A few years back when we were working on a new website for the Burnside Writers Collective, I consulted with a successful magazine publisher about what we were planning. I wanted advice from someone who’d made it work.
“The first thing I would do is drop the ‘Christian’ label,” he told me.
This took me aback. I appreciated that advice, but it wasn’t really what we were going for. We were dedicated to writing out of a Christian worldview, and obscuring that fact felt disingenuous. I told him this, and he understood, but he made it clear we were severely limiting our reach, because the general market sees the word “Christian” and dismisses it quickly. I can’t say I blame that process.
We face a similar dilemma with Burnside Books.
First, to any smartasses out there, I realize companies are not individuals, and are thus incapable of make a personal choice to follow Jesus. Maybe they will someday, when the machines overtake us. Until that day, being defined as a “Christian” publishing company means:
1) Acquiring books based on an author’s faith and a book’s religious themes, or on specific theological stances.
2) Selling books primarily to a Christian audience, often through a retailers specializing in Christian products or churches.
Our policy on acquiring books is we’re open to anything. We don’t need a book to have a message or an author to sign a statement of faith. If a book is good, it’s good, even if it espouses a stance directly contrary to our personal beliefs. We’d publish writing from an atheist Al Qaeda operative if it was interesting (and it probably would be if he/she could write decently).
Similarly, we don’t plan on selling our books through traditional Christian retailers. Not that we wouldn’t welcome it. LifeWay, Family Christian Bookstores, Christian Supply…barring censorship, every tchotchke-slinger with a booth at ICRS is perfectly welcome to fill shelves with our books.
That leaves the Christian audience thing.
Every Christian artist I’ve ever met wants to crossover to the general market. Every writer wants to be signed by NY publishers. Every band wants to be hailed by Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. Every publication wants to be taken seriously outside this little bubble we blew up around ourselves over the last half century. There’s nothing wrong with hoping one’s art is taken seriously by the world outside the Christian bubble. But it also doesn’t mean it’ll happen.
Since I started editing the Burnside Writers Collective 7-8 years ago, it’s been my big audacious dream to help change how Christians create and appreciate creativity. Maybe you don’t think there’s a problem, but when our defining art used to be this, and now it’s this, I’d say we’re in need of change.
Over the last 60+ years, the mainstream American evangelical church generally put less and less emphasis on artistic and intellectual pursuits. As a result, individuals prone to artistic or intellectual perspectives simply left the bubble. Some have left the culture, some have left the church, and some have left Christianity altogether.
I’m one of those people, and most of my friends and associates are, as well. Outside of a few exceptions, I no longer purchase, see, read, or hear products made within the bubble. If an album is good, I’ll listen to it. If a friend recommends a novel, I’ll read it. If a chicken sandwich is good, I’ll eat it. It’s not that I ignore my conscience completely, but I realized a long time ago that there was generally better art outside Christian culture than there was in.
But I am who I am, and those bubble people are my people. They are my people because I am part of the Church body. Ignoring Christian culture because art and intellectualism aren’t valued is understandable, but it also means there are less artists and intellectuals left, and it means those perspectives aren’t heard. It means kids raised in that bubble with artistic or intellectual bents don’t have similar voices to cling to. Most importantly, it means artists and intellectuals are missing out on the perspectives inside the bubble. Just because a culture is insular doesn’t mean it’s without value.
We want to put books out that would be interesting to anyone, but part of what makes, say, The Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce interesting is that Leslie Spencer’s story would be entirely different if she hadn’t been raised inside Christian culture. Part of what makes Gareth Higgins’ perspective on American films stems from his beliefs as a Christian, and how he views American culture. Our novels are something else entirely. They may have themes that touch on Christian faith, but those themes are addressed like they would be in A Prayer for Owen Meaney or The Brothers K, which is to say naturally and without shoehorned morality.
So that’s where we start. We don’t want to limit our market or be linked historically with mediocrity. But we also aren’t willing to pretend we’re something we’re not, that our connections aren’t in Grand Rapids and Nashville and Colorado Springs. Further, I want Christians to pick up our books and realize that censoring stories and content for the sake of cleaner moral lines doesn’t actually make books better. It makes them worse. Maybe someday there won’t be such pressure to choose one or the other. That would be nice. Maybe we’ll end up dropping the “Christian” label in a few years, but we may as well try and carve out our place in the world now.