On God and Publication

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

One of the many perks of getting a book deal is the opportunity to network with fellow writers. Over the past few months, it’s been really exciting to meet and correspond with established authors I have admired for years as well as new authors just breaking into the market. I want to offer an especially warm welcome to those who have found the blog through my agent Rachelle Gardner’s site or through my Q&A on Alexis Grant’s site. There’s been a noticeable influx of readers from forums like these, so I though I’d take some time today to talk about the writing and publishing process.

But first, a quick update on the status of the book:  Next week I plan to send my first round of edits back toZondervan, which means things will start picking up soon. In the months to come, look for announcements relating to an official title, a release date, cover art, and maybe even excerpts.  The whole process has required more patience than I anticipated...but has also been more affirming and rewarding than I ever could have imaged. Thanks to all who have shown interest and provided encouragement.

So when people find out I’m working with a Christian publisher, I get all kinds of different reactions.  Today I thought I’d address two common ones:

The first comes from folks who seem to assume a high level of divine intervention within the Christian publishing industry.

“Why did God lead you to write this particular book?” they often ask. “How have you seen his hand through the process?”  Some have called my writing a ministry. Others have suggested that instead of building a platform and pursuing publicity opportunities, I should rely on God’s timing and leave book sales to him.

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little uncomfortable using this kind of language to describe the publication process. First of all, I think it’s a misleading to pretend that Christian publishing houses do not function as businesses—complete with contracts and paychecks, corporate structures and sales projections, billing and branding. What might on a philosophical level be God’s timing is on a practical level the publisher’s timing. And there’s no way I’m going to tell my editor that my manuscript will be late because God had a different deadline in mind! I guess I’ve always been reluctant to spiritualize situations that involve personal responsibility, lest we make God into a sort of scapegoat or genie or excuse. 

The truth is, I want to sell a lot of books because I want to make a living doing what I love.  I intend to use every marketing strategy at my disposal in order to boost the publisher’s bottom line so I’ll get a contract again. The process is not an inherently godly one, although I believe it can be done in a godly way – with honesty and humility and with the needs of others in mind.

Secondly, it’s hard to think of my writing as a ministry when it involves so little sacrifice on my part. I love to write. It makes me feel alive and important and in touch with myself.  It’s impossible to describe the gratitude I experience every morning when I wake up and realize I get to spend the day doing what makes me happy, especially when so many people in the world do not enjoy the luxury of choosing their profession. I do pray that I will honor God with the opportunity, that my books will be truthful and that they will mean something to people...but to imply that I write out of selfless concern for humanity makes the whole process sound a lot nobler than it is. I just hope the book will be as much a joy to read as it was to write.

And finally, the biggest problem with claiming that God told me to write this book is that it makes it really hard for you to disagree with what it says!  This is probably the biggest problem with “playing the God card” in general. Whether it’s “God told me to break up with you” or “God wants us to build a new church building” – claiming that God is on your side cuts you off from the input and wisdom of other people. No one in their right mind writes a spiritual memoir at 27. There’s bound to be some sloppy theology or straw men or generalities in there, and I don’t want to stifle conversation by claiming that God is somehow responsible for the content.

If God told me to write this book, then it was in the same way that he tells me to breathe. He may have given me a gift, but how I use that gift is my responsibility.

The second reaction I occasionally get about having a Christian publisher comes from those who assume the industry leaves no room for authenticity or freedom of thought. 

There’s the impression out there that Christian books must include wholesome characters, tidy endings, and “conservative” values in order to make it to bookshelves. This may be true for some publishing houses, but what I love about Zondervan is they publish a wide range of voices—from Rick Warren to Shane Claiborne to Brian McLaren to John MacArthur.  Obviously, there’s a lot of room for diversity of opinion.

I’ve got some potentially controversial material in my book, and not once have I felt stifled or reigned in. I write candidly about doubts about Christianity and my frustrations with current expressions of evangelicalism. While I try to offer hope and a vision for the future, I make no attempt to resolve everything, and all of this seems just fine with my editor...at least so far.

So don’t worry that the book will be watered-down version of the blog or a cheesy devotional book with “for women” tacked to the end. What you read is what I wrote. And if it earns me a notorious “Read With Discernment” sticker from LifeWay - well then that’s just the icing on the cake!

What is your overall impression of the Christian publishing industry? How do you respond when someone tells you that God told them to write a book? Writers, how do you honor God with your work without making him sound like some kind of cosmic literary agent?

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