Tuesday, September 19, 2006

An Interview with the Christian Booksellers Association

I got a call a couple of weeks ago from a guy wanting to do an interview for an article for the Christian Bookseller Association. CBA is the trade association for the Christian retail channel with around 2,300 member Christian stores. They provide Bibles, Christian books, curriculum, apparel, music, videos, gifts, greeting cards, children's resources, and "other materials."

"Other materials" may or may not be the scary stuff under the plexiglass at the front counter, the Jesus nightlights, scripture candles, the FaithGirlz!(tm) Devotional Book and Ceramic Cross Boxed Gift Set. Whatever it is, it's what somebody is willing to buy.

It's not my usual cup of tea, but I told him I'd help however I could. I told Mr. Eric Beach straight up, I honestly can't remember the last time I stepped into a Christian bookstore. I told him why.

He said that the article wanted to explore the Emergent Church movement. Christian bookstores want to know how to reach the twenty-somethings. I said, "Twenty-somethings or Emergents? They're not exactly the same." He said Emergent twenty-somethings and whoever else.

On the phone I asked him to define an Emergent Christian. He stumbled over the definition. I told him that was good enough; a stumbled-over-definition worked just fine. You can't define them but you generally know what they smell like. All Christians have a specific smell, like our physical bodies. Phaedra tells me mine smells decently. I'll have to ask her what fragrance exactly.

I know an Emergent when I see one, which is also the way I tell my mom how I shop for clothes. The fact that people may view me or Hope Chapel as an Emergent outfit is out of my control and not really a concern.

Over email I asked him to give me a few days to think it over. I needed to go for a jog.

During the run a thought came to me. It was an oxymoron . . . for the CBAs to "reach" the Emergents.

My second thought was of the four beasts. To reach the Emergents they'd have to overcome four beasts of apocalyptic resistance.

Beast #1 was inertia. Why get in your car and drive to a bookstore when you can buy everything you want over a computer in your bedroom?

Beast #2 was the large corporation. How could a small Christian bookstore compete with Barnes & Noble? B&N operates on an economy of scale. They sell so much, they can afford to stock a nearly vast selection of books, and even then they reject hundreds of thousands perfectly viable options.

Beast #3 was the danger of too many niche markets. Could the XN bookstore spread itself out, and therefore thinly, by reaching the Emergent market and still make their bottom line? Would you not soon encounter a warfare of constituencies: Good Housekeeping soccer moms in their 40s and 50s violently protesting the secular, environmentally friendly, weird, smells and bells, Anne Lamott-loving tastes of generation X, Y, Z?

Beast #4: anti-reading. Who wants to read (books) when you can be entertained (by anything but books)?

Well Mr. Beach eventually asked me a few pointed questions. Below are my answers. They're somewhat of a rehash of things I've said in the past but this time adjusted to a booksellers' audience. By the end of the interview I found myself welling up with love and even excitement for our local Christian bookstore manager. I can't promise I'll be visiting a store in the near future, but I do have a new desire to pray for them.

All answers are provisional and partial. There is no way whatsoever that I could be speaking for the entire movement. I told him I'd only be speaking from my experience. I have many friends who happily describe themselves as Emergent Christians (with a handful of caveats) and for the most part I understand their motivations and desires. I bless them and share hard drinks with them. All manner of cobelligerent action is earnestly sought. But I welcome their corrections and additions. It's an unwieldy market and only God knows what lies ahead for the old fashioned bookstore.


“Why are Emergent churches using art?"
My best guess is this: They use art because they’re hungry for a multi-sensory experience of God. Folks are saying, ‘Hey, I want all of my senses to be involved in my service and witness and worship of God.’ They also have an appetite for beauty.

For much of Protestant history we have not regarded beauty has a high concern. Beauty, as a theological priority and thus as a practical matter, got left behind in a movement that sought, in its initial stages, to simplify the ecclesial life to the preaching of the Word and the propagation of the gospel, principally through discursive, propositional means. This is of course an oversimplification, but I believe it amply bears itself out in the larger canvas of the Protestant tradition.

But now you have a decent number of evangelical Protestants, in particular young people, buying and incorporating icons into their personal and corporate worship; icons and incense and paints and dance and a sacramental theatricality. They’re wanting something rich and historical, something substantial, something that says my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth, my hands and my feet, my emotions and my mind are all important to God.”

What kind of church does an Emergent church aim to be?
“Small, for starters. Unconventional. Not labeled as such, a "church." They want to be a more holistic, more organic sort of community of faith. By organic I mean that they want to be smaller and more connected to the neighborhoods or to the urban life that surrounds them. They’re concerned about social justice. They’re concerned about the creative life which they often found to be neglected or disparaged in the churches of their childhood.”

What is a description of good art and the kind of art found in Christian bookstores?
“Good art is art that is well-crafted, honest, and true. Art that does not strive for artistic and aesthetic excellence cannot be good art. It will be shoddy or thin art, possibly sentimental, or melodramatic, and therefore heavy-handed and easy and forgettable, which is of course the worse kind of art, the forgettable kind. Such art makes whatever story or message is being told almost impossible to digest, no matter how biblically sound it is.

Likewise, art that does not bear allusive witness to the truth cannot be a good art.

This phrase "allusive witness" is intentional, for I am not suggesting the evangelistic art piece. I'm suggesting rather the art that witnesses allusively, obliquely, to the splendor of goodness, the shabbiness of sin, the hunger to be forgiven, the yearning for the divine, the playfulness of creation—all things true. This is the art that leaves plenty of room for the audience to enter into a genuine experience of transformation. It’s the art that is perhaps ambiguous, without a single answer, somewhat like Jesus’ parables which invited the listener to find him- or herself in the story.

It’s important to remember that good art is not always safe. It’s not always predictable nor uniform or homogenous—like the human race. We’re all different and difficult and sometimes weird and plenty mysterious. So the art we make will reflect that dynamic. Good art is not only one thing and it’s not looked at in only one way.

A challenge that you have with bookstores is that they're probably targeting only one primary market, a “conservative” market, if you will. They’ll feature certain kinds of art which while desirable to the clientele are not representative of the vast landscape of tastes in art within evangelicalism, let alone Christendom.”

What are things retailers can do to reach out to Emergent populations?

Here are several options:

1. Have people in the CBA invest in a smaller niche bookstore that reaches the so-called Emergent demographic. Hire young people with a vision for such a bookstore (cf. Progress Coffee). As long as it’s not being heretical or vile, it will have the capacity more effectively to reach its demographic target, including, and even better, non-believers. This kind of store wouldn’t have the big signs outside declaring itself a CHRISTIAN BOOKSTORE but instead would be subtle and maybe gloriously subversive.

It would be mostly about providing good books, a great bookstore experience and a refreshing aroma of Christ’s invisible presence.

2. Hire a young person who fits the description within the demographic to help out in a traditional store. Get someone on the inside to care about their generation or their demographic, and they’ll own it. They’ll help and want it to succeed.

3. Invite artists to make art prints for gift cards. Such prints would be original work that couldn't be found at bigger bookstores. They'd be a commercially and artistically viable option. It’d be hip.

4. Create space on your walls for artists to hang their work. Emergent people want something more than representational art. They’re looking for all kinds, whether expressionist or conceptual, whether assemblage or printmaking or what-have-you. Believer artists--or shoot for that matter, all artists on planet earth-- are always looking for a place to sell their art (at least at some point in their life).

5. Network with the believer artists who are in your community. Meet the people who can introduce you to more people.

6. If the bookstore knows of a church with artists, call the pastor and try to build a relationship. Meet with its artists. Ask good questions: ‘What’s your vision? What questions would you have? What are you willing to risk? What are you willing to lose?’

If someone out there is a Christian, no matter how divergent our theological commitments may be, there is always at least one spot of land that we can both share. There is something we can have in common and so some way we can work together. Artists and the rest of the church ought not to be enemies to each other. In our best moments, we're both wanting something good. Surely there’s something we can do together.

7. Finally, make sure you meet with the artists. Don’t relate to them at a distance. They’re not just a constituency. Treat them as persons, not a target group. Ask how you can work together. They don’t want someone in the corporate office trying to figure them out, they want someone to have a relationship with them. That’s where the listening happens, that’s where the possibilities for collaboration come out of.

---------------

These then are my thoughts. They may or may not be helpful, but they're at least a place to start a conversation, which sounds, admittedly, rather emergent of me to say.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

An Ode to Phaedra


"When you are a writer and a speaker, sometimes people think you have your crap together."

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (229)

You don't. Ask anybody in my family. Ask my girlfriend, Phaedra J. Wendler. She'll show you the bookshelf in my life where the titles of all my crap have been neatly arranged, spine up, tall and clean, all thematically catalogued.

You'll find the Pride and Prejudice over here (deadly sin #1), the Phantastes over there (deadly sins continued). Down the rest of the row you'll see the collection that includes the The Idiot (because at the tender age of 34 I keep thinking I've figured women out and I haven't, and I keep wanting to believe that my analytical skills should help me know everything I need to know about them but, God help me, I don't), Viper's Tangle (where I have the need to do what I want to do when I want to do it), Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (realizing that just because I have good ideas doesn't mean I'm the only one with good ideas or that I always get to do them), The Great Divorce (between head and heart), A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genuis (over-confidence), Death of a Salesman (the flesh that refuses to die), Farenheit 451 (quick to flare, slow to mercy), and on and on. I've got lots of books.

Phaedra's not the kind of person to air out my dirty laundry. She's a fiercely loyal friend. She knows how to keep a confidence. But she knows a lot of the DT crapola.

The surest way to get sanctified, I figure, is to get into a relationship. God Almighty, that will teach you a lesson about sacrificial love--or in fact how poorly you do it and how little you want to do it. Dying to yourself? Well I told God that I had a good plan for how to do it.

I told him he should let me just die in a massive, spectacular, conclusive way. What would work for me is a big explosive death. Bam! And it's done. It could all happen within a very brief amount of time, preferably over the course of one day, not more, definitely not two. Let it be compact, contained, and with a clear beginning and a clear end.

It'd be the perfect way to die to my flesh. Honestly. That way I could get each fleshy issue out of the way and keep truckin'.

Mind you, it'd be a real death. It'd hurt, I'd scream and fight it and hurl curses at heaven. I would really die and it would really kill me, with all the appropriate, harrowing sensory pain. Death to the flesh is a violent and ugly thing. No getting around it.

But if I have a choice, I choose the gallows: quick, violent, and ugly. But thorough-going and quick.

Quick.

I would not choose the Chinese drip death. The thought came to me yesterday as I was running through my neighborhood, as a kind of epiphany, that God wants me to die little deaths every day. Which is totally the worse kind of death to die. I hate it. I couldn't believe it. I'm fed up with little deaths. But my conscience wouldn't let me go. I knew it was true.

The only way I will grow up and become mature and true and healthy in my relationships to my family, my friends, my colleagues at work, my girlfriend, is by choosing to die every day--just a little tortuous bit by little tortuous bit.

Sanctification is like physical therapy: you can only go one day at a time and obedience to the discipline leads to greater freedom.

I can only start walking again if I choose to fight through the pain of standing. I can only run if I choose to keep saying no to all the things that would keep me from running--self-deceptions, the fear of pain, the fear of failure, hatred and bitterness at the unfairness of being in this predicament. And the only way any of this can happen is one day at a time, one step at a time, one increment at a time.

One little death at a time.

But God didn't leave me with this grim, crappy prescription. He said, "David, do you know what a bunch of little deaths add up to?"

I said, with a little tone in my voice, "I probably do, but why don't you tell me anyway."

He said, "To a big death, what you've wanted."

I said, "I know, I know." Because I do; which is the problem.

And Jesus said, without any tone in his voice, and really remarkably gentle, "I know you know and you're doing a good job. You're trying hard. I'm proud of you. Don't give up. You're a good man, David Taylor. But to become the man you know you want to become, you have to walk down into the valley of death. You can't teleport to the other side. You can't throw yourself mindlessly into a sudden butchering of your flesh. You have to walk with all your senses alert, consciously attentive to my voice and to what I'm doing and what you're dying to. You need to take responsibility for your actions. You need to take responsibility for who you are."

Growing impatient I interrupted at this point. "But I didn't ask to be me. I didn't ask to have all these problems and weaknesses. You made me. You put me in this family of mine. You let things happen to me that messed me over. So I really need you to show up and do something. I need you to heal me. I need YOU to heal me. I'm asking you; throw me a bone; do something supernatural and definitive. Help me out for crying out loud. I'm tired."

He smiled. "I understand. I understand, David. It's hard being a human. Trust me, I know. I'm fully God, yes, the infinite Omnipotent One--I know you know that--but trust me when I say that I understand how you feel. I haven't forgotten you. Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord's unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in Him. That's the old poet. And he's right. You have to keep trusting me."

I sighed, "I'm trying, Lord, I really am, but I'm getting tired. I'm so profoundly exhausted. I feel like I'm barely holding on in a number of areas of my life. I want to trust you, but I feel like I barely eek out faith and am relieved when I make it to my pillow at bedtime. I want to trust you, I do. But please help. Show me yourself. Show me something."

Ever the patient one, ever compassionate, Jesus is like that one person you've been looking for all your life who knows you--who really knows you--and who thinks you're hot stuff and awesome and killer and that the world totally needs you on this planet and he's rooting for you and knows exactly what to say to cheer you up and to get you to keep waking up at 5:30 am to put your running shoes on, because you're training for the Olympic 5K and He knows you have the capacity to win, so He keeps pushing you, He keeps encouraging you with all the rah-rahs you need, and sometimes He goes utterly silent and absent because He knows you need to grow up and you won't if you keep treating Him like a babysitter, or like a co-dependent lover, or like a predictable computer. He's not. He's alive and powerful and able to make you into a saint that could transform the face of the earth if only you kept doing what He told you to do.

Peter Kreeft once said that all of us could become great saints. Every one of us could become as holy and powerful as Mother Theresa or Billy Graham or St. Francis or St. Catherine of Sienna. And he didn't mean this in a figurative way. He meant it literally. We really could. The only reason all of us aren't this kind of saint is that, in very little ways, in the secret, hidden places of our hearts, we choose to say no, we choose to sin and to hold on to our sins. It's not a question of fame or magnitude of influence, it's just a question of complete obedience and utter faithfulness to the things He's calling you to in terms of both your internal life and your external relations.

Jesus and I walk a while in silence. It was the good kind of silence, the restful kind. I'm the kind of guy that needs the first five hours of my day to be in silence and solitude, so I'm digging this silence.

Then he says, "David, you're not going to be free by trying to take the efficient route where you get it over with and keep going. Your head's not the problem. You know that. It's your heart. And your will. And your emotions. The only way for these to get stronger, the only way for them to get integrated into the whole of your person so that you can be the man you've long wanted to be, the man I've called you to be with all the exciting adventurousness you've dreamed of is for you to practice dying to little things every day. That's it. You can do it, I know you can. Get your friends and family to help you out. Ask for help. I'll use them. And keep reading Lewis and Tolkien and Milton and McDonald. They got it right. They're describing the real world, the world you stubbornly keep believing is true. It is. It is that great. Trust me. It's that fantastic. Don't give up, David. Please don't. It'll all be worth it if you do."

And with that, he disappears.

The easiest thing in a relationship is to begin settling. I don't want that. I want to keep desiring what is best and most honorable and loving in my relationship with Phaedra. I want to keep learning how to be weak and humble. It's hard, that. It's awful. It sucks. I hate it. But my best self lies on the other side of self-denying humility; or rather it lies through it.

I wrote her a card for our one-year dating anniversary. I didn't plan for it to turn into a quasi poem, but it did. There are visual elements that won't translate into the blog, but I played with the structure and with consonance. I admit it's a strange kind of card to write. It's not a gushing 100 Things I Love About You card. But it's true. I did write a more direct note to her at the end, but I'll leave that for her eyes only.

I asked her if I could court her on August 31, 2005. On September 3 she said yes. The time in between was like a kind of purgatory.

ON THE OCCASION OF OUR 1 YR DATING ANNIVESARY

His purgatory come to an end,
He now looked upon a vast and unfamiliar
Landscape which promised to change
Him irrevocably, even bringing
Him face to face with his own
Strangeness. The journey would be

A familiar one but he would not be
Able to predict it. The woman would
Make him deaf to his past, blind to his
Mastery, which in every other arena had proved
More than reliable, dumb to his strength, and a
Mystery to the science of controlled experiences that,
Much as he might protest in the court of human opinion, led him to

Believe that he was in control. He was not. Never was.
A question that nagged him throughout, "Do I know how to love?"
Bothered and chaffed his confidence. He shipwrecked upon his
Antagonizing pride; he kept slipping off the cliffs of his own mortality,

Battering against his restless desire to know. But stop! You
Ask the wrong question. It is not to know, it is to be, and to
Become a man by being loved. She loved you. She loves you.
Angels do not question such love. They simply gaze and wonder.

Can I love is really a question of will I be loved. Yes. I
Can. With angels and saints and floating, time-traveling
Mystics carousing in the impossible, I will be loved. With all my
Might and death-defying faith I will love the woman
And finally find myself.