December 17, 2010
The Christian Industrial Complex (Part 2)
Lack of imagination and not customers is what is killing Christian bookstores.
In light of all the exciting movements addressing world hunger and peace, many with Christians in the forefront, I really believe Christian stores should be pioneers and innovators, rather than chameleons. Selling fair trade coffee is a good start. But we have a long way to go. I just saw an iPod shaped like a cross. Ugh.
Right after I left the bookstore with the military flags, I dropped by an old-school general store (I was in my Tennessee homeland). It was charming to see the vintage lunch-boxes and wooden games, but what struck me aside from the nostalgia was how relevant some of the item at the general store are today. There were books on sustainable living and permaculture, books on urban farming and guides for identifying edible plants. There were books and how-to kits on the Appalachian arts –woodcraft, beekeeping, canning, quilting and pottery – arts that are in danger of extinction. I’m not one to buy lots of stuff at Christmas, but man I was tempted.
I guess that’s also why it’s so fun to go to Amish country for gifts – they seem pure and innocent in contrast to the plastic clutter of the malls. No doubt there are great Christian stores like Ten Thousand Villages, committed to selling stuff that matters, and in ways that reflect the values of Jesus and the dignity of people. But we have a long way to go… and I say “we,” because most of these Christian bookstores sell my books, so my lament is not at them but with them. But I am convinced that if the Christian bookstores continue to go bankrupt, it will not be a matter of accounting but a matter of imagination.
One of Philly’s last Christian bookstores just told me they were going out of business. The Crystal Cathedral in California with a whole line of Christmas tree decorations just announced its bankruptcy. Studies show that not only is the institutional church hemorrhaging economically, but the Christian industrial complex is in real bad shape too. That’s why it made me so sad to see the Christian bookstores selling flags and military paraphernalia at Christmas. What we need right now, especially in the world of Christian retail stores, is creativity and courage. We don’t simply need to ride the wave of the market. Instead we should be making new ripples for the Kingdom of God.
I hope the Christian bookstores continue to sell important things like the Bible, and good books, and stuff folks need like communion plates and candles. But what if alongside those things you could buy a book on how to make your own candles and communion plates? What if next Christmas you went into a Christian bookstore and saw gift cards for digging a well in Africa, or buying a flock of chickens for a family in Guatemala to start their own microbusiness? What if you could buy a phone card and contact info for a Christian in Iraq so you could become friends? That seems like a good way to celebrate the Savior who was born a homeless refugee.
What if, alongside the epistemology books you could find a book on woodworking—seems like the carpenter of Nazareth would dig that. Or what if you could buy not just the US flag, but a flag with every nation on earth represented – remembering that this is the season when we celebrate not that God that so-loved America, but that God that so-loved the world.
Long live the local Christian bookstore. Let’s keep dreaming… and hope our dreams come true.