July 22, 2002
Of Sociology, Theology, and Bibliography
-- Martin E. Marty
To publish is, by definition, to go public. So religious publishing fits our category of "public religion." Evangelical publishing has gone public in such impressive ways that secular publishers compete for its authors and markets, and some (bad) evangelical fiction has topped the best-seller lists. What the millions of evangelical buyers and readers buy and read has become, then, a public matter.
Thirty years ago Dean Kelley, in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion (HarperCollins, 1972) started a tradition followed by many sociologists of religion and church strategists. He and they thought that doctrinally-rigid, theologically-firm, dogmatically-sure bodies making high demands grow and prosper, and that it is their doctrinal-theological-dogmatic specialty that promotes the prosperity. The corollary was and is that cultural-appeasers, Catholic and mainline Protestant, languish.
Not so simply, observes and complains Gene Edward Veith in the July 13, 2002 issue of World -- neither enemies of evangelical publishing. In "You Are What You Read," Veith points out that last year evangelical publishers earned $1.7 billion, or sixteen percent of the take for all books sold. He notes that most buyers are women; that "family-women-men" is the topic of forty percent of these books. Fine, as far as it goes, says Veith.
Everything he finds, however, confutes the thesis of Kelley, et al. Veith's findings: None of the top one hundred sellers at stores linked to the Christian Booksellers Association, the evangelical domain, deal with serious theology. Only four "could be described as even popular theology." Three books on apologetics are the only ones focusing evangelicals on evangelism. Only six are about the Bible. Only four are about Christ. Only two are about the Holy Spirit. Angels make it only in the ninety-ninth spot, in a book by Billy Graham. Only one book is about the church, and it is a strategy-for-success book. God comes up not theologically but experientially or relationally. The Christian life is about what "we" do, not what God does. "There is only one book directly about the gospel, that our salvation comes from being forgiven, thanks to God's grace through the work of Christ." In most books "salvation is by works after all."
The Christianity of the evangelical best-seller list, he says, is "personal, private, and interior," not communal or theological. Many of the "inspirational" books have "no, or very little and generalized, Christian comment." There is "pop psychology, self-help, and positive thinking -- but no law, no gospel -- there is little with which a nonbeliever would disagree." Veith, using categories of H. Richard Niebuhr, sees almost all of them as demonstrations that popular evangelicalism is now also in the "cultural appeasers" camp.
Sociologists of religion have reason to revise their theses.