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No. 16 Copyright (c) 1993 James B. Jordan July, 1993


On the Making of Books

(Part 2)

by James B. Jordan


(Continued from Open Book 15).

How Most Christian Publishing Works

What we think of as publishing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Naturally, it came into being only after the invention of the printing press, but there are other factors as well. Modern publishing came into being because bookstores needed books to sell. The market for books created the publishing industry. The publishing industry then created the modern hack writer. I mean no o_ense by the term "hack writer," and I have been a hack writer in my time. It is part of apprenticeship.

How does it work? At the semi-annual planning session of Swell Christian Books, the editors sit around and try to imagine what kinds of books will be swell sellers this year. The latest thing in evangelical Christian circles is the 12-Step life-rehabilitation procedure used by Alcoholics Anonymous. (Caution: Don’t read this as my dismissing the 12-Step approach in toto. I cannot wholly embrace all its features, but it is not all bad either.) At any rate, the editors decide that Swell Christian Books needs to get into the 12-Step market. There is money to be made there. So they map out a set of 12 books dealing with 12 kinds of psychological addiction (booze, drugs, anorexia nervosa, pornography, homosexuality, co-dependency, the Democratic Party [opps!], dumpster-dwelling, etc.).

Now they need Big Names to "write" these books. They do a little research and _nd that the Association of Evangelical Shrinks is made up entirely of practicing counsellors with Ph.Ds. The mice who work for Swell Christian Books _nd out who might "author" which book, and sign on 12 "authors."

The next step is to get the hack writers to actually write the books. The hack writer listens to tapes of lectures given by the 12 Big Names. Perhaps some of the Big Names actually provide a draft of a book. The hack writer writes up the book, introducing each of the (12) chapters in the book with a gripping and tear-jerking yet hope-_lled story.

These books will be published in hardcover, but the pages will be glued so that the books will never lie _at on the table (as opposed to being sewn in signatures—the little bunches of pages you see when you look at the book from the bottom or top). Sharp "1990s-Focus" cover designs are commissioned. The books will be marketed at the Christian Booksellers Convention. They will make the required splash. In two-three years, they will be forgotten.

Now folks, that is how most pro_t-making publishers put out books. Of course there are exceptions. Charles Swindoll, I am told, writes his own books, and they are published because he has acquired a reputation. But you know that if an unknown person submitted a manuscript of equal quality, it would probably not be published.

Let me make my position plain: This is not evil. Such books perform a real service, and they have their place. But we need to understand that this is why most popular Christian publishers don’t publish any really serious books.

The best such publishers ever issue are mid-range serious books (such as my own Through New Eyes). Books like these don’t sell very well, however, and when a publisher puts one out (only a couple per year), it is usually a labor of love. One of the largest Christian publishers in America, and one of the best, told me that they put out a lot of schlock (decent schlock, but still schlock) in order to make the money necessary to do a few really good books per year, which they call their "mission books."

Another problem with pro_t-making Christian publishers is this: They aren’t professional churchmen and don’t know much theology. The result is that year by year we see the publication of books that are appalling in their theology, but which are marketed as conservative evangelical books. A few years ago, for instance, Crossway Books published a book on child-rearing that will _lled with grossly Pelagian (heretical) ideas gleaned from a 19th century unitarian educator. The authoress of this book was a daughter of Francis Schae_er, and so the publishers probably thought she knew what she was writing about.

Another example is the stream of books coming from the "Mary Pride" school of thought. A continuing refrain in these books is the sinfulness of using any kind of family planning technique ("birth control"). One of the arguments routinely trotted out is that birth control "interferes with the sovereignty of God," and is therefore wrong. Now, it does not take much knowledge of theology to realize that it is impossible to interfere with the sovereignty of God, by de_nition and in fact. Whatever you think of birth control, this argument is silly. Of course, this point does not occur to most people until it is pointed out to them, which is why they are not theologians. A theologian, however, spots the error instantly. These publishers should make use of the use of theologically trained editors before putting such books on the market.

Well, there is money to be made from quackodox books on family life, fruitcake books on "Bible prophecy," and sensationalistic books on the "new age." Christian publishers are in the business of making money by catering to an audience addicted to sensationalism. While such publishers are, of course, concerned also with truth and accuracy, such concerns do not usually occupy the driver’s seat.

The best we _nd from such publishers—and they do publish some good books—are books dealing with current family issues and social issues. Seldom do we see a book dealing with more fundamental theological and philosophical matters.

That’s just how it is in the world of the free market. There is no point in complaining about it. But it leaves a serious gap in the world of Christian publication.

How Serious Books Are Published

How, then, do serious books get into print? Through sponsorship. For instance, Crossway Books published the Turning Point series a couple of years back. These books dealt with a variety of subjects at a mid-range serious level. They were well-researched and characterized by good information and re_ection. They were not, on the whole, theologically penetrating and acute, though some were better than others. And they were by and large typically American in that they dealt with social issues from a kind of generally Christian perspective without taking into consideration the dynamic center of the Christian faith: the Church. But even so, they were far too serious to be major sellers for the company. So how did they get into print? They were underwritten by a non-pro_t foundation.

Most serious books come from non-pro_t publishers. In the secular world, these are usually university presses. The non-Protestant churches have church-controlled presses, or publishing houses that are denominational in character, such as the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Notre Dame University Press, and the remarkable Ignatius Press. Liberal Protestants also have such publishing houses, such as Westminster Press, John Knox, Fortress, and the like. Now, a lot of what all of these publishers put out is denominational schlock, but they also put out serious theological works as well.

By serious theological works I mean books that deal with the deep "philosophical" issues of life in a way that shows sustained re_ection and careful thought. Books like this are virtually non-existent in conservative Protestantism today, and you may never have seen one. Calvin’s Institutes is a good example. Now, the Institutes is a very large book, but not all serious theological works are so large. Van Til’s, for instance, are smaller. (Some are larger, like Barth’s Church Dogmatics.) Ignatius Press, for instance, puts out English translations of the works of Louis Bouyer, Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Henri Cardinal de Lubac. These are works of sustained argument. There is no "_u_" in them. I cannot imagine Ignatius Press’s editors telling these men that they need to write in a more "popular" vein. Can you imagine Calvin’s being told that? Now, I myself write in a more popular style, but my point here is this: Virtually nobody writes this way in conservative Protestantism today, because there is nobody to publish such material. And even if you as a "layman" cannot read such stu_, it is very important for you that such foundation-building and well-digging work be done, and that people read it, so that the insights can "trickle down" through more popular writers to you.

But where are the theological publishers of conservative Protestant books? A few trickle out from the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. For a while, the Institute for Christian Economics published books on a few issues relating to its interests, but they are now cutting back. Every now and then a "mission book" comes from Baker Book House. Kregel reprints serious books from the last century. Can you think of any more? The serious books from Eerdmans are usually liberal.

Ask yourself this: Who would publish the massive theological tomes of the Reformation era today? I’m thinking not only of Calvin’s Institutes but the large proto-systematic theologies by Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer, and others. And how about Calvin’s and Bucer’s commentaries on the Bible? Nobody would publish them today, because such men would spend virtually no time interacting with liberalism and instead would expound the text. Moreover, they were not afraid to engage in theological re_ection on the text of the Bible, something that is very rare in conservative commentaries today. (Such re_ection is regarded as the duty of preachers, not of commentators, and the result is that nobody does it at all.)

Well, then, how did such books get published at the time of the Reformation? Answer: Rich people put up the money to publish them. Serious scholarship has always been sponsored by "princes" with vision.

Trans_guration Press

We have started up Trans_guration Press as a publishing arm of Biblical Horizons , which is a non-pro_t organization. Our reason is simple: There is virtually nobody who can or will publish the kind of material we write. What we write, and what Trans_guration Press will publish, does not _t any of the publishers presently in operation in America.

First of all, we are orthodox Protestants of the Reformed faith. That eliminates most publishers.

Second, we are committed to the Church and to a revival of Biblical worship as the center of the Kingdom. That eliminates most "issues-oriented" publishers, who don’t want anything about infant baptism, the Lord’s Supper, psalmody, liturgy, etc. mixed in with discussions of abortion and pornography. American evangelicalism wants to believe it can address social issues apart from theology, ecclesiology, and liturgics.

Third, we do a lot of Bible exposition that is theological in character. Modern conservative Bible commentaries do two things well: they prove liberals wrong, and they deal with the nuts and bolts of grammar and vocabulary. What they don’t provide is theological re_ection. That is what we do, but that kind of Bible commentary, though common a century ago, has largely disappeared from view today. Evangelicals are on the defensive, and when they comment on the Bible they provide the bare minimum of re_ection on the text. We, on the other hand, seek to milk the Word for all we can get out of it. We are just not in tune with the modern spirit at this point. (Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good modern commentaries, but there are not many.)

Fourth, we sometimes write on matters that are obscure because they have been overlooked in the modern Americanized evangelical world. Things like symbolism and ritual. We believe that the perspectives that such overlooked matters provide can help shake modern Christianity out of its "dogmatic slumber." Right now, however, such discussions are too far out on the "cutting edge" to be published by the usual publishers. They don’t see the mind-transforming power of a study of the Tabernacle or of the dietary laws, probably because most studies of these things are rather mind-numbing.

I guess the bottom line is that we are interested in true scholarship. True scholarship is not the preserve of rari_ed academics. It is a conversation that it open to anyone. But not everyone is a creative scholar. Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner has described the creative scholar this way in a newpaper article:

Now, in a Christian way I think these things are true of the circle of writers and thinkers loosely associated with Biblical Horizons . They way Neusner sets it out, his _rst two points sound like the autonomous mind in action, and as Christians we are seeking to rethink matters and ask questions from a rigorously Biblical perspective. Neusner’s last two points smack of idolatry, as if the scholar is so committed to his work that he sees all of life in terms of it. As Christians, we take ourselves less seriously. But what Neusner is getting at in the way of how certain people think is very true. Some people are creative as regards intellectual matters. Biblical Horizons is on the creative cutting edge and that is one reason why our work is not easy to categorize and why it does not _t into the slots that exist in the current publishing world.

We live in an age that is ending, in a civilization that is falling apart because its mixed foundations have cracked apart. For that reason, it is most important that serious Christians do the kinds of rethinking and take the kinds of intellectual initiatives Neusner refers to.

We at Biblical Horizons are not the only people engaged in this kind of Biblically-grounded rethinking, of course, but we must do the best we can with our resources. That is why we have started Trans_guration Press.