What we want

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I am stepping on to some shaky blogging territory (shaky blogging territory here equals writing something in a public forum that you hope a particular person does not read)… but… here goes….

I met someone who works for a denominational publishing house, who said, five minutes after our first hello, “We would never publish one of your books.”

I’m not sure why he said it. And, of course, I was offended. I mean, I can understand getting a rejection letter after sending in a proposal. But I hadn’t sent in a proposal. I had not even hinted that I would try to send in a proposal.

He went on, “Your material is not scholarly enough.”

The truth is that this house often publishes less-than-scholarly material. I laughed and pointed that out. And I also pointed out that my book sells very well, thank you very much. And then my mind went on an extended mental rant as I thought about how I would never enquire with them anyways, and that my book is used in seminaries, and ….

Yeah… that’s right. I’m a big baby.

I have had more conversations with him, which have been much nicer. But, this initial discussion came to my mind when I was at a focus group for another, much larger, progressive religious publisher. They were asking pastors what they needed, and our answers often gravitated to the same thing, “We need books that we can hand to our church members, not seminary books.”

And, I think it was Anne Howard who suggested, “Conservative religious books are grass roots. Progressive religious books are academic.”

We all shook our heads and the same cry echoed around the table, “Please, give us some smart, grass-roots books.” And we described our congregations: they are intelligent and passionate. They could tell you about the entire complicated tribal system in Afghanistan, but they may not know much about the Bible. We need books for that person.

Maybe conservatives assume that they will have converts and progressives assume that everyone grew up in the church. I don’t know, but we need those basic books.

There are some wonderful Ph.D.’s who can write on a grass-roots level, who fit this bill, but we can’t always look to the academy for what we need.

And so, I make my plea to my progressive publishing friends. Don’t dismiss those books that are for regular people. As pastors, we need to be able to hand a good book to intelligent parishioners who just might be starting out with this whole church thing. I also get requests for daily devotional books, marriage books, basic Bible books, finance books from a Christian perspectice—as progressives, we have things to say about ordinary life, and the people in the pews are really wanting to hear it.

So let’s hear it. Pastors and church leaders, what requests do you get?

Photo by Ansy

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16 thoughts on “What we want

  1. That person was rude and silly. Your book was just what I needed to read when I first heard about it, and I recommend it often.
    There are so many of us writing material that could go in books such as you describe; but when will “our” publishers figure it out?

  2. Generally speaking I get requests for two types of books:

    One, being Presbyterian, I get requests for “a book that will tell me what being Presbyterian is.” Which is kind of like asking for a book that tells you what being a football player is. But I have one or two I can recommend.

    The other request is harder to express, but essentially it’s a request to get a fresh take of Christianity than what our North American society promotes. Usually for this I suggest something from Brian McLaren or, if they’re feeling especially adventurous, Shane Claiborne.

    But you bring up a good point: I rarely get requests for “scholarly books.” Maybe a new look at the faith, but the word “scholarly” is never used.

  3. I’m probably going to stumble through this thought, so I hope what I’m intending comes through clearly, but fear that I may be missing the mark….

    It seems to me that holding “progressive” views requires a willingness to live with nuance, and perhaps complexity. This is opposed to a more conservative viewpoints which allow for a more black-and-white worldview. Naturally, it’s easier to write “black-and-white” for a “non-scholarly” audience than it is to write nuance. Nuance either requires explanation, if it is to be properly understood. That’s not to say it’s not possible to write a more progressive book for a less academic audience (in fact, I know several authors to do so quite successfully), but perhaps this is a reason it is harder to find such “lay level progressive” books?

  4. all my church seems able to study is marcus borg and john dominic crossan material. seriously. so with the evening women’s group i pulled out “the prostitute in the family tree” by douglas adams (no, not that one. another one). while not the best written, i wanted to gift them with my own learning from being in his biblical humor class.

    and none of them had ever heard of the streaker in mark. *shakes head* we have a long way to go.

  5. YES! Can we not make the Bible fun AND challenging? Can we have deep discussions that are NOT footnoted to death? For my doctrine class, we are actually reading a nice balance of books that are academic and books that I could see doing a reading club with in my church.

    Oh- and can we please do some multimedia stuff, too? There are a good number of people in each generation who learn better when they don’t have to read all the material.

  6. I want a MOPS group without the evangelical hype. I want parenting material that is grounded but not fundy. I want good simple Bible study materials that are not Southern Baptist. I live in the buckle of the Bible belt and I struggle to keep the congregation out of heresy that seems to wrap itself in the miasma floating off the Mississippi River.

    I want to figure out ways to help my congregation become disciples and not refugees from the 50s. I want ways to reach out to younger people. Our church is two blocks from a university, yet we don’t have any connection with them (OK that’s not something we can get from a book.)

    I want stuff that assumes we have brains, but not difficult. Heck, I don’t like reading a lot of the “academic” stuff.

  7. rev kate says:

    all my church seems able to study is marcus borg and john dominic crossan material. seriously.

    No kidding? In my background, all these Jesus Seminar types were not much better than the anti-Christ. ‘Pseudo-Intellectuals’ was our buzzword for them. Professing to be wise, they made themselves fools. Instead, they saturated us with banal apologetics like Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel, and tried to pass that off as scholarly. I don’t see how that tactic can work anymore, in this age of Instant Information.

    I am not a Catholic, but I have lately become more sympathetic of their view of Christianity. I read all sorts of books, and it seems to me that much of the modern Progressive Christian thought comes from the tradition of liberal, mystic, charismatic Catholicism. While I don’t always see eye to eye with them, I don’t see how anything by Henri Nouwen, Ronald Rolheiser, and even Richard Rohr would be objectionable to any progressive Protestant. (Rohr may be a bit too mystic for some tastes, but I do like him.) As far as Biblical studies, I find Raymond Brown to be scholarly but readable, extremely learned, yet pious and devoted to his Faith – not to mention I found him liberating when my years of inerrantist beliefs were strangling me. All Catholic, all quite interesting – maybe this is something along the lines you are looking for?

    rev kate goes on:
    so with the evening women’s group i pulled out “the prostitute in the family tree” by douglas adams (no, not that one. another one). while not the best written, i wanted to gift them with my own learning from being in his biblical humor class.

    Looks like an interesting book! What a concept – humor! It seems sorely lacking in Biblical Studies, that is for sure. The parts of the Bible that I enjoy are those where I think the author had a smirk on their face while writing. Bible has quite a bit of wit, humor, irony and clever turns of phrase. It is too bad so many of us, even modern Christians, view it as so deadly dull that it is left gathering dust.

  8. “Progressive Christianity” is Christianity that has rejected the “Common Sense” of the Scottish Enlightenment and has engaged itself with 19th C (and later) Enlightenment ideas. By rejected “Common Sense” philosophy, and by engaging better, if tougher, academic ideas, we made things difficult for ourselves. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do feel the Academy owes it to the Church to write intelligibly at a street level.

    But, if Post-Modern Christianity rejects both Enlightenments, might this be a path towards an authentic and applicable faith? A faith based primarily on Biblical narratives as lived in our own narratives? Seems much easier to me than wrestling truth out of the grasp of PhDs and/or evangelicals.

  9. HeIsSailing,

    i don’t so much mind their choice of authors, they have voices that are good and which i appreciate, but they are not the be-all end-all of scholarship at all. i’m not sure they are up for mysticism yet which would be nice, but they do like intellectual challenges. the other option they have gone for which failed was “purpose driven life” so we have little to no middle ground. oh, and no-one showed up to the lectionary bible study. we’ll see. they are in a rut that i think they are actually getting tired of. things will change.

    as for humor – seriously, would anybody have wanted to hang out with jesus if he were as dour as we make him out to be? i sure wouldn’t! i don’t want a square savior or scriptures.

  10. rev-kate sez:

    “but they do like intellectual challenges…”

    I learned that being intellectually challenged means reading things that are outside of one’s comfort zone, and things which one may not, at least initially, agree with. That is the big problem that I had with ‘Purpose Driven Life’. The church I was attending at the time, spent **40 weeks** on that book – and the home Bible Study I was hosting at the time was encouraged to view Warren’s videotape series on the same topics. It was not that I did not necessarily disagree with the message given by our studies, it was just that when those studies were boiled down to their essence, it was the exact same Fundamentalist Gospel that I had heard, that we had *all* heard, and lived our entire lives. While it was wrapped up in new clothes, there was no challenge, because it was so familar. There was nothing to stimulate our thought, because we all agreed with it. There was nothing to argue over, nothing to disturb us from our slumber, nothing to plow and overturn the fields and encourage growth and maturity.

    “oh, and no-one showed up to the lectionary bible study…”

    I always found it extremely difficult to have people get involved with our own home studies. Without knowing you or your situation, I guess I would advise to not be afraid to teach those things that interest you – that challenge you – that you believe have made you a better and more mature Christian, for instance, to use your example of mysticism. Those people who are not up for it may give it a try and find what you see in it, or at the very least have the freedom to reject it, but pick up a few gems here and there. Those who do not – well, there is nothing you can do – if they do not even know who the naked guy in Mark is… then you done your part, if they will not do theirs that is their problem.

    One of the most challenging things that I ever read that shook up my Christian life was Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. It was offensive to me when I first read it, but it pierced my soul. It was what I needed at the time. I tried reading portions of it at our home Bible Study, and the results were… interesting to say the least. But I truly believe that peoples’ interest is held when they are presented with ideas and opinions that are, how shall I say, a bit outside of their comfort zones.

  11. My limited experience talking to publishers is similar to yours, Carol. If an idea lands between “Chicken Soup for the ….” and a scholarly work publishers don’t seem to be interested. Mostly I heard, “I don’t know how we would market it.”

  12. A couple of books that have been extremely challenging for me this year have been Crossan’s “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” and Spong’s “Life After Death”. Yeah yeah, these are the usual suspects of progressive Christianity and familiar to many, but despite the fact that I really dislike a lot of what both of them are saying, I can’t dismiss it out of hand. I’d say both of these have pierced my soul a bit and I’m struggling with how to re-orient myself. The Crossan book is a mainstream-oriented summary of larger academic work but I didn’t find it to be especially academic. The Spong book is quite personal and I find its structure problematic, but I find his point and purpose to be quite engaging, even if I have no clear notion of what to do with his message.

    For progressives willing to be seriously challenged to engage and open up the hidden assumptions of their faith, these books will do the job.

  13. One of the reasons I was involved in the Jesus Seminar and the reason they exist today is because scholarship wasn’t getting to the people. http://www.westarinstitute.org/

    It has been parishioners who first introduced me to Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Robert Funk.

    There are certainly other topics to discuss and other points of view than those of Westar, but you are right on in that “Conservative religious books are grass roots. Progressive religious books are academic.”

    I go into our local B & N and am appalled at the Christian section. A whole wall of pablum and sometimes, if lucky, a progressive book tucked in.

    The Bibles! Good Lord, the Bibles! How many different kinds of NIV bibles do we need?

    The people I hang around with are interested in ways to integrate spirituality, Earthcare, prayer/meditation, etc.

    A turn off though, is dogma or any kind of pushy superstition.

    Thanks for the post!

  14. While I think the publisher that sparked your tirade seems short sighted and even contradictory, I just want to say a word for academic publishing.

    Clearly, not all lay people can or should read dense theological or methodological books; they need teachers and writers who can make complex ideas accessible. However, complex theory is important for several reasons.

    First, it is out of such closely reasoned arguments that social and ecclesial movements emerge. In fact, Reformers Luther and Calvin were serious thinkers that drew from current scholarship. It is also not difficult to trace the academic roots of such contemporary movements as, say, the Emergent Church movement, in such thinkers as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, McIntyre, Kierkegaard, Barth, Hauerwas and Moltmann. It is sometimes assumed that the Emergent movement sprang from the soil fully born, but it is a product of thinking seriously about culture and theology.

    Secondly, currently, the best way for serious thinkers to make contributions to ongoing serious conversations is to publish academic books–books that sometimes, only a few dozen or hundred other people will read. Sometimes these books are unhelpful or failed projects, but they almost always advance some line of thinking.

    Thirdly, in a time when the church is too often assimilated to cultural trends of militarism or consumerism, we need academics who can remind us of the church’s artifacts: those bits of logic and practice that help us to imagine that the church offers a redemptive alternative. Carol does a wonderful job in her books in mining some of the best of contemporary scholarship, and serves as an important bridge to popular church. She points to the possibility of breaking out of our silos that prevent lay people from serious ideas, and scholars from the pulse of the church.

    While I want scholars to pay more attention to ordinary people who are trying to be faithful, and learn to make complex ideas accessible, academic publishing plays an important role in cultivating the fertile ideas that people like Carol will translate for the church. I write this not in response to Carol’s remarks, but to some of the anti-intellectualism that filters through some of these blogs.

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