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.

Hearts & Minds Bookstore Selects *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump* as One of the “Best Books of 2018”

Believe Me 3d“I am declaring Believe Me as one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.”

Thank you Byron Borger!

I am happy to join Alan Jacobs, Al Tizon, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Barbara Melosh, Lauren Winner, Gerry McDermott, Reggie McNeal, Michael Card, Alan Noble, Diana Butler Bass, Tremper Longman, N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Fleming Rutledge, Os Guinness, Mark Labberton, and Jonah Goldberg, among others, on the Hearts & Minds Bookstore “Best Books of 2018” list!

Here is a taste of what Byron has to say about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump John Fea (Eerdmans) $24.99  I have written at great length — in our local newspaper, in BookNotes, and on my social media space — that the unqualified conservative Christian support for President Trump is inexplicable. For a dozen reasons that are nearly incontrovertible, it is clear that the President is a bad man and a bad leader. By no reasonable metrics can we be glad for his temperament, his antics, or his odd-ball style of governance. Good people of good faith can disagree with the “lesser of two evils” sorts of complicated choices we have when voting and can line up on different sides of the isles as we watch the sausage getting made. But all serious Christians must, at least, have some sort of Biblically-informed, Christianly conceived, spiritual-driven, public theology. We must have “the mind of Christ” and allow the Scriptural worldview to illumine our views of contemporary issues and the nature of law and politics and citizenship. Evangelicals, who love Jesus, insist on conversion and holiness, and Christ’s Kingship over all of life and regard the Bible with a for-all-of-life authority. We dare not say, as Jerry Falwell Jr. recently did, “I don’t look to Jesus for my politics.” Evangelicals worthy of the name may disagree about many implications that flow from a Christian political vision, but we dare not say that.

And so, it is essential to try to figure out the coherence, if there is any, of the so-called Christian right. Those that know me know that this has been huge priority for me for decades and decades and I have invested much personal energy of my life time to help create conversations around the meaning of the Lordship of Christian for our citizenship and public lives. Sometimes I find it necessary to challenge the right and the left and I often try to graciously insist that we should have no fundamental loyalties to the conservatives or the liberals. For whatever reason, these days, I find a much greater interest in the Bible and Jesus from the progressive side than from most on the side of the Christian right, and that is different than it was a generation ago, and feels exceptionally ironic.

Still, as black evangelist Tony Evans once said, when Jesus comes back he will not be riding a donkey or an elephant. Or, more seriously, as David Koyzis writes, we must get at the deep philosophical influences of the Enlightenment and French Revolutions to understand our current political divides. (See his brilliant, deep Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologiesfor a sophisticated explication of this rejection of the right and the left as we seek for a uniquely Christian third way.)

Which is a long way of saying why I am declaring Believe Meas one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.

Look: I don’t agree with all of the analysis Dr. Fea brings, and I wish he had covered stuff that he misses. In this sense it may not be utterly adequate but it is nonetheless the best book in recent years on the new itineration of the Christian right in the Trump years. Fea is a respected historian and brings his discerning critical eyes to what he calls “the court evangelicals.” There is no other book like it.

Good historians such as George Marsden have given big accolades to Believe Me. For instance, the always measured Mark Noll writes:

John Fea’s timely and sobering book shows convincingly how legitimate concerns from white evangelical Protestants about a rapidly secularizing American culture metastasized into a fear-driven brew of half-truths, fanciful nostalgia, misplaced Christian nationalism, ethical hypocrisy, and political naiveté–precisely, that is, the mix that led so many white evangelicals not only to cast their votes for Donald Trump but also to regard him as a literal godsend.

Few contemporary Christian thinkers and advocates for a balanced public theology are as wise and balanced as Richard Mouw. His own memoir is the Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Groundand he knows much about hearing various viewpoints and showing “uncommon decency” as his book on civility puts it. And about Fea and Believe Me, Mouw says this:

While the significant support for Donald Trump by white evangelicals has been the stuff of headlines, there has been little serious probing of the deeper factors at work. John Fea here gives us what we need, with his insightful tracing of the theological-spiritual road that has brought us to this point. A wise and important book!

Fea deserves a, extra award medal for all he’s done promoting conversation around this book. He has helped us understand the contemporary interface of Christian faith and modern politics and while it isn’t the last word, it is a very, very important contribution. I’m glad other outlets more important than BookNotes have named this as one of the outstanding books of 2018.

Listen to Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service:

It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.

Thanks again, Byron.  If you don’t have a copy of Believe Me, order it here.

The Best Christian Bookstore in America

borger at store

Byron Borger, doing what he does best

I had some last minute Christmas shopping to do on December 24, 2018 so I drove down to Dallastown, Pennsylvania (about a 40-minute drive) to visit Byron and Beth Borger at Hearts & Minds Bookstore.  Beth was not around on this day, but Byron quickly emerged from the back of the store sporting a festive green dress shirt and a red flannel tie.  After exchanging pleasantries, we got down to work.

  • I wanted a thoughtful and liturgical devotional for my wife, Joy.  Byron introduced me to Frederick Schumacher’s For All the Saints: A Prayer Book for and By the Church.  I bought it.
  • I wanted a book on vocation and calling for my youngest daughter.  When I asked Byron for the best book on the subject he pulled a copy of Os Guinness’s The Call off the shelf.  I bought it.
  • This same daughter is thinking seriously about pursuing environmental studies in college and I wanted a nice Christian primer on creation care.  Byron recommended Matthew Sleeth’s Serving God, Saving the Planet: A Call for Creation and Your Soul.  I bought it.
  • I wanted to buy a Wendell Berry novel for my older daughter.  Byron has an entire section on Berry’s fiction and non-fiction.  I bought her a copy of Hannah Coulter.

By the way, you can buy all these books from Beth and Byron at Hearts & Minds.  Just send him an e-mail and he will get them into your hands as soon as possible.

After I was done with my gift-shopping, I did some shopping for myself and spent a few hundred bucks on new hardbacks.  Byron coached me through every selection.  He recommended philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s memoir.  I finished it last week and it did not disappoint.  He tentatively suggested literary scholar Anthony Esolen’s Nostalgia, but warned me that it was very conservative.  He was right.  I liked about a third of it.  Byron provided a narrative for every book I bought that day (and some that I didn’t buy). I left encouraged, inspired, and intellectually satisfied.

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans, a freelance religion reporter who I have worked with in the past.  She told me that Hearts & Minds was not doing very well financially and that she was working on a story about it.  I talked to her for about thirty minutes.  Her piece appeared at Religion News Service today.  Here is a taste:

The first book that Byron and Beth Borger sold at the Hearts & Minds bookstore was a copy of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”

For the Borgers, it was a perfect fit.

But their customer was a bit perplexed since the book isn’t standard fare at Christian bookshops.

“The first customer asked, ‘What kind of bookstore carries Les Mis?’” said Byron Borger. “We said, ‘What kind of bookstore doesn’t?’”

Hearts & Minds has long been an anomaly in the world of Christian retail.

The Borgers, who previously worked for a Christian campus ministry group, launched their Dallastown store during the faith-based-bookstore boom times of the 1980s. They bucked evangelical conventions by including Catholic writers such as Thomas Merton, tackling topics like racial justice and featuring books by spiritual formation proponent Richard Foster, whose take on the Christian life was considered radical.

Back in the day, they faced boycotts, pickets and even death threats from the Ku Klux Klan over a display of books from Martin Luther King Jr., said Byron Borger. The store survived them all — and thrived for years, attracting fans among customers and authors.

Contemporary challenges are different — and perhaps more threatening.

With ongoing demise of Christian retail stores, consolidation in the Christian publishing industry and the continued dominance of online sellers such as Amazon, the future of this idiosyncratic venture is uncertain.

In recent years, the Borgers have cut back on staff and dipped into their savings to keep the story going.

“I’m not embarrassed to say that we have not been doing well,” said Borger. “We have not been self-sustaining.”

Despite the struggles, Hearts & Minds has a loyal following, readers who appreciate the couple’s wide-ranging knowledge of the Christian book scene.

The store appeals to mainline Protestants and what Beth Borger refers to as “thinking evangelicals” — Christians with traditional beliefs about theology whose faith prompts them to care about injustice. There are more than a few in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions, where Hearts & Minds draws most of its support, said Beth Borger.

Read the rest here.  And then start buying some books from Hearts & Minds.

Here are some pics:

hearts and minds book haul

I bought these books for my library on December 24, 2018

 

heartd and minds 2017

 I bought these books at Hearts & Minds back in 2015

fea-at-hearts-and-minds

Last summer I did a book talk on *Believe Me* at Hearts Minds

fea borger

Beth and Byron have most of my books in stock

Are You Shopping on Small Business Sunday? Here are Some Great Independent Bookstores

Caroline with Book

You never know what you will find in an independent bookstore!

All of these stores hosted the Believe Me book tour:

Hearts & Minds, Dallastown, PA

Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg, PA

Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.

Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley, PA

The Book Loft, Columbus, OH

Carmichael’s, Louisville, KY

Taylor Books, Charleston, WV

Givens Books, Lynchburg, VA

Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC

Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA

Seminary Co-Op, Chicago, IL

Bookstores

At Hearts & Minds Bookstore

 

Best-Selling Evangelical Book Makes an Appearance on CBS’s “Madame Secretary”

Tia

Byron Borger, the proprietor of Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, got a screen shot of Tea Leoni’s character, the Secretary of State in the CBS show “Madame Secretary,” placing a copy of David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream in her briefcase.

Here is Byron’s post at Facebook:

SCREEN SHOT FROM CBS SHOW MADAME SECRETARY We were getting caught up on one of our favorite shows, Madame Secretary, and there was a scene where, as parents, the Secretary of State and her husband were discussing donating books to the high school book fair. One title was grabbed out of a bag and Madame Secretary said “Oh, I was going to read that.” It was only a second, but, booksellers that we are, it looked familiar. We scrolled back and in that fraction of a section saw what book the show’s producers used. We stock it here at Hearts & Minds, a pop-evangelical best-seller, “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream” by David Platt, published by Multnomah. One might wish a Secretary of State would read such stuff. What fun to catch it. Wow.

 

Get 10% Off on “The Bible Cause” at Hearts & Minds Books

Bible Cause CoverGet a copy of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society at 10% off and support an independent brick and mortar bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. (You may recall that I visited Hearts & Minds Bookstore last month).

Here is a review from  Byron Borger, one the most thoughtful and enthusiastic booksellers I know.  I don’t know if I can live up to what Byron says about me here, but I do appreciate it.

I don’t know how many working historians you know, or even how many serious history professors, but Fea is a gem, a local treasure, a fun and whimsical guy who does remarkably serious scholarship.  Amidst his other award winning writing, teaching, and philosophizing — not to mention being a cool  local fellow and husband and dad — John was recruited by the American Bible Society to document their 200 anniversary. The Bible Society, it is interesting to note, is the nation’s oldest philanthropy, and it is, to put it politely, storied.

Fea was given complete and open access to the legendary ABS records — imagine the joy of finding documents of support from the likes of Francis Scott Key or Theodore Roosevelt — and refused any sense that he was to write a puff piece or in-house congratulatory document for their own bi-centennial celebration.  No, this is the real, deal, worthy of such an important, historic organization and worthy of such a prestigious, scholarly publishing house.  Dr. Fea turned his skills towards telling this story well, with accuracy and insight, with charming anecdote and revealing stories.   

The ABS has aligned itself, often, with gatekeepers of American culture, and their single-minded passion to promote Bible distribution has been inspiring, and, admittedly, a bit perplexing, if not troubling.  With endorsements from major historians such as Mark Noll or Margaret Bendroth (the Executive Director of the Congregational Library and Archives) The Bible Cause is going to be an enduring and important bit of American history research.

In the words of Laurie Maffly-Kipp (who wrote Setting Down the Sacred Past: African American Race Histories) “Fea leads us through Bible distribution in ever-widening circles. His expansive sweep highlights dissemination on the US frontier, within war-ravaged communities of the postbellum American South, and around the globe. He shows how the Good Book both followed and accompanied US imperial aspirations, and also how its influence motivated believers to see American as a Christian nation united by reverence for the Word.”

Well, so there’s that.  And John Fea brings it all, in fascinating detail.  As Mark Noll says, The Bible Cause  “is full of unusually perceptive insights… it is a splendid book to mark a noteworthy anniversary.”

Order a copy at Hearts & Minds

Bookstore Saturday: Hearts and Minds

byron in store from ydr

Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Bookstore with his books!

I have lived in south-central Pennsylvania for fifteen years and I am embarrassed to say that, until last Saturday, I have never visited Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown. I know that some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are very familiar with Hearts and Minds.  It is an independent Christian bookstore run by Byron and Beth Borger.

Hearts and Minds is not your run-of-the-mill Christian bookstore.  The Borgers carry books that you would not find at your local evangelical store.  Here is what I bought on Saturday:

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Hearts and Minds has a serious theology and history section. The Borgers carry a lot of university press stuff as well as popular trade books.  They also have sections on race, politics, Wendell Berry, and creation care.  For example, I challenge you to find a Christian bookstore that carries a book by Michael Eric Dyson.  I did not have a lot of time to browse (we spent too much time at the York Emporium), but I will be back very soon.

Perhaps the best part of Hearts and Minds is the staff.  When Ally and I arrived the staff was waiting for a group of college students to arrive.  Byron was going to lead them in a conversation about the Christian intellectual life.  Byron loves books and loves ideas. When you go to Hearts and Minds be prepared to not only shop for books, but to have a conversation about books.  (Byron will pull a book off the shelf and get the conversation going!)

Our visit was a rewarding one on several levels.  While Byron and I talked about authors and their books, Beth and Ally chatted about Ally’s recent decision to attend Calvin College in the Fall.  (The Borgers’ daughter attended Calvin and they were filled with useful insights about the college, Grand Rapids, and travel tips).  And to top it all off, I also met a 2000 Messiah College history graduate who is working in the store!

I found these titles on the shelf:

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If you are passing through the York, Pennsylvania (Dallastown) area, stop by Hearts and Minds.  If you are not passing through the area, buy your books from the Borgers here.

Otto’s Bookstore is For Sale

OttosThe Williamsport, PA shop is one of the oldest bookstores in the United States.  Founded in 1841.

From Publishers Weekly:

Otto Bookstore in Williamsport, Pa., one of the oldest continuously operating bookstores in the U.S., is on the market. Owner Betsy Rider, age 81, told PW that after a fall in December she’s ready to retire.

“Enough is enough,” Rider said. “Christmas was brutal.” She found it difficult to keep up with special orders and the day-to-day operation of the store, which saw a slight decline in sales in 2015. Even now, during the quiet season, Rider said it’s “overwhelming” to be at the store every day.

Although Rider has considered closing Otto, she doesn’t want to desert her customers or her staff. She approached a local developer to take over the 2,000 sq. ft. bookstore, which is located in the birthplace of Little League Baseball. She also declined an offer, which would require her to continue to work, from one of her 10 children.

The store, which turns 175 this year, has been connected to the Rider family for over a hundred years. Rider’s father, Jack Roesgen, began working there in 1905 and bought the business in 1940. Rider began running the store with her mother after his death in 1958.