The Common Good
December 2004

The People Of The Books

by Phyllis Tickle | December 2004

The written word isn't going away anytime soon, and religion's effect on the publishing industry is part of the reason.

Centuries ago,

Centuries ago, it was observed that "Of the making of many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That is still true today. In this country, not only have we been about the making of many, many books in recent years - more than 175,000 new titles and editions last year alone - but there also appears to be no surcease in sight.

Over the past decade, the number of new titles coming out from U.S. book publishers has increased 50.8 percent, an unheard of rate of growth for an industry notorious only a few years ago for its turtle-like deliberateness. In 2003 alone, the industry’s output of new titles and editions grew by 19 percent over that of 2002, and every indicator points to another record year in 2004. For most of this decade-plus of record growth, religion has been the fastest-growing segment of trade publishing in the country, ceding place only once or twice to children’s publishing.

Religion publishing’s unprecedented growth was initially a reflection of circumstances having more to do with religion itself than with publishing. For a number of cultural, political, and social reasons that came up out of the 1960s and deeply affected the late ’80s and the early ’90s, Americans’ inquiries about spiritual matters began to take place less and less frequently in pastors’ studies and more and more often in the quiet back corners where most bookstores shelved their religion titles in those days. Conversations about God likewise slipped from being theology to being God-talk and, shortly thereafter, to god-talk, just as they drifted from being the purview of the seminary to being the stuff of earnest, water-cooler preoccupations.

America was rediscovering the sacred; yet ironically it was finding the accouterments of renewed faith not in formal religion, but in a kind of generic or nondoctrinal spirituality, especially in the kind a seeker could read about in books, investigate on the Internet, and discuss in small groups. As books, the Internet, and the small-group phenomenon began increasingly to cross-reference and excite each other, theology became democratized, and the book enjoyed pride of place as a means for pursuing the care and feeding of one’s soul. That trend continues, though it has been tempered a bit and has taken on different and more varied modes, emphases, and purposes since.

Perhaps the most remarkable shift happened during the mid- to late-’90s, when god-talk gradually morphed from being primarily a subject for didactic or studied investigation to being one susceptible as well to an entertainment or fictional approach. Most industry observers cite Della Reese’s Touched By An Angel, launched in 1995, as the first firm evidence that a shift to entertainment theology was in full swing. Reese’s Angel established as well the commanding place of prime-time commercial television in popular spirituality and general religion. That movement toward entertainment theology was, by decade’s end, to extend into cinema, where movies such as The Truman Show, Dogma, Magnolia, and American Beauty led straight to The Matrix, perhaps the century’s most compelling piece, at a popular level, of pure theology. No longer able to claim pride of place, the book became instead first among equals in the country’s religious conversations.

But book publishers are smart people, and their shift to accommodate a shifting public was so seamless as to be almost unremarked at first. In the mid-’90s, both religion and general trade houses quietly began to emphasize story-telling titles within their religion and spirituality programs. As a result, a category of religion publishing that has never had a completely adequate or comfortable name for itself mushroomed. Whether one calls it Inspirational Fiction, or Faith Fiction, or Religious Fiction, or by its sectarian names of Jewish Fiction or New Age Fiction or Christian Fiction or any other of several possible titles, the operative fact is that the genre ran like the proverbial wildfire through prairie grass. The most visible proof text for this was, of course, the Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye Left Behind series that has sold more than 60 million copies to date and topped the national best-seller lists for two years.

Currently it is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which managed to bump Jenkins-LaHaye out of the top slots) that testifies to the lusty good health of religion fiction. It testifies as well to two other characteristics of today’s market. First, unlike the Left Behind books, which were published by a religion publisher, Tyndale House, The Da Vinci Code was published by Doubleday, a commercial house. The "crossing over," as it is called in the trade, of large commercial houses into the religion market and, conversely, of religion houses like Tyndale into the traditionally secular market has changed the face not only of American publishing, but also that of book retailing in this country.

Because of the apparently insatiable demand for books about religious and spiritual matters, big box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, discount retailers such as Sam’s Club and Costco, and gargantuan e-tailers such as Amazon have become major accounts for both religion houses and the religion divisions of general trade publishers. They have also, in effect, become outlets of choice for hundreds of sectarian books such as the phenomenally successful The Purpose-Driven Life or, a bit earlier, Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez, books that 10 years ago would have been essentially limited to sectarian bookshops as the principal means of accessing readers. Nothing succeeds like success, of course, and as the secular audience for religion books has grown, so has secular access to them; and as access has broadened, so has the audience. The result of this upward spiral has been a blurring of the lines in religion publishing between the commercial and the pastoral and/or missional as the prime consideration in acquisition and marketing just as, paradoxically, it has also produced a dramatic decrease in the number of independent religion bookstores in this country.

The Da Vinci Code exemplifies as well something that is perhaps the most pervasive motif in popular religion at the moment across all media, namely medievalism. Or to give it a more judicious label, pseudo- or quasi- or neo-medievalism. It is as if in these post-Enlightenment, postmodern, post-denominational days, the country searches again for mystery. And the last place we can remember hearing of folk who engaged it - folk who heard holy voices that had no human origin, who entertained visions that had no physical explanation, who walked in thin places and saw out of the corner of the eye - those folk and those holy things happened before the Reformation and the Age of Reason. Those things happened in the Middle Ages, and so we go looking for the stories of them as if for a way to re-enter the Mystery to which they bear witness.

Thus we find ourselves awash at a popular level in the neo-medievalism not only of Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but also of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or, for that matter, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or of Harry Potter and his wonder-soaked adventures or of Joan of Arcadia, whose very name resonates with the history it seeks to revisit. And the list goes on: the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy, the popularity of Taize worship, and the presence of monks and chants in ads selling everything from colas to cell phones. Even The Matrix fits squarely within this present motif, but it speaks to another as well.

The Matrix began life not as a work of cinema, but as a graphic novel. At the time the Wachowski brothers were originally working out their brilliant romp through all of Western intellectual history, they were experts in pen and ink, brush and pencil. The only difficulty was that a decade ago the graphic novel was simply not part of the literary landscape for most adult readers. Perhaps the most dramatic change in religion publishing - or certainly one of the most consequential in terms of the long haul - has been the bursting forth of the graphic novel into rampant popular acceptance and critical credibility.

Combining the current aesthetics of visual image with the more modernist one of verbal art, the graphic novel has arrived at an integration of the two that frequently packs a wallop far more profound and subtle than either the icon or the word alone could deliver. And by its own history, the graphic novel is inextricably tied to the struggle between good and evil or, bluntly put, to religion. One has only to look at the work of Neil Gaiman to appreciate the depth of theology being probed here, or Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume Buddha, or the Jewish Publication Society’s Jews In America, now in its fifth printing, to perceive the breadth of what can be conveyed here.

There is another face to medievalism, of course, and that is the gradual, but now blossoming, return to more ancient ways of devotion and to the notion of spiritual discipline as a necessary part of religious maturity. And it is here that the book continues to hold primacy of place. Titles about lay monasticism, Ignatian or Benedictine spirituality, fixed-hour prayer, the observation of Sabbath as holy time, the practice of fasting - such titles as these continue to grow in number and market share. They are also, by definition, the province of the book, for they require a repetitive access and a gentle engagement not natural to either the Internet or the cinema.

As generic spirituality continues to mature into more doctrinally specific spirituality, however, and as organized religion continues to dance back and forth between ecumenism and sectarian triumphalism, and as knowledge of other ways of being continues to become more generally accessible, religion publishing will also find itself - indeed, already is finding itself - in the position of having to produce popular books on ever-weightier subjects such as the theology of religion or the role of consciousness in human faith and moral responsibility. This kind of thought-heavy work does not thrive in isolation; instead, it demands conversation for assessment and elucidation. And here the Net and publishers’ shrewd use of the blogs and chat rooms it provides are already birthing a whole new conceptualization of religion publishing as a more open-ended process, one in which publisher involvement with a volume does not reach its natural conclusion with the deployment of books to retailing outlets, but rather continues to appertain through the ongoing engagement of a book’s content.

How much melding of media we will see in the near future of religion publishing, or what the repercussions of such cross-fertilization will be for the various media involved, no one knows. Everyone is very clear, however, about the fact that in religion at least, the book is here to stay for as long as the imagination can imagine or the heart, as well as the mind, can long for instruction.

Phyllis Tickle, one of the most respected authorities on religion publishing today, is the author of some two dozen books, most of them on religion.

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