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.


s. e. wedelich said…
i agree with both you and kelly. as soon as i read that they were trying to "reach" the emergent population, i was turned off.

i won't try to repeat any of the already well enumerated points you brought up, which do illustrate some of the grounds for my feelings of animosity toward corporate christian bookstores.

it just always feels like they're trying too hard.
You said:
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.
I'm not sure I agree because of some recent exposure I've had to conceptual art through Richard Tuttle. Although "honest" and "true" (isn't that the same thing?), his art is not well crafted. It is so very difficult for many to embrace because of his seemingly effortless attempts to produce it. However, the concept, or idea, that the art stands for is anything but simple or effortless. It is art about art - or about what art has always been. He has considered all the many formal traditions of what art is and has flipped it upside down. Secondly, I'm not sure I agree because of beauty. Prior this summer, prior to reading the book, "Gilead", I very much felt that art is about truth, not necessarily beauty, because truth isn't always beautiful. But I'm questioning that after reading this book.

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