Not everyone agrees that religion has a role in politics. But that it has something important to say about social problems outside a political context should be obvious. Right?
"Addressing social issues is at the heart of Christianity," says Lyn Cryderman, v-p and publisher for books at Zondervan. Yet in discussing a forthcoming Zondervan title, Craig Gross's The Dirty Little Secret: Uncovering the Truth Behind Porn (May), Cryderman acknowledged that books on touchy topics that affect people of faith personally were once not so easy to publish or to sell. That is changing, as a crop of controversial new books with religious themes demonstrates.
Craig Gross is a young pastor with an informal personal style and a grunge haircut who founded the antiporn Web site XXXchurch.com. With an initial printing of 20,000, his book is aimed at regular people whose lives have been damaged by pornography, especially the spouses and parents of individuals with a porn addiction. Pornography, of course, is not a new phenomenon. But the idea that traditionally minded Christians would feel comfortable purchasing a book on the subject—well, that's new indeed.
Conservative Christian publishers are thus entering previously unexplored territories. But so are the religiously liberal. Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press, embarked on a new publishing program three years ago when he learned of the mega-bestselling Left Behind series of novels with their themes of Armageddon and Anti-Christ. "I was flabbergasted," says Nash. "I had no idea this stuff existed. It was so bigoted!"
He realized, he says, that "there's something bigger going on here," referring to the powerful combustion produced when religion seeks to have a direct impact on the way society is organized.
Since being rocked by the news that reactionary spiritual forces are seeking to agitate the populace, Nash has been fighting back with a series of admittedly smaller books. He calls the genre "spiritual activism"—a buzzword parallel to but different in meaning from what Zondervan's Lyn Cryderman calls "faith-based activism." Roughly speaking, "spiritual activism" usually means seeking to influence people's spiritual lives in a liberal direction, while "faith-based activism" means doing so along traditional lines.
Soft Skull's biggest title in the genre, with a first printing of 15,000, is Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson by Elizabeth Adams (June), a celebratory biography of the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop. Other books Nash has in the works, with first printings in the 4,000— 5,000 range, include Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire by Michael Standaert (May) and The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism by an HIV-positive yoga instructor, Michael McColly (June).
Sex Is Hot
Anything to do with sex is likely to be the hottest social issue with religious implications. No surprise there. Yet the author of at least one of these books professes himself to be surprised at having written the book he did.
That's Jack Rogers, Presbyterian minister and author of Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Westminster John Knox, Mar.). Before being roped into working on a church task force on the subject of homosexuality and the Bible, Rogers says, "I was a conservative on the issue, though I had never thought about it much." But studying the issue "though the lens of Jesus' life and ministry" finally convinced Rogers that his former conservative view was wrong. "People who are homosexual should be given full rights of membership in the church... we in the church are not living according to the ideals of ... Jesus Christ when we discriminate unjustly against any group of people in our midst," he writes.
Redemption from Racism
As suggested by the number of titles dealing with homosexuality as a morally acceptable behavior, most of these new books fall into the liberal "social-activism" subgenre. The same pattern can be observed when we turn from sexuality to other issues.
Among books dealing with religion and race, there is an emphasis on civil rights and interracial relations, as in Sideswiped by Eternity: Sermons from Ebenezer Baptist Church (the historic African-American church in Atlanta associated with the Civil Rights movement) by Joseph L. Roberts Jr. (Westminster John Knox, Apr.); Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America's Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. by Michael G. Long (Palgrave, Aug.); and Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South: The Stuff That Makes Community by Danny Duncan Collum (Paulist Press, Mar.).
It's the Environment
Is global warming a social issue? Probably. In which case, consider Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action by Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth (Chelsea Green, Apr.). This title shows how far the genre mixing religion with social problems has penetrated to parts of the publishing industry that don't normally deal with religious themes at all. Chelsea Green is a small independent press that does most of its publishing on environmental "sustainability."
In explaining the growth of the genre, the press's editor-in-chief, John Barstow, pointed to the phenomenal success of Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, which encourages readers to see a divinely ordained plan in their life experiences. From that to "activism," whether "spiritual" or "faith-driven," is just a small step. Barstow also notes the Bush administration's embrace of religion as a blueprint for governance. "Religion feels it can influence government, so it gets involved, but the playbook may be surprising," he says, meaning that once religion is unleashed to change the direction in which society moves, it may do so in any number of directions, conservative or liberal.
What may drive reader excitement is not so much the subject matter or any particular religious or theological angle, as personal experiences; without that, says acquisitions editor Daniel T. Michaels at Liguori Publications, "social issues are hard to sell." An August title from Liguori, Homelessness: Where There's Hope, There's Life: Real Stories and Pastoral Implications, tells the stories of troubled, transient women. Michaels was inspired to travel to Chicago to meet the women who are the subjects of the book.
Craig Gross, the antiporn pastor, is another example. His book, The Dirty Little Secret, will ride the success of his Web site, which boasts 60 million visitors over the past four years. The fascination seems to lie in the stories Gross tells about his own and other people's lives.