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Convergent Books and the Evangelical Imprimatur

censhorship

If you’re not familiar with the term imprimatur, it’s a Latin expression that means “let it be printed.” It’s associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and depending on the context, was used to actively censor books that either a) disagreed with the Church’s teaching, or b) could possibly damage the Church’s reputation. Many of these books– banned because they contained “doctrinal or moral error,” supposedly– would appear in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Books included in the Index could not be printed, and considering the influence that Roman Catholicism had over Europe during the dawn of movable-type printing, this religious censorship targeted many Protestants and early European scientists with brutal efficiency. They still issue imprimaturs, although the context is very different today.

A little while ago I reviewed Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, and gave it my endorsement. I think it’s a good introduction to sexuality in the Bible, and when I read it I knew it was going spark an . . . interesting discussion. The day it came out, Albert Mohler put out a collection of essays by several contributors titled God and the Gay Christian? — which, honestly, throwing on a question mark to the end of someone else’s book title in this digital publishing age seems really dirty and underhanded. But hey, they contributed to the conversation, so good on them I suppose.

Convergent Books, Vines’ publisher, has recently come under fire for daring to publish his book. Not only that, but the talking heads have gone after Waterbrook-Multnomah, too– because Convergent is a sister imprint.

If you’re not super familiar with how publishing houses work, an imprint is essentially a marketing method. W-M is a well-known Christian imprint owned by Crown, which is owned by Penguin-Random House, and they’ve published everything from Francine River’s Redeeming Love to David Platt’s Radical. Crown decided to create Convergent alongside W-M, in order to “explore the contemporary faith experience for a broad range of Christians who are drawn to an open, inclusive and culturally engaged exploration of faith.” Crown also owns a Catholic imprint, too– Image Books.

As seems to be pretty typical– of new imprints, especially– there’s a lot of overlap in the staff between W-M and Convergent. They’re just getting started, and no one goes into book publishing for the money. As a freelance editor, I can swear to that.

Frustratingly, the National Religious Broadcasters has forced W-M to resign from their organization because they published “unbiblical material.” Albert Mohler, who’s been published by W-M, said that Cobb’s decision to publish Vines puts W-M “in serious danger of crashing its brand in terms of evangelical trust,” and Robert Jeffress, who has not even read the book, said that ” it is a mistake for any Christian publisher to legitimize a point of view that is a clear perversion of Scripture.”

It’s a mistake. It should not have been published.

While American evangelical culture doesn’t have the ability to enforce censorship the same way that the Roman Catholic Church did during dawn of modern printing, they hold an unbelievably massive amount of power when it comes to communication and media. LifeWay and Family Christian have refused to even put books written by more progressive authors (like Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey) on their shelves. God and the Gay Christian isn’t even listed anywhere at christianbook.com.

They are like the Sanhedrin, who would rather stuff their fingers in their ears and scream than listen to Stephen.

This isn’t government censorship and technically these organizations and companies have every right to enforce whatever standard they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that what they’re doing is wrong. They are stifling discussion and blatantly refusing to even have a conversation about difficult and charged subjects– like marriage equality and feminism, for example.

It’s like evangelicals don’t even understand the purpose of books.

Christian publishing is extremely difficult because of this. A few years ago, I spoke with Dani Pettrey, a Christian fiction writer, and one of the things that came up was how careful she had to be as she was editing Submerged– evangelical consumers are notorious for being easily offended by content. When I was in undergrad I fell in love with Karen Hancock’s Legend of the Guardian-King quartet, and I asked a local independent Christian book store if they had any copies. The store owner said they had decided not to carry any of her books because so many people had returned them (they had allegorical “magic”).

I understand the desire to maintain an ideological bubble. I have trouble not isolating myself from differing points of view in the media I consume and the people I talk to, especially because I’m an ISTJ. Being black-and-white is second nature to me, and it’s something I deliberately make an effort to overcome every day.

But while I can understand this impulse, it angers me that evangelicals, collectively, hold so much power over what can be written, published, sold, and broadcasted. Books exist in order to expose us to new ideas. If people like Jeffress declare books to be a “clear perversion of Scripture” when they haven’t even read the damn book can get away with not just silence, but open applause, it’s a clear sign that the evangelical community is broken. Evangelical culture, evangelical leaders, seem wholly and entirely incapable of even listening to people who disagree with them. Instead, they become “heretics”– for simple things, like using “Herself” in a poem or emphasizing the eternal, long-suffering Grace of God.

*full disclosure: I’ve written for the Convergent Books blog, and will continue to write for them. They do not pay me for those posts.

20 thoughts on “Convergent Books and the Evangelical Imprimatur

  1. I think I’ve named-dropped Speculativefaith.com as a site about Christian speculative fiction. They try to have conversation about story elements and the portrayal of evil and “icky bits,” but they mostly run in the same grooves as most other conservative Christians. But they’ll at least accept magical elements. Baby steps.

    But as far as LGTBmoreletters goes, the Slacktivist has repeatedly shown evidence that homo-antagonism is more critical to conservative Christian gatekeepers than–what was the euphemism with Tullian ImpossiblePolishname?–”the nature of sanctification.” I’m sure Southern Baptists like Mohler would be ready to accept pouring and sprinkling over LGTBQ-friendliness.

    • Tulian and his brother Boz, of GRACE fame are Armenian, actually :)

      My town in the St. Louis suburbs has a small cluster of Armenian families that have been here since World War 1.

      The suffix “-ian” at the end if the last name is always a dead giveaway for someone of Armenian descent.

  2. At one point it was a bit of a surprise to discover that people who disagreed with the church mindset in which I was submerged actually are honest, studious, prayerful researchers of God’s Word who spent years of study in hopes of understanding Scripture meaning in the original culture and languages. I’d been told so often that they were all just out to “make it look like they are right” that I had this mental image of a whole host of people in shadowed rooms randomly switching words in their “alternate translations” of the Bible based on uneducated personal preference.

    It is because of “unapproved” books that I was able to break free of the brainwashing and abuse of my ex-church and ex-husband.

    When they went so far as to attack me for reading highly recommended CHRISTIAN books that they hadn’t pre-authorized with my particular situation in mind, I finally gave up on their advice. I think it shocked them a bit when I pulled valid points in my defense from books they had recommended I read, (hoping the books would convince me to submit and no longer struggle against their will) and they hoped to control me by controlling the flow of information. Thankfully it was too late … *deep sigh of relief*

    They did me a favor by kicking me out, though at the time I thought it was a crushing defeat.

  3. Amazing post, Samantha. This is one of those things that makes me despair of ever being a writer in the Christian market, because Evangelicals don’t like questions, don’t like to be challenged, don’t like magic or poetry or thinking… don’t seem to like much of anything, really.

  4. Any establishment or way of life that can’t hold up under open discussion and civil dialogue is not worth supporting. If many of these so-called Christian leaders are proven wrong, it is not the end of Christianity (as they claim it will be)it is just the end of their careers and their lifestyle. These divisions within music and written media (contemporary Christian music, Christian publishing) are fading, they are irrelevant. When I want to buy classical music such as The Messiah, there is no Christian Classical section, it is simply in the Classical Department, no special segregation necessary.
    I want to have a relationship with God that transcends these little false bastions of fundamental christianity. Un-capital C.
    I want my life to have more scope, more meaning. This has estranged me from most of my family of origin in one way or another my entire adult life. Just my sitting there, not arguing or criticizing , just keeping quiet but also clearly not participating or agreeing with their point of view drives them crazy and ruins their weekend. Just that tiny show of dissent or separateness is so threatening to them.
    Thanks for being here, it is so helpful to read the blog posts and discussions here.

  5. Being an I S/N TJ (yes, I flip, I’m weird.) I well know your frustration with trying to overcome seeing everything in black/white and then seeing others choosing NOT to do so. Also, it’s easier for people to just listen to what the leaders say and not think for themselves – there’s too much else to do (I have done this in the past and am not doing it ANYMORE).
    And too many good books that wouldn’t be approved to read.

  6. I’m honestly worried about this sort of thing. I’m Christian. I always will be. But what I write comes from a worldview that not only encompasses magic-in-fiction, but families that involve three, or more, spouses, and bloodlines that span centuries and lifetimes. Not to mention the fact that, with magic in the mix and some other factors, physical gender is malleable. And ohhhh the problems from the fact that I have millennia-old people living in teenage bodies…

    I know full well that I’m going to be condemned by one side of the argument, and called out as “not really part of the conversation” on the other.

    It’s like these Christians have completely forgotten about Tolkien, the fact that he was very Catholic, to the point that HE helped bring CS Lewis back to Christ. Tolkien said, if I can remember the quote correctly, that “God was the God of Men… and of Elves”.

  7. While not a book, I was basically discarded from my church because of my blog, which often questions and challenges evangelical beliefs/traditions. I was removed from singing on worship team before even being told why, then, more or less, told to change what I write. Instead, I left church…

  8. I encountered the problem of these publishers, after paying three hundred dollars to attend a convention in Glorieta on my first novel. No magic, just good history, but a little too real for them. (if Paul’s going to convert his guard he can’t be a choir boy) I went with PublishAmerica and was robbed blind, now its in e-book at Amazon and I’m publishing it using a local printer.
    I have a lot to say about Mohler, but it would get my wife fired.

  9. I think you’re on the right track but are upset about the wrong thing. You said:

    “it angers me that evangelicals, collectively, hold so much power over what can be written, published, sold, and broadcasted. ”

    But Vines’ book WAS written, published, and sold, and it’s being read and critiqued by both evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. Convergent is not part of NRB if I understand correctly, so NRB wouldn’t have been able to hinder the book from existing even if they had wanted to, and even their action against Convergent’s sister label has no bearing on the book’s ability to reach a wide audience.

    It seems to me that NRB’s primary concern is that WB-Multnomah, in “effectively” publishing the book, has strayed from NRB’s statements of faith and ethics. And they’re probably right as far as that goes. But it seems that there’s an overall trend among conservative organizations to overly busy-body other organizations or individuals, and that’s definitely a slippery slope.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that a publisher should have to publish a book on a subject that goes against their focus or core audience — publishing books is a business, and these companies are trying to make money. But it doesn’t seem necessary or helpful for a parent organization to be nitpicking the catalog of its members either, particularly if it’s a single book that’s the source of concern.

    • Well, it was published, but it’s not being sold be any Christian companies that I’ve seen, which means that it’s financially difficult for Convergent to continue publishing titles like these.

      • Well, it’s currently #1 in several sub-categories at Amazon, and #1633 out of /all/ books there. That’s a resounding success.

        And again, anyone who wants to and has access to Amazon.com can buy the book. I will grant the possibility that there may be a small number of people who will only buy a book at Christianbook.com and will not buy anything from Amazon.com; but if such people exist, do you think they’d be likely to buy the book even if it was at CBD?

        • This book, yes, and I’m glad it’s doing moderately well so far. But as someone who’s been in the publishing industry for a while and has been talking with religious non-fiction writers for years, it is extremely difficult for publishers to accept manuscripts that stray outside the evangelical party line. I’ve helped a lot of people self-publish because they were rejected by every non-Catholic Christian publisher they submitted their MS/proposal to, with the line “this is a well-written MS, but it is unpublishable because of its content.”

          RHE’s Year of Biblical Womanhood was a huge, monumental risk for Thomas-Nelson– and it wasn’t even anything on the level of God and the Gay Christian or Jesus Feminist. I’m glad we’re starting to see publishers take these risks, but the evangelical establishment is doing their dead-level best to crush these efforts, and in many cases they’ve succeeded.

          My real problem is that people like Al Mohler have contributed to a culture where no one engages with new ideas and have perpetuated ideological isolation and purity at great cost.

  10. ” a clear sign that the evangelical community is broken”. You needed something like THIS to figure that out?

  11. They’re fighting a losing battle. These conversations are happening among Christians and non- Christians alike, whether these books are censored or not.

  12. Honestly, when a so-called Christian leader comes out against a book (or movie) and hasn’t read (or seen) it, but you know they don’t have to because they just know, it makes me want to run out and buy that book or see that movie!! I think that is a combination of the cynic/rebel in me.

  13. I tried to post on this the other day when you wrote it and it wouldn’t let me. I’m writing a book that probably won’t go down well in the evangelical Christian world, and I’d be honored for someone like Convergent to pick it up. I’m glad for publishers like them. But the truth is that because of content, even if it’s an awesome book, I am probably going to have to self-publish it. Part of me wants to go into publishing so that I can create an independent publisher that publishes the more risky Christian titles. :)

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