Books, Branding, and the Dangers of Building an Empire on One Idea

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."- Upton Sinclair

I was really pleased to hear from a representative from Answers in Genesis yesterday who in response to Friday’s post graciously invited me to visit the creation museum in Cincinnati and maybe even speak with Ken Ham himself. I’m not sure if this counts as a truce, but I’m happy that the AIG folks are willing to talk. I plan to take them up on the offer next time we visit family in the area.  

As my exchange with Ham has circulated around the blogosphere, I’ve heard from a lot of people eager to remind me that Ham has a lot invested in his particular interpretation of Genesis. He’s built an empire on it—complete with curriculum, conferences, a magazine, and a museum. Expecting him to embrace an interpretation of Genesis more in line with biblical scholars like John Walton or Bruce Waltke would be a bit like expecting Donald Trump to become a socialist! There’s just too much at stake. 

While I’m not inclined to ascribe motive in this case and prefer to give Ham the benefit of the doubt that he holds his position because his conscience demands it, I think these folks bring up a good point about how we can become so heavily invested in a certain ideology that change comes at enormous cost. 

Dan reminds me of this when I get frustrated after conversations with Presbyterian pastors about Calvinism. “Is it fair for you to expect them to change their minds when they’ve built their entire life’s work on this particular theology?” he asks with that grin that always reminds me of why I married him. “Is there a chance you may be overestimating your own persuasive capabilities just a bit?” 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I anticipate signing a contract with a Christian publisher for Book #2. With the first book, I was just so mystified and thankful that anyone wanted to print what I had to say, I didn’t spend much time considering branding, positioning and the long-term effects of having my views (at age 27!) forever recorded for posterity. 

But this next book is more experimental and requires quite a commitment on my part, so I expect I’ll be spending the next two years focusing intently on its subject. Publishers and publicists want to know what my message is. Is it calling a truce on the culture wars? Is it giving young Christians permission to ask tough questions? Is it deconstructing the evangelical approach to things like evolution, women’s roles in the church, and religious pluralism? Upon what idea do I want to build my brand? 

Perhaps the one thing I fear more than completely failing to make an impact in this industry is making such an impact that I become a slave to my own little empire. In some ways I am afraid of rebuilding my faith and my identity because I don’t want to make the same mistakes again and build upon false fundamentals. I want to leave myself enough room to change. 

This is not a struggle unique to Christian authors or pastors or activists. Most of us live in such a way that our most important relationships, lifestyle decisions, and assumptions are dependent upon certain ideologies.  This is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a necessary thing. But it can turn into self-delusion when it keeps us from being honest with ourselves about uncomfortable truths that might compel us to change. 

So how do we pursue our passions and stand by our convictions without building unassailable empires in our own image?

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