Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Lazy Age of Christian Publishing?

A few weeks ago, Philip Yancey lamented on his blog about the death of the "golden age" of Christian publishing. Changes in the publishing world mean that authors typically receive less for their work and that anyone who wants to become an "author" can simply self-publish. This has flooded the online market with more books than ever but with fewer gatekeepers to ensure any measure of quality.

And earlier this week, Karen E. Yates, a guest writer over at Her.Meneutics, offered another perspective—one that was a little more upbeat. While Yancey bemoaned the fact that today authors are pressed to build their platforms rather than focus on their writing, Yates argues that this is not such a bad thing and highlights all the positive outcomes of having a tribe. And she says that self-publishing doesn't just flood the market; it also gives a voice to books that might not otherwise see the light of day, citing The Shack as an example.

After reading both pieces, I can't help but see things more like Yancey does than Yates. The changes in the publishing industry, while probably inevitable, are not necessarily good. When the music industry went through its digital revolution, there was a place to land when the floor fell out from beneath singers and songwriters. Artists can make money from tours and their back catalogue if the perceived value of their albums is little or nothing. In fact, as Noisetrade.com has shown time and time again, giving away a recording could be the best thing to generate new fans. But in the publishing world, the book is all there is. Authors don't go on tour to perform their books (book tours are only promotional). The book is their revenue stream.

Earlier this year, I went to a writer's conference with some colleagues from the ministry where I work and was saddened to learn that many of the authors presenting that week had to hold down other full-time day jobs. I left feeling mighty blessed to call myself a full-time writer and editor. Still, the changing shape of the publishing landscape suggests that people will not be willing to pay what they once did for a book—even a hard copy—since ebooks and online reading have given us a taste for free and cheap books. It makes my dream of someday being a full-time author harder than ever to achieve.

More disturbing is a trend that both Yancey and Yates hinted at. Christian publishers are less willing these days to take a chance on an unknown. Many would rather publish something unnecessary or sub-par that will sell than something refreshing and insightful that comes from someone without an established platform. In other words, if Rick Warren took to writing poetry for use in the bathroom, he would be more likely to find himself a lucrative publishing deal with a well-known publisher than Ann Voskamp would had she written her notes of thankfulness in her journal rather than her blog. Publishers, by and large, are looking past authors to their tribe—the book is even less important.

But there's self-publishing, right? All voices can now be heard even if publishers fail to see a diamond in the rough, can't they? While self-publshing can be a great option for established authors or for niche projects, the influx of books is crowding the market. A new author who convinces a traditional publisher that their book is worth publishing now faces a tremendous fight to be noticed among the thousands of titles newly available on Amazon every day. Many consumers are not savvy enough to recognize a self-published book, so the result is the cheapening of the word "author." (I recently filled a writer position on my team, and I cannot tell you how many people listed their first credential on their résumé as "author." But with the exception of one or two, every one was self-published. Anyone with a word-processing program and a few hundred dollars can add the same honor to their C.V.)

In this new world, it seems to me, we've lost the role of publishers. They were supposed to be the gatekeepers, ensuring that books making it through their stringent weeding-out process were worth a person's time. But now, it's more about the platform than the book. And we've lost the role of author. Anyone can become one, so no one can be one—or at least it's much harder to make a living at it. In the end, readers might get more and cheaper books, but there will undoubtedly be fewer great reads in the mix.

As a writer, I am faced with the choice every day to spend my time building my tribe or working on my writing. I choose to write—for magazines I'm a part of, for work, for special projects, and yes, sometimes for this blog. But I'm focused on the writing because that's what I love. If I ever have a "tribe," it will be fun to bounce ideas off of my peeps and get instant feedback. But the tribe itself can never replace finding something worth saying.

I have worked with a few different book publishers in a variety of capacities. My last book was published by a small and very targeted publisher, but they chose to publish my book—one of only six they published last year. Knowing that my story was something someone else was willing to take a risk on (especially given the subject) mattered so much to me. I have a new project in the works (more on that later), but it's with another traditional publisher—and again, it means the world to me to know that they think my writing is worth their time and investment. And it's so much fun working with people who want to help me produce something worthwhile, something that will bless others and maybe even challenge them.

I may have missed out on Yancey's "golden age," but I hope there's still room in this new world for those of us who mourn its passing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Essence of a Thing: A Word About Gordon College

Hebrew thought has more to do with what a thing is for—its essence—rather than with how a thing works. 

It was in Dr. Marvin Wilson's Old Testament survey course that I first heard this idea expressed. It was during a lecture on the difficulties we, as modern, enlightenment-conditioned men and women, have when we read the creation account in Genesis. We want to know how creation happened. Was there a big bang? Did it take millions or billions of years? Did God use some form of evolution to bring the natural world into being as we have it today? How is it possible that there were trees planted on day three but the sun was not in the sky until day four? 

But these are not the questions that the ancient Hebrew mind would ask—at least not primarily. For the Israelite hearing Moses' account of the six days of creation, what would have resonated would have been the power of God, the original goodness of this world, and the place God has given mankind. These elements speak to the nature of our God and this universe, and they are what make the creation story in the Bible different than the competing creation accounts in the ancient Near East. The mechanics of how things happened matter little as the listener gains insight into the story he is living and feels a connection with his world and with his Creator. 

That Old Testament course was taken during my sophomore year at Gordon College. Though I know some people have mixed feelings about their college experience, I loved every minute of mine. Four years was far too short a time to spend in such a wonderful place. That is not to say that Gordon College was perfect or that I was so naïve that I didn't see the moments of brokenness. I just latched on to the essence of the thing: Gordon College was—and is—a good place. 

Since graduating, it's been fun to see my alma mater pop up in the news or in pop culture now and again. A number of years ago, a Gordon College talent show performance became a YouTube sensation. A fellow alumnus, Pete Holmes, found success on late night TV. And even the handicapped parking signs in NYC now have a Gordon connection. 

But in the last few weeks, Gordon College has been in the news for another reason. College President D. Michael Lindsay attached his signature to a letter asking President Obama for a religious freedom exemption to an executive order the president has promised will be coming soon. The order would ban organizations from receiving federal contracts if they hold discriminatory hiring practices affecting gays and lesbians.

Discrimination is an ugly word, almost so weighty that its very use implies wrongdoing on the part of the person its levied against. But discrimination is not always bad. The kind of discrimination Lindsay asked President Obama to allow is the kind that makes Gordon College special. Of course, Gordon is not special because there is no LGBT presence on campus (that's not even true, anyway). Gordon is special because, since its founding in the basement of Clarendon Street Church in Boston, it's been a community set apart to nurture Christian faith. Gordon's motto has long been "Academic Freedom Within a Framework of Faith." And one of the ways this freedom-framework balance is maintained is through its Life and Conduct Statement, which all students and faculty agree to live by. As a Christian college in the evangelical tradition, it should be shocking to no one that, regardless of sexual identity, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited. 

Think what you will about Gordon's policies or about the issues surrounding the morality of homosexual practice. No one is forced to study or work at Gordon College; each of us is free to choose whether or not we even want to be a part of such a community. For those who say Gordon should forego access to federal funding, like grants and the student loan program, I wonder if you would feel the same way if the president of the United States were a conservative and the situation were reversed. In other words, if an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal contracts to hire creation scientists. Folks at liberal universities across the land would be up in arms (that is, if they believed in the second amendment right to bear them). It sounds ridiculous, right? Obama's proposed executive order is ridiculous, too. 

At stake here is nothing short of American religious freedom. If we no longer have the recognized right to set ourselves apart in distinctive communities for the pursuit of academic freedom and the practice of faith, we will have lost one of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon America. When it comes to Gordon College, the essence of the thing is good, and it's worth preserving just as it is. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

The red lights in front of me would not budge, so I stepped on the brakes firmly. All I could do was pray and trust. My Hyundai screeched and skidded and finally came to a stop, inches from the car in front of me. My brakes had done their job. But the moment of relief was short-lived, and I felt the impact of the car behind me, and then seconds later another jolt, as a third car ran into us both. With the last crash, my car spun, and I found myself sideways on the highway, staring up at an approaching semi.

Thankfully, it was only the machines who lost on this day. Every person involved in the accident walked away. For the rest of last Thursday and in the days since, I've been thinking a lot about timing. What if that 18-wheeler had been just a fraction of a second ahead of schedule? What if I had left the house just five minutes later or five minutes earlier? What if I had stopped for gas before driving to work, or what if had decided to work from home that morning? And then I began to wonder about all the ways God adjusts my life's timing—ways that save me from harm that I'm not even aware of.

And it's not just the accident that's got me thinking about God's timing. Every since last October when we found out we would be having our first child, Laurin and I have been fiercely awaiting July 1. That was the day, according to our doctors, that Jonah was due to be born. And while we've known all along that not every baby is born on his due date, July 1 has been our focus. As I write this post, Jonah is 5 days late. (I hate being late to things, so he must get his tardiness from his mother.)

God is good, so even though I don't know why my Thursday morning ended in a crunched car or why Jonah is "late," I'm trusting in His good purposes. As God is teaching me patience (admittedly my least favorite flavor among the fruit of the Spirit), I am seeing just how rushed and hurried I normally am. 

These past few days, Laurin and I have been able to slow down a bit. Since we were expecting to be adjusting to life with a new baby this weekend, we've got little on our to-do lists. There's not much to do but enjoy this calm before the storm. We spent time with family, celebrated the Fourth, even took time for a picnic at the place where we got married last year. It's been a nice change of pace, but I think this is how God expects us to live all the time. Since He is sovereign and has timed everything for our good, we are supposed to rest in His shalom, His perfect, immeasurable peace. As James says, "You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes . . . You ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:14-15 NIV).

This talk of mist is a bit deceiving. On the surface, mist is unimportant and inconsequential. It would be an insult to tell another person that his life was nothing more than a vapor. But when compared to God's plans, our lives are nothing more than a mist. God is the One writing the story we're all living in—and James reminds us of that. But there's another side to this mist talk. Like mists that breathe up off of a lake in summertime, we ought to spend our time living within the pace of life that God has set before us. He has not asked us to live in such a hurried manner. We can only move as quickly as the breeze will take us. 

So I don't think Jonah is "late" after all. He's just living in sync with his Creator's timing. And it is me who needs to adjust. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The "Christian Writer" Label

This morning, I read this statement from Philip Yancey:
Primarily, I write books that do focus on my faith. I’ve tried writing other kinds of books, but they always feel like they’re leaving out something important to me. So maybe I am a “Christian writer.”
These days, it seems that whether you're a writer, a musician, or anything creative, it's not okay to identify yourself as a "Christian ________." It's much more appropriate to say "I am a Christian who writes," or "I'm a Christian who plays guitar" or whatever. There's even that famous C. S. Lewis quote,
The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.
I wholeheartedly agree, and I'm sure Yancey would as well. But it's only fair to remember that Lewis was writing in a different age. The cultural struggles we face today are different than those of Lewis' day. While it may seem more authentic or trendy not to want to be boxed in with the label, "Christian," it's also an easy cop-out.

Like Yancey, I've tried writing about other things, but it always feels like I'm leaving out the most important part of the story. And I'm okay with that. After all, shouldn't we as Christians be developing eyes that see the world as God's sees it?

I don't think the problem is that we're so focused on eternal matters, we're just not connecting with people. I think it's just the opposite; we don't spend enough time contemplating the things that are most important to God. And I have no fear that writing through the lens of faith will limit my subject matter. It does just the opposite; it opens it up.

Pardon my rant, but I'm happy to be a "Christian writer" as well, in whatever small capacity I can be. If I ever cease to be, I think I'll have forgotten the most important parts of life, and I don't think anything I write at that point will be worth reading.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Letter to My Unborn Son

Dear Jonah,

From what people tell me, my life is about to be turned upside down and become messier than I can imagine. They say my days of sleep are numbered, as are these times of sitting down to write without distraction. The cup of coffee by my side is about to be replaced with a bottle, and this Mac on my lap will soon be set aside so you can occupy that space.

So while our home is still filled with sweet silence, I wanted to write you a letter—something that you can turn to years from now, in those moments when you are convinced I am the worst dad in the world, and something I can look back on when I forget that being your dad is an extravagant gift from God, something much like saving grace, completely undeserved.

You'll probably hear a lot about God in our home. Your mother and I bring His name up often. More than anything else in life, we hope that you come to know Him, that you learn to follow Jesus and recognize His voice. One of my biggest fears is that I'll fail to show you what that looks like. I don't walk with God perfectly; I stumble and trip over myself daily. In those times, I hope the lesson you'll take away is that God's grace is larger than my sin.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Easter-Weekend Resurrection

I have yet to see a church sign that says, "Believe our message, and you may be killed for that belief someday," nor have I seen "We take a collection at every service" or "The things you may come to believe will make you wildly unpopular at work." All of these statements are true, of course (though the last one may depend on where you work), but we don't advertise these things. Instead, we point to the those elements that will resonate with people where they are right now. Everyone wants community, everyone wants hope, and everyone wants to be set free—so we highlight these.

I suspect something like this is taking place when we read the Good Friday and Easter narratives in the four Gospels. Matthew includes an event that the other evangelists leave out:
At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people (Matthew 27:51-53, NIV).
To me, dead people coming back to life and walking around the streets of Jerusalem seems like news. But Mark, Luke, and John are silent on the subject. This has led many Bible scholars—even very conservative ones—to doubt the historical truth of Matthew's claim.

These commentators reason that perhaps Matthew was using apocalyptic language to describe the cosmic significance of Jesus' death. Maybe it was a literary device to show the monumental impact of the Son of God laying down His life, akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson describing the first shot of the American Revolution as "the shot heard round the world." No one believes Aborigines in the Australian outback were listening to the musket balls flying at Lexington and Concord. So they argue it is with these Old Testament saints coming out of the ground on Easter weekend: History turned so sharp a corner on Good Friday that it was like the dead had come to life to see the turning of the ages.

I believe in letting the Bible speak on its own terms, that we should read poetry as poetry and historical narrative as historical narrative. I believe apocalyptic literature is unique and should not be interpreted like an Epistle or a Gospel. But I think we do great damage to the text of the Bible when we attempt to import a separate rule of interpretation to a single verse or two because we find content difficult to swallow when read as presented. In other words, Matthew 27 and its larger context is clearly historical narrative. No conservative Bible scholar would see Jesus' resurrection as figurative or a mere literary device. Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, mocked, and nailed to a Roman cross in history. It actually happened. If we were able to travel back in time with an iPhone in tow, we would be able to capture the whole thing in stunning HD video.

So pulling out the bit about the dead coming to life as illustrative fluff that didn't really happen is unfair to the text. Readers are free to disregard the Gospels as mere fiction, but let us not pick and choose which parts of the story are true. The real difficulty with this passage is not what Matthew tells us. If we are willing to believe that God stepped down out of heaven, was born as a baby, lived as a carpenter, performed miracles witnessed by thousands, was crucified, and then raised from the dead, why is it so difficult to believe that a few others were also raised to new life? The real difficulty with this passage is that the other Gospel writers are silent on the subject and that there is no mention of the event in other historical records of the period.

But I don't think it's really all that strange. There are several other events mentioned by only one Gospel writer. Matthew alone tells us about Herod's slaughter of toddlers and infants (Matthew 2:16). Only Luke tells us that Jesus restored the ear of the high priest's servant on the Mount of Olives after one of his disciples (Peter, according to John) cut it off (Luke 22:51). And it is just John who mentions Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11). As for Roman and Jewish historical archives from the time. I'm not sure what we'd expect to find. Those who rose from the dead were not zombies (contrary to the Lego image above), and they didn't wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Jerusalem. They were people—there's no reason to think they looked any different from you or me—and it would have been wildly difficult for secular historians to believe they were the dead come to life, even if that was the rumor floating around town.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith—it changes everything about life—and each Gospel was written so that its recipients might believe in Jesus and be saved. It's not surprising then that Matthew includes the event. It fulfills, at least in part, what God had said through the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 37:12-13)—something that would have been of particular interest to Matthew's largely Jewish audience. For the other Gospel writers, these dead followers of God kicking up dirt and strolling through town add little to the hope found in the gospel. In fact, including such an event would have introduced a lot of new questions, rather than providing answers, as it does today when believers who are less steeped in Old Testament prophecy read Matthew's account.

So what do we do with these strange few verses? I have a rather simple suggestion: Believe. Matthew provided us with a glimpse of the resurrection that will take place when Christ returns. In the pages of his Gospel, we have a real-world preview of one of the most difficult-to-swallow bits of Christian theology: Death does not have the final say. Those of us who know Jesus will be raised to new life and will live with Him forever. This is the good news of Easter, so let's embrace this small preview of the goodness of God yet to come as we celebrate the more important resurrection that took place that same weekend.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

When God Stops the Rain

I have a love/hate relationship with rain. On a Monday morning, rain is my enemy. Wet roads and lower visibility extend my already uncomfortable commute. Like a perfectly ordered line of ants disrupted from above by a small child with a cup of water, rain brings an extra level of chaos to the highways of Atlanta. But on a Sunday morning, when I'm sitting at home with a cup of coffee and my Bible, the sound of rain falling outside is a welcome visitor.

Jesus says that God the Father "causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45, NET). God's world is not a world of karma but of grace. And grace is both wonderful and dangerous.

In a world where only the good receive sunshine and rain, it would be easy to spot the bad guys—and it would be easy to self-diagnose and make course corrections. That guy at the office constantly under a gray cloud with neither sunshine nor rain? He's a jerk. That woman in your neighborhood whose path always seems to be lit by sunshine? She's a godly woman. And when you're having one of those days where nothing seems to be going right, you would have a clear indicator that you've messed up. But God has said things don't work this way. The righteous and the unrighteous do life together; sunshine and rain fall on them both.

Except when it doesn't.

The Book of 1 Kings records a time when God brought a famine upon the land of Israel. For three and a half years, it didn't rain a drop. And the text is clear: this drought was ordained by God because of King Ahab's sin of idolatry (1 Kings 18:18). Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people into Baal worship. Baal was a Canaanite storm god, so by shutting up the heavens and stopping storms, God was showing the people just how worthless and false their god was. It is the true God of Israel who brings rain and sun—and who has the power to stop them both.

This is how a tremendous drought can really be an act of grace. God's people were walking along a path of sin and disobedience—one that leads to death—so God took action to show His people how deluded they had become. Surely they would see Baal is no god at all, for no matter how fervently they worshipped or how many sacrifices they offered during the drought, no rain fell.

But do you know what's incredible? The drought has zero effect on the sins of the people. When Baal stopped working like they thought he should, the people simply adjusted their theology. Israel began to believe that Baal had become trapped in the underworld and was temporarily unable to grant the people rain. Their faith in him did not wane.

At the end of the time set by God for the drought, the prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest—a god vs. God battle royale. The true God shows up with fire, and the people immediately fall on their faces in sorrow and cry out to the Lord (1 Kings 18:25-40). It's an old school showdown of good vs. evil, one of those great Old Testament stories where the power of the Almighty is displayed miraculously for all to see. But there is a detail that shows just how gracious God is, even while His people are living in outright rebellion.

The contest calls for the prophets of Baal and Elijah to each build an altar and to prepare a bull for a sacrifice. The true God will be able to set the altar ablaze with no help from His prophets. The prophets of Baal fail—their bull remains one rare piece of meat. When it's Elijah's turn, he does something remarkable. He orders four large pots of water to be poured onto the bull and the altar—so much water that it fills a trench that's been dug around the altar. Despite the soaked wood, God consumes Elijah's offering with fire from heaven.

But did you catch that detail? Elijah has water poured on the sacrifice—and not just a little water either. In the middle of a severe drought, God is still supplying his stubborn and rebellious people with life-giving water. Brooks and rivers still flow throughout the land. Water is scarce, but it is still there. God still supplies what His people need.

Our God is a good God, sending rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. And even when the rain stops, He has mercy on those who thirst.