A lot of folks have been expressing outrage and surprise over the fact that LifeWay Christian bookstores recently banned the movie "The Blind Side" from their shelves due to language and objectionable content. The 2009 biographical film about a black high school student adopted by a white Christian family is rated PG-13 and became something of an evangelical darling when it released, receiving endorsements from Christianity Today and Focus on the Family.
But Florida pastor Rodney Baker of Hopeful Baptist Church submitted a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention, demanding that LifeWay pull the film. Lifeway bowed to the pressure from Baker, and removed the movie from their shelves—a response that Baker saw as obedient yielding to the Holy Spirit. "Thank you,” he said “for listening to the voices of the overwhelming majority of Florida Baptist Convention messengers, the voice of this resolution, and above all the voice of the Holy Spirit to remove 'The Blind Side' from Lifeway Christian Book Stores.”
As the Christian Post reports, Baker still intends to submit the resolution the convention as a way of "sending a message about LifeWay and the content of its products."
Those of you who followed “vaginagate”—in which I was asked to remove the word “vagina” from my upcoming book in deference to Christian bookstore standards—will know that I’m not at all surprised by this story.
Christian bookstores have developed a reputation for producing a highly sanitized customer experience, purging from their shelves any language, content, or theology that doesn’t meet their uber-conservative standards. Walk into your local LifeWay and you will find plenty of Precious Moments statues, specialty Bibles, Veggie Tale movies, and Thomas Kinkade prints...but little trace of art or literature that intrigues, agitates, and inspires—as true art should! The Christian bookstore experience is, in a word, safe. Butsafe is not how Christians are called to live, and safe is not what artists who are Christians are called to create. In fact, based on LifeWay’s own standards, the Bible itself—which includes profanity, violence, and sex—should be banned from the shelves.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that the problem of sanitized Christian bookstores extends far beyond the inventory on the shelves to create an entire Christian subculture that is so sanitized and safe it often fails to produce art that is relevant to our culture or our lives.
Now I’m going to say something that will probably get me into some trouble, something that many editors and writers are afraid to say for fear of losing their jobs or their book contracts, but something which desperately needs to be spoken out loud: Christian bookstores have a chokehold on the Christian publishing industry. And this chokehold not only affects the inventory you find on Christian bookstore shelves, but which books are contracted by publishers, what content gets edited in the writing and editing process, and the degree of freedom authors feel they have to speak on their own blogs and platforms. As a result, the entire Christian industry has been sanitized, while its best artists look elsewhere for publication.
I have a friend who wrote a book proposal for a memoir. The pitch was strong, the writing impeccable, the content real and heartbreaking and true. But this friend was part of a blended family that included a gay couple with whom she had a good relationship. The proposal was turned down by Christian publishers who feared they couldn’t get this important part of her story through the Christian bookstore gatekeepers. Why even publish a book that can’t be sold to one of the industry’s most important retailers?
If an author makes it through that first gate, he or she then has to deal with the second gate: edits. As Caryn Rivadeneira divulged in her article for Her.Meneutics entitled, “When Christian Bookstores Ban Female Body Parts,” nearly every author who has worked in the Christian publishing industry has a story to tell.
“For me, it was the word crap,” she wrote. “Later, it was the phrase darn it. Darn it. For another friend, it was her dream of drinking champagne in a bubbly tub. Yet another friend had trouble mentioning drinking wine, location unknown. And for yet another, it was walking into a sex shop that did it. What are these things, you wonder? Why the language and talk of such unmentionables, perhaps you want to know? Well, these are the words or events we had to edit out so that certain Christian bookstores would stock our books.”
So if an author makes it through Round 1 to actually get published, she has to then make it through Round 2 in which her content is subjected to edits, which—trust me—most editors in the Christian publishing industry aren’t thrilled to have to make but which are influenced by the standards of Christian bookstores. For A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I had to take out words like “hell,” “damn,” and “kick-ass,” and make some minor adjustments to content. (Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was allowed to keep. My team at Thomas Nelson really has been amazing; they “get” this project and have helped me preserve the true heart of the book, for which I am incredibly grateful.) After a bit of a kerfuffle, I got to keep “vagina,” but with no promise that the book will be featured prominently on Christian bookstore shelves.
Of course, many writers, after experiencing the editing process, learn to simply adjust their writing with the first draft to measure up to Christian bookstore standards. Others purposely put in content they know will get scrapped in hopes it will help them keep less edgy, though still controversial, material. It’s a system you learn to work. And it's highly subjective.
Next comes Round 3, in which authors and publishers wait to see if Christian bookstores will carry the book. This is where authors with “questionable” theological content often get the boot...or, famously, a “Read With Discernment” sticker. But even then, as we’ve seen this week, your product is just one protest away from getting pulled from shelves.
Caryn’s post generated quite the conversation among authors, and included a comment from the author of a historical novel that depicted scenes from the slave trade of the 1700s. “I had a description of the slaves torn from their homes, kidnapped and sold to slavers, and crammed aboard their ships to be hauled away to the Colonies,” the author wrote. “ In describing the scene, and referring objectively to ‘nakedness’ the publisher and copy editors had no problem as the narrative could have been in a 7th grader's history book. However a woman from a Christian bookstore in Orange County, Calif. called the publisher to take them out of the 1,000-plus bookstore chain that she was one store's manager. The ruckus resulted in the entire first printing of my book was pulled from all of the chain's stores. Ironically, there was a moderate cuss word that nobody had fault with. Go figure.”
But what is perhaps most disturbing about this whole culture is the pervasive, stifling fear it has created among writers, editors, and publishers. I have spoken to former editors who left Christian publishing because they were exhausted from living with the fear that they would be fired for sticking their necks out and championing “edgy” projects. I know authors who are afraid to share their egalitarian views on their blogs because they might lose their book contracts. I too have hesitated before being honest about my views on gender, politics, and homosexuality for fear of repercussions. No one seems to like that the industry is this way, but many are just too afraid to challenge it.
For all the amazing people who work in Christian publishing, and for all the amazing books they produce every year, there is this undercurrent of fear and insecurity that undoubtedly stifles our collective creativity. And this fear and insecurity is a direct result of the unreasonable standards held up by Christian bookstores.
But here's the thing...
Christians are not called to create a subculture untouched by the beauty and ugliness of this world. No, Christians are called to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable....especiallywhen it is uncomfortable.
Yes, people pray, and yes, people move to Amish country to bake pies and marry that quiet farmer who reads his Bible every morning.
But people also sin. People doubt. People die. People cuss. People find God in messy situations and in untidy relationships.
People are gay. People are divorced. People drink alcohol. People live in bodies that have skin and bones, and, like it or not, penises and vaginas.
People think differently than one another. People interpret the Bible differently than one another. People interact with God differently than one another. People argue politics and theology and sports and art with one another.
People experience mystery. People experience truth. People experience loss. People experience redemption. People experience unhappy endings.
Sometimes that quiet farmer who reads his Bible every morning abuses his kids when he gets angry. Sometimes people who claim to follow Jesus trade naked human beings for money. Sometimes loving your neighbors means breathing in the smoke of their cigarettes and learning some new vocabulary. Sometimes loving Jesus means unapologetically identifying everything else— your wealth, your fame, your reputation— as shit compared to knowing Him (Philippians 3:8).
And the minute we try to codify these messy Christian lives that we live, the minute we try to sanitize and apologize for them, we lose not only our relevance, but our soul.
We don’t have to be unnecessarily crass to speak the truth, but we have to be honest. We have to be real. Most of all, we cannot live in fear.
I’m not sure how to remedy the chokehold Christian bookstores have on the Christian publishing industry. But I suspect it begins by doing the one thing we writers, editors, and publishers feel we have been forbidden from doing for so long: speak the truth.