Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Christian publishing and print culture

Al Hsu has a very informative post on whether Christian publishing is a business, a ministry, or both. This is especially relevant to me since, as some of you know, I am writing a thesis on Christian publishing and cultural accomodation in the UK, exploring in particular the roles and spaces Christian publishers carve out for themselves. I think Al's post summarises succintly all the main issues and tensions inherent in Christian publishing.

Actually, my thesis isn't all that impressive, contrary to what some may think! This is partly due to factors such as lack of time and accessibility to sources, as well as the fact that this is the first time I'm engaging in proper research, so I'm still learning to come to terms with methodological issues. And in the end, I don't do that much primary research, so I'm not making some wonderful original contribution. Although having said that, it was pointed out to me that the collation of secondary research is itself a contribution to research! I'll take that...

It's been interesting work, nonetheless, although the constraints of time meant that I've been doing lots and lots of scanning instead of being able to read in-depth! Due to some of the stuff I'm reading, I've taken a more historical perspective than I expected when I first started doing my literature review. I've been particularly interested in just how the seemingly simple notion that a person could learn to read the Bible for himself unleashed a huge chain of socio-political ramifications, and I'll love to read more on that in the future. (I see Alister McGrath's new book arrives at precisely the right time!) Anyway, I thought some of you might be interested in some of the things I've been looking at.

Evangelicals have always had a love affair of sorts with mass media, and this can be traced back to the invention of printing. Since words are now translated from mere sounds to symbols upon a page, there was a fixity about them that made geographical boundaries irrelevant, as people of the faith could now rally around a common set of documents. The Puritans, for example, emphasised the instruction of reading since this was a basic skill needed for knowledge of the Scriptures. At the same time, ironically, this undermines the community since these instruments of literacy could be used for individualistic ends. In other words, you didn't need to depend on an authority figure to tell you what to believe in. What is particularly interesting is that some have found the seeds or impulses for today's consumer culture here. Nathan Hatch, who is a historian of American Christianity, talks about how religious communication became the property of the "sovereign audience". Vincent Miller, commenting on the structure of consumerism today, writes: " [People] encounter religion in a commodified form, where doctrines, symbols, values, and practices are torn from their traditional, communal contexts. In such a setting it is quite easy to construct hybrid religiosities abstracted from particular communities."

The thing about publishing, therefore, is that it gives you access to both wisdom and nonsense. It helps delineate certain boundaries which help build a stronger sense of identity while simultaneously allowing for the possibility of the undermining of that community. There is also a tension between a desire to be countercultural whilst wishing to engage it at the same time. One of the interesting things that a publisher I interviewed said to me was that the conditions of postmodernity meant that it was possible at least to get the Christian point of view out into the marketplace of ideas, although another publisher was more circumspect about this; he felt that the "scandal of particularity" of Christianity meant that access to the general market is still hard to come by, although it is possible. As Al Hsu pointed out, the ability to find alternative avenues of distribution and the "long tail" theory means that it is perhaps now more viable to get more special-interest books out there than previously.

It's likely that finding something topical gives a Christian publisher some access to general distribution lines: witness both the God Delusion and the Dawkins Delusion. (Although interestingly, as a Christian response, the lesser-known Dawkins Letters has actually outsold the Dawkins Delusion!) I also find it quite amusing that the same publisher, via different imprints, is able to publish both Christopher Hitchens and Joyce Meyer.

I suppose this discussion is interesting too since it relates to questions in the field of hermeneutics, which is where a lot of the action is this days in Christian scholarship, eg. the role of interpretation in the church and by the church etc. etc.

I do think Christian publishers play a valuable role in the church worldwide, and it looks like there needs to be more thinking done into their role in today's climate, which would require someone with interdisciplinary prowess. That certainly rules me out!

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