2017-07-12
Christianity is providing the popular culture with a lot of good material these days, from supernatural soap operas like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Touched by an Angel" to apocalyptic Hollywood thrillers to raffish critiques like "Dogma." Organized Christianity has been loathe to return the compliment. The evangelical world makes sporadic, and generally failed, attempts to play in the mainstream--the movie version of the best-selling end-times novel "Left Behind" recently went straight to video--but radical Christians historically tend to view pop culture as a cesspool of blasphemy better to be raptured out of altogether.

That attitude is starting to change. The late Bob Briner, a sports-marketing executive, sternly challenged Christians in his book "Roaring Lambs" to go beyond boycotting movies and try to bring a Christian influence to bear by working with, and even in, pop culture industries. Christian rock bands are more openly and avidly seek mainstream audiences. Christians working in Hollywood have been emboldened to meet to strategize about ways to have a greater effect on what scripts get made and how.

In the oldest Christian trade, the publishing industry, the change has come more slowly. But now Brazos Press, a new imprint of the revered evangelical publisher Baker Books, aims to bring an intellectually sophisticated Christian perspective to bear on secular culture.

A look at some of Brazos' upcoming titles reveals a surprisingly nuanced conversation between the religious and the secular. Stanley Hauerwas' "A Better Hope" will "look at the Church in the context of capitalism, democracy and post-modernity," according to Brazos marketing director Bobbi Jo Heyboer. "Eyes Wide Open," a book of cultural criticism by Christian Reformed author Bill Romanowski, discusses Bruce Springsteen, "ER," as well as "Titanic" and "The End of the Affair." "Many Christian critics think Christian criticism means noting the amount of profanity, sex or violence," says Romanowski, a professor of communications at Calvin College. But as the title indicates, Romanowski wants to get beyond that blinkered approach. "I have a section on sex and violence, but also ones on materialism, and gender stereotypes."

According to editorial director Rodney Clapp, while there are no denominational quotas, Brazos expects about a third of their authors to be evangelicals, another third mainline Protestants, and the rest Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. But while political and economic views will run the gamut from conservative to liberal and even radical, in religious terms they will all be "creedal Christians"--grounded in the creeds of the early church councils.

Clapp admits that, by taking Christian doctrine seriously, Brazos is "running against the grain" of a secular culture that exalts faith but disparages doctrine as a source of fanaticism and divisiveness. "People are averse to religion, but more friendly to spirituality, which can be put forth vaguely and amorphously and doesn't seem to disallow anything. But we see Christianity as a particular kind of spirituality, and indeed religion. We value the expression of religion through the church. We will be about promoting that."

Clapp believes that leaves a "wide circumference" for Christian writers and intellectuals. His own book, "Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses in Popular Culture and Public Affairs," ranges over territory including John Coltrane, Hank Williams, and "The X-Files."

Clapp points to Coltrane as an example of a cultural icon unfairly shunned by Christians. "Ten or fifteen years ago, prominent Christian evangelical colleges would say 'don't teach jazz in your conservatory of music.' They just want to say jazz is evil." But to Clapp, a jazz figure like Coltrane, whom Christians might dismiss as the Pied Piper of dissolute Beatniks, provides plenty of "grist for the mill" of a Christian critic. "Coltrane said he hoped eventually to be a saint. He was on a very deep religious pilgrimage. I don't try to make John Coltrane either into a devil or a Messiah. I ask what questions can a Christian critic bring to his life and music."

Some wonder whether any one publisher can stem evangelicals' rejection of the wider culture. "There's a great fear of scandal, of being attacked, of being the whipping boy of the next newsletter of some popular Christian leader who points to a book as evidence of decline and apostasy," says Christian writer Daniel Taylor. Still, Taylor is hopeful about Brazos' ability to forge ahead. "I think if anybody can do it, he can," Taylor says of his former editor. "He's a very thoughtful guy and has a vision for how Christianity can and should interact with modern culture."

Culture wars aren't the only pitfall; there's also the issue of marketing. Due to the segmentation of retail bookselling, Christian bookstores have a difficult time selling books on secular topics, and mainstream bookstores have an equally difficult time selling books with a Christian stance. "Neither side is capable or experienced in [selling such books]," says Intervarsity Press publisher Bob Fryling. Mainstream chains, Fryling says, "tend to put anything published by a Christian publisher in the religion section, rather than in sociology or science or business," whereas Christian bookstores might pass up a cultural studies tome for the latest bestseller by "a popular pastor."

Stephen Hanselman, publisher of Harper San Francisco, the religion arm of mainstream house Harper Collins, agrees. "The sentiment in the marketplace is that Christian books aren't 'independent bookstore' kinds of books." These problems can kill a book that seems to fall between two stools. Romanowski's "Eyes Wide Shut" was turned down by another Christian publisher, who had doubts about marketing it, before being taken on by Brazos.

Still, Hanselman thinks there are "millions of Christians that would never be caught dead in an evangelical bookstore who need to be recognized at the retail level and by publishers." Brazos hopes to woo these "ambivalent pilgrims," not just with academic books but with trade titles like "Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America's Soul," in which Wendy Murray Zoba, a senior writer at Christianity Today, ponders the spiritual significance of America's gristliest school ground massacre. "He Was Here" by Catholic writer Ivan Kauffman reimagines the experience of gospel characters in "gritty, earthy language," according to Heyboer.

Brazos hopes that such titles will go beyond preaching to the choir in Christian bookstores and pique the interests of the ambivalent pilgrims browsing the aisles of B. Dalton and Borders.



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