I'm halfway through a two-week seminar on writing as Christian proclamation in Calvin College's Seminars in Christian Scholarship program. (I blogged earlier about some of the preparatory reading for the seminar.) There's about fifteen of us participating, including authors, editors, journalists, pastors, professors and other educators. We've been discussing the pros and cons of various recent Christian books and authors of note, such as Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Patton Dodd, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller and others. Thus far, we've focused on a few particular genres and categories, especially memoir and apologetics.
What's been interesting is the mix of perspectives on how effective an author or book might be. What struck some of us as authentic and honest struck others as contrived or artificial; some satirical or sarcastic passages seemed appropriately incisive to some of us but felt merely angry or cynical to others. It's been a reminder to me that just as each of us have different first impressions of the people we meet, depending on our personality or temperament or common interests or whatnot, we likewise all have different impressions of the authors and books we read. Books are an opportunity to befriend authors we might never tolerate at a dinner party, but the idiosyncratic nature of personal voice means that no matter how excellent the writing, no author or book will please everyone. Every book will naturally attract certain kinds of readers and repel others.
A few important distinctions came up - for instance, the nuance of difference between Christian proclamation and Christian witness. Proclamation, as in apologetic or evangelistic books, is intended to persuade or convince, and usually a particular reader is targeted by the author, with the hopes of helping the reader to "cross the line" or "pray the prayer," as in many traditional apologetics, or to simply bring the reader farther along on the journey, as in many more recent apologetic works. Witness, on the other hand, does not necessarily aim to persuade the reader but mainly just seeks to testify to what one has seen and experienced. Memoir is often witness but not necessarily apologetic, though of course, depending on the reader's location, it can serve as both. That was another point of discussion, the blurring of categories between apologetic and catechetical books. More often than not, books that are supposedly written with the intent of explaining the faith to outsiders have more significant usage and readership among insiders who are seeking to understand better the Christian life they have already committed themselves to.
Beyond the content, style and effectiveness of the writing itself, we've also been talking about the Christian publishing industry and marketplace. On Friday several of us "publishing industry professionals" talked about the business realities of Christian publishing. A guest speaker mentioned that "most of the time, spiritual memoir just doesn't work." Deb Rienstra (the convener of the seminar) asked in clarification, "When you say 'doesn't work,' do you mean 'doesn't sell'?" And the guest confirmed, yes, that's right - while a few spiritual memoirs have done very well, many, many more have completely tanked. One book that the group praised for its literary merit, creative originality and allusions to Flannery O'Connor was also a book that has not sold well at all.
Often we have no idea why one book sells while another doesn't. I cited something that my company's publisher has mentioned before: "Publishing is like shooting a gun in the air and hoping a duck flies by." I'm glad we're not just looking at bestsellers during this seminar, but also books that have performed poorly in terms of sales, despite their literary and editorial merit. I've been thinking in terms of what transferable principles we can learn from the books we've been studying. It's not enough for books to "be honest like Blue Like Jazz" or for authors to pitch themselves as the next Anne Lamott. Editors and publishers get hundreds of proposals every day that claim to be these things, but rarely has the writer honed his or her craft. I don't want new writers to copycat Anne Lamott's style; I want them to read these kinds of books, learn from them, but ultimately to find their own unique, compelling and distinct voice.
We've talked a lot about Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, both of whom have plenty of critics but also have legions of devotees. In a moment of convergence, this morning McLaren happened to be speaking at Rob Bell's church, Mars Hill Bible Church here in the Grand Rapids area, while Bell was out of town. Several of us from the seminar visited Mars Hill to hear McLaren, who spoke on themes from his new book, The Secret Message of Jesus, which I just started reading. Good material on the kingdom of God and the call to rebuild, restore and renew that which is broken in this world, not merely dream of escape from this world. Not particularly new, but McLaren is a compelling champion of his cause, just as other folks have championed their causes for years, like Richard Foster for spiritual formation or Ron Sider for social justice. An image McLaren used that captured my imagination was his description of a Christian as "a secret agent for the kingdom of God." My wife said that that was a particularly guy way of thinking about it. I said, "Sydney Bristow on Alias is a secret agent, too. We can all be secret agents!" Anyway . . . a lot to think about this week. More later.
P.S. The seminar is sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and their site and blog has some further thoughts and notes on the seminar here.