Last week, a friend texted me a photo of the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS), from Orlando. This is the big annual summertime convention of the Christian Booksellers’ Association (CBA). I’ve attended 17 of them, but have missed the last couple years.
It doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore. The texted photo was a stark reminder why.
A pair of feet resting on a wooden bench came into view from the left side of the image, and everywhere else, I saw vast empty space on the showroom floor. Huge aisles, camouflaged somewhat with nice benches. Still, the effect was unmistakable: CBA is in decline.
Oh of course, official sources will strongly disagree. They have to disagree.
You could drive a semi down the aisles of ICRS, and dodge a few tumbleweeds in the process. This is a huge step down from the organization’s heyday of the 1990s. Then, huge, elaborate and expensive booths dotted the landscape. The boomtown was driven by a healthy economy and a still-Christian culture.
That is no longer the case.
Of course there are many reasons for the decline in CBA; certainly the economy is a huge factor and it’s legitimate to say so. However, there are other reasons that mainstream publishers do not want to acknowledge, because they go to the very heart of the issue.
As I’ve said for some time, the theological corruption in CBA is the 8,000-to-infinity-pound gorilla. Featuring the books of Brian McLaren, Karl Barth and Phyllis Tickle (to name, sadly, only a few) is akin to our military allowing enemy soldiers within its ranks.
Needless to say, my musings here won’t actually do anything to reverse course, but I say it anyway. Often, cutting out the real poisonous tissue is a bridge too far for those in the church. It’s easier in the short term to lament lesser issues, or even fabricate reasons.
The decline in CBA began decades ago, but a recent example is the publishing of Matthew Vines’ book, “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” by Convergent Books.
Convergent is an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, owned by Penguin Random House. The company also owns what I would call the formerly-Christian house known as Multnomah. The latter was sold to the big New York house in August 2006.
Upon the April 2014 publication of Vines’ book, Stephen W. Cobb, the “chief publishing executive of Waterbrook Press, Multnomah Books, Convergent Books, Image Books,” made the following statement:
It is important to know that WaterBrook, Multnomah, Convergent, and Image each have their own distinct editorial guidelines and missions. Convergent’s mission is to publish nonfiction for less traditional Christians and spiritual seekers who are drawn to an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith. As such, Matthew Vines’ new book is appropriately positioned as a Convergent publication. God and the Gay Christian is not published by WaterBrook or by Multnomah – nor would it be editorially appropriate for either.
This is window-dressing, and let me explain in detail what I mean by that.
In the 1990s, after the runaway success of such book series as “Hugs” (Howard Books), New York houses began gobbling up the largest and most financially-successful Christian houses. In my view, those houses ceased to be Christian, insofar as they were prior to the sales. While there is Christian staff in place here and there, the whole tone has shifted to a left-wing perspective. That’s why Cobb can tout publishing for “less traditional Christians.”
This way, secular publishing giants can pump new, leftist books into traditional religious circles, by calling Multnomah, for example, the “evangelical” imprint of Penguin Random House.
Here is the website description for Convergent:
Convergent Books is a home for exceptional, general market-oriented nonfiction from diverse Christian perspectives. We publish transformative, faith-informed books that shape culture, and help our readers thrive as they integrate their faith into their daily lives.
The Convergent Books blog and website is a gathering place for people who are drawn to ideas and issues that touch on life and faith. This is a place to raise questions and possibilities, and to join an open discussion of spirituality, ethics, faith, social justice, theology, and everyday experience.
Look, what is going on is part of the wider cultural shift away from biblical Christianity. By and large, the most influential Christian publishing houses have aided this seismic shift by either jumping into the trough with the so-called Emergent Village (Baker Books), or by remaining silent when the William Paul Youngs of the publishing world were warmly welcomed by CBA.
One wonders what current CBA President Curtis Riskey thinks about all the heresy the group has tolerated. In 2012, Riskey assumed his new title after owning BASIC Books and Café in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Walking the tightrope between viable business options and orthodoxy has proven to be risky business for CBA, so don’t look for the current president to address this problem anytime soon.
One can speculate whether CBA/ICRS will emerge again in another glitzy venue for the summer convention, or whether the show will disappear, or perhaps morph into a scaled-down version in, say, a Peoria Holiday Inn.
What will one day emerge, though (I’m confident in saying), is that CBA’s opportunity to spread the actual Gospel was squandered long ago for the expediency of making money and rubbing elbows with the world.
Such a reality leaves a real empty feeling.