Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.
How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.
But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.
I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.
But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”
In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.
So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.
Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??
So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?
I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.
I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.
What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK.
Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)
But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me.
What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.
A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.
Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight.
My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.
One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.
Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!
Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!