but saying that those who “see only Jesus junk haven’t picked up a book to read in years” tells me you don’t read this blog very often. Our audience is extremely well-educated and well-read. And no, not many shop in Christian stores.