Visual. Demanding. Activist. Sensual. All of these adjectives are employed to describe a generation defined not so much by age as by interests. There is an audience out there that goes to the movies (often), watches television series (religiously), doesn't leave home without an iPod (ever), wears kitten heels and/or low-rider jeans (when appropriate) and sees "Gospel" on the cover of a book and stops short.
From sleek packaging and series branding to book/short-film combos, publishers are pulling out all the stops to sell to both committed Christians and the spiritually adrift the widest possible array of nonfiction and fiction—books that reach well beyond traditional theology to appeal to the eyes and ears of a pop-fluent group demanding more than the spoon-fed beliefs of Sunday religion.
Lyn Cryderman, v-p and publisher at Zondervan, calls this cohort the "Spiritually Intrigued." But what is the best way to reach this market, which he reckons at 32 million souls? "By deliberately seeking Christian authors that engage culture instead of run from, isolate or fight it. People primarily—though not exclusively—between the ages of 18 and 34 are not getting their spiritual direction at church, nor are they expecting to." Cryderman further explains, "Faith not only needs to intersect with the world, but it needs to make the world a better place. Faith has to make a difference."
Terry Mattingly, syndicated columnist, blogger and author of Pop Goes Religion: Faith & Culture in America (W Publishing Group, Nov.), also believes the key to good religion writing is engagement with culture. "People are worshipping at all kinds of new altars," Mattingly writes. "If you study the statistics, the typical modern American is much more likely to be exposed to a new religious insight or doctrine at the mall or the movie multiplex than in a traditional sanctuary."
Journalists are particularly adept at mediating between the religious impulses and pop instincts of the current crop of readers. For the first title of a new imprint bearing her name, SarahCrichton, senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, chose The God Factor (Mar., 2006), a collection of conversations about all things divine with musicians, novelists and politicians, among others (including Playboy's Hugh Hefner) by Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter Cathleen Falsani.
Why launch her imprint with a religion title? "Religion has very broad appeal," Crichton explains. "We are a nation of seekers of one kind or another, particularly post-9/11." Author Falsani tells PW these seekers are fascinated by "what God means in a contemporary context" to such culture heroes as Bono and Barack Obama.
Popular culture has long worn the cloak of the divine. For centuries, songs, images and saints have transported us and turned placid decades into Great Awakenings. Charismatic spirits wandering among the masses, statues rumored to shed tears, visions, song and all that is tactile have historically grounded the average person's faith. Yet to many church officials and cultural elites, pop corrupts and bestselling pop corrupts absolutely. So average Americans are left to their own devices when it comes to making sense of the world conveyed on the big and small screens, the radio and the Internet.
Times are changing, however. Jossey-Bass editor Julianna Gustafson believes that "there is a bigger cry for Christians to engage with popular culture. While there are groups that say we should react against it, there are still more arguing that we must grapple with it, trying to find the ways in which pop culture both challenges and illuminates faith." Gustafson offered Dick Staub's Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters (Mar., 2005) as an example of this type of bridge building.
Chad Allen, acquisitions editor for Baker Books, adds that the idea for Spender Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi's Behind the Screen (Baker Books, Nov.) initially came from a speech in which Nicolosi—executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians trying to break into the movie business—urged "Christian writers to write for Hollywood rather than taking the view that Hollywood is doomed to hell," Allen explains. The book is a collection of essays by Christian screenwriters who explore how faith plays a role in story lines and scripts for television and film.
In anticipation of Disney's on-screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, publishers are scrambling for the attention of book buyers with an array of fall Narnia offerings. Some 35 books and even more allied products are entering this crowded market, but Robert Hosack, senior acquisitions editor at Baker Books, is still confident about the prospects for their contribution to the mix, Inside Narnia by Devin Brown (Sept.). "The opportunity to tie into the movie was too important to overlook," he says.
This year also sees the emergence of books with edgy messages about the gospel and even edgier authors that stand behind them. In Jossey-Bass's subversive, Lemony Snicketesque Post-Rapture Radio (Apr., 2005), author and minister Russell Rathbun blurs the line between fiction and reality as he makes the case that "what passes for Christianity in America today isn't Christianity at all, but an anemic, fluorescent-lit, synthetic imposter," explains Gustafson. Rathbun's goal "is always to wake people up so that they really hear the gospel as if for the first time," she adds.
David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos, 2002), draws on everyone from Bob Dylan to the Coen Brothers as he takes on the idea of America "as a brand" in his new book, The Gospel According to America (Feb.). Dark sees his readers as those "who sense something a little paradoxical in our biblical-imagery talk as a country." America, he says, is "a principality in need of confession and repentance."
Gospel or Gospel?
Acts of reconciliation between religion and pop culture do not always serve a particular faith. Though the trend is toward Christian categories such as "gospel" and "sin," often these terms are emptied of Christian meaning long before they reach the bookstore. There "gospel" typically means nothing more than worldview, and whimsically packaged examinations of Lust by Simon Blackburn (2003), Gluttony by Francine Prose (2003), Envy by Joseph Epstein (2003), Anger by Robert Thurman (2004), Greed by Phyllis Tickle (2004), Sloth by Wendy Wasserstein (Jan., 2005) and Pride by Michael Eric Dyson (Mar., 2006) become playgrounds for cultural reflection by authors and playwrights in Oxford's Seven Deadly Sins series.
This year Westminster John Knox Press celebrates the 40th anniversary of its groundbreaking The Gospel According to Peanuts (1965). According to David Dobson, senior editor at WJK, when Peanuts was first released, "it was really cutting edge. People thought there was no good in popular culture, and it was almost heretical to draw connections between a comic strip and the gospel." The enduring popularity of Peanuts, which has sold more than 10 million copies in 15 different languages, led the press to launch its Gospel According To... series, which now extends to ...The Simpsons (2001), ...Harry Potter (2002), ...Disney (2004) and ...Oprah this fall (Sept.). According to Mark Pinsky, author of the Disney and the Simpsons volumes, the word gospel "has entered into the territory of the generic."
Using "Gospel" to adorn book covers is not limited to WJK's series. This month brought the publication of The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture (Peter Lang, Aug.). A collection of scholarly essays edited by B.J. Oropeza, it will surely appeal to fans of the X-Men, the Hulk and Neo alike, and its foreword is by the comic book man himself, Stan Lee.
If gospel is up for grabs, why not sin, too? Elda Rotor, the editor behind Oxford's Seven Deadly Sins volumes, which were based on a series of lectures co-sponsored with the New York Public Library, had whimsy rather than mission in mind when she began thinking about how to package these books.
"There was a lot of debate in-house about the covers," Rotor says. "One group wanted classic medieval paintings, but I wanted them to convey an almost id-like rawness as well as humor." Rotor won out. The entire series is packaged with almost childlike solid color covers illustrated by a related "doodle" to ruminate on while reading. Rotor explains that the series views "sin as a measure not just of spiritual but of secular life. The series does remove the [concept of] deadly sins from its origins in Christian theology, placing it instead in the wider world of ethics."
Books in religion and pop culture are as varied as pop culture itself, but perhaps there is a shared message here (call it the Gospel of the Genre), namely that to be in touch with the popular is to be in touch with reality. Those who are fluent in this tongue are also blessed with the ability to reach the average seeker. Numerous publishers have devoted considerable resources to acquiring books whose authors have this particular gift.
Is this tearing away of gospel, sin and even God from their religious roots a step forward or a step back? That remains to be seen. And heard. And designed. And digitally streamed. And written.
Donna Freitas is assistant professor of religion at St. Michael's College and author of Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us (Jossey-Bass).