The Collapse of Evangelicalism’s Cultural Center

Lifeway

Over at Slate, Ruth Graham writes about the decline of the Christian bookstore.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The Christian publishing industry, and its distribution arm in Christian bookstores, plays a central role within evangelical culture, even for those who don’t read “Christian books.” Since evangelicalism has no central authority, the publishing industry’s self-defined borders have a huge impact on the people, ideas, and practices that get publicly promoted—and eventually accepted—as “true” Christianity. “Publishers have been really central to granting authority within evangelical culture … and for evangelical celebrities to be created,” said Daniel Vaca, a historian at Brown University whose book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America will be published later this year. “Publishers have provided a cultural center for evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is so true.  As I read Graham’s piece, I was reminded of how little evangelical churches do to help their congregations navigate the evangelical culture–books, videos, television shows, movies, “Jesus junk,” and music–that they encounter online and in Christian stores.  A lot of evangelical churches have libraries, but they are usually not curated very well and have limited access to funds.  (There are exceptions to this rule!).

These Christian bookstores served as evangelicalism’s “cultural center” in the sense that they connected local believers to a broader evangelical world shaped by booksellers and other market-oriented forces.  The curators of this world brought us Joel Osteen, Paula White, Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Hal Lindsey, Josh McDowell, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Frank Peretti, Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, Dave Ramsey, Lee Strobel, Eric Metaxas, Ben Carson, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, Sarah Young, John Eldridge, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, Kay Arthur, Anne Graham Lotz, Andy Stanley, and Joni Eareckson Tada, to name a few.

The evangelical world created by Christian publishing and bookstores largely centered on personal piety, Bibles and bible studies, self-help, and products that fused evangelical Christianity with the American dream.  (I have actually read and benefited from a few authors on the list in the previous paragraph, but I find that most of this stuff does not feed my soul or help me navigate my world in a thoughtful way).  In other words, these Christian bookstores rarely had large sections devoted to serious theology, biblical scholarship or books on how to bring serious Christian thinking–the kind produced at Christian colleges and seminaries–to social issues.  (This is why places like Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania or Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan are so important).

Now that the Christian bookstores are going away, and since it is unlikely that the church will replace the publishing industry’s curating function, the Internet and social media will become the cultural center of evangelicalism.  (One could probably argue that this has already happened).  In some ways, this is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Individual websites, tweeters, and “influencers” will now serve as curators, resulting in the increasing fragmentation of American evangelicalism.

10 thoughts on “The Collapse of Evangelicalism’s Cultural Center

  1. Don’t.
    I had to sit through the first of that Jesus Junk trilogy in my opthamologist’s waiting room a couple years ago.

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  2. I “love” the movies that are fictional and feature a threat against a victimized Christian or Christians and serves as a warning and also serves to keep Christians worked up about “the battle” we are in.
    Then there are the Christian movies where God makes everything come out just right in the lives of the protagonists.

    The first is Propaganda, the second Wish-Fulfillment Magickal Thinking.

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  3. Christianity should not be a self-funded religion PRECISE BECAUSE its money then comes from the people who need to hear the Truth which while ultimately liberating, is initially bitter tasting!

    Separation of Church and State is important in that the Church and the State should not dictate each other’s day-to-day affairs, but this doesn’t preclude the State from having an established Church and from having deacons, priests, and bishops on the state payroll, or from having the Church administer social services on its behalf- provided that the Church provide social services to ALL people regardless of religion, and for the Church (i.e., Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican/Episcopalian Church), this is consistent with its mission anyway, so it’s a win-win.

    The Church would be forbidden to endorse political candidates (even more important in this kind of situation), and the State would be forbidden to to interfere in the appointment of bishops, but would be able to advise (i.e., perform intel assessments on potential paedophiles and spies, looking at you McCarrick!). In this kind of set-up, clergy have actually much more freedom to speak truth both to power and people and call evil out for what it is.

    Oh, and the State in this kind of set-up would be a democratic parliamentary monarchy- not the bullcrap republic which has empirically proven itself a failure on all metrics- ability to provide stable governance, ability to provide for free society and private property, ability to defend the sovereignty of the country against subversion from internal and external threats. The only way to subvert a parliamentary monarchy is by successful military invasion!

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  4. The 21st century will be a century of historical reversals.

    The long 21st century will be dated in 1978 with the election of Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope Saint John Paul II, because the reversals of history started with the glorious destruction of godless Communism.

    The 21st century will see the reversal of the Reformation, will see the destruction of Protestantism and its fracture- those who actually do believe in Christ God will have no logical choice but to embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy, while others will become Fundamentalist Jews or radical White Nationalist terrorist Nazis.

    We will also see the destruction of godless republics (with the likely exception of the United States, which will view republicanism as a birthright, regardless how dysfunctional it is and becomes)- the true agents of atheism, replaced by parliamentary monarchies who will be faithful Catholics or Orthodox Christians, even the ones currently Protestant.

    This will all take place in an environment increasingly unstable by man made climate change with its associated refugees and population migrations, wars and geopolitical upheavals, increasing disasters, ever radicalized and militant Islam funded by Saudia Arabia and the godless anti-Christian American oligarchy- especially as Fundamentalist Protestantism collapses and Nazi White Nationalist terrorism simply doesn’t have global appeal.

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  5. The demise of the Christian bookstore is not an isolated phenomenon. Bookstores across the boards are falling victim to the internet.

    In my early years as a Christian, I patronized a lot of Christian bookstores, but as time went on found other sources for more substantive theological and spiritual material. As Dr. Fea has intimated, most brick and mortar stores carried a minimum number of serious titles.

    The problem most successful Christian bookstores had was finding a balance between staying profitable and selling worthwhile books. Even before the internet many conscientious local proprietors were forced to sell very questionable titles just to keep the doors open.

    Dr. Fea rightly laments the lack of pastoral reading guidance at the level of the local church. The problem here sadly is broader than mere printed material. Many pastors are are reticent to take controversial stands of any kind for fear of alienating parishioners. In the book realm there are many spiritually dangerous authors——-often celebrities——-who come under the umbrella of Evangelicalism. On more than one occasion, I have been shocked when a fellow church member casually mentioned to me the title of a harmful book he/she was reading. It is my guess that pastors don’t want to gore any sacred cows which happen to be grazing within their congregations.

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  6. Over thirty years ago I was told by the manager of a Christian bookstore (I think it was an independent store) that the store carried so many “gift” items in order to draw people into the store. He said a study showed that a rather low percentage of church people ever visited a Christian bookstore. One chain of stores that always carried a good selection of solid theological books and more academic level books is Cokesbury. Unfortunately, they have also closed their stores,but they are still in business online. Lifeway carried some more “serious” books, also.

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  7. Yes–see the “God is Not Dead” trilogy. I don’t seem to recall my church calling attention to these movies, but perhaps I am wrong.

    If the pastors and staff are not curating evangelicals books and other forms of evangelical culture someone else will curate this stuff.

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  8. “As I read Graham’s piece, I was reminded of how little evangelical churches do to help their congregations navigate the evangelical culture–books, videos, television shows, movies, “Jesus junk,” and music–that they encounter online and in Christian stores. ”

    My experience the last few years is that local churches navigate their members to the movies and books that continue to stoke their fears of being run roughshod over by the enemy. This is usually done more through word of mouth than formal instructions.

    I “love” the movies that are fictional and feature a threat against a victimized Christian or Christians and serves as a warning and also serves to keep Christians worked up about “the battle” we are in.
    Then there are the Christian movies where God makes everything come out just right in the lives of the protagonists.

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