We’ve heard it all before: church attendance is down; seminary enrollment is on a decline; Americans are selecting “none” when asked about religious affiliation—headline after headline declares either the irrelevance or obsolescence of religion.
Book sales, however, have proven a strength of the religious impulse. Religion publishing remains a billion-dollar industry, and, as publishers of textbooks, academic religion presses make up an important part of the business. These houses all report challenges, but each agrees that the category is strong.
Even when faced with changes, including AI and an increasing antipathy toward the humanities, there are “pockets of life and energy” within academic religion publishing, according to Jim Kinney, executive v-p, academic publishing, at the Baker Publishing Group. “I have seen lots of major changes over the years, both on the publishing side and on the higher ed side, with none being as catastrophic as some predicted,” he says. “So, I suspect we’ll figure out a way to navigate the changes on the horizon now.”
James Ernest, v-p and editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, says academic religious presses are impacted by the same demographic and cultural trends that are challenging seminaries and colleges today. “Some traditional areas in theological publishing are ailing or contracting because the schools that teach them are shrinking, or are being coopted by political forces,” he says. “Religion remains a powerful force, for good and for ill. We have to find the authors and books that the times require.”
Richard Brown, senior executive editor of religion and spirituality at Rowman & Littlefield, says, “I’m bullish on the future—but only if we acknowledge the changing institutional landscape and provide hope and actionable solutions to moral despair and injustice. We need to meet readers where they are and where they’re going, not where they used to be.”
Jon Boyd, associate publisher and academic editorial director at IVP, is “encouraged more than ever that there’s an audience for careful, advanced scholarship. We’re investing in experts who can communicate their insights powerfully without dumbing down anything and without buying into tired intramural disputes.”
Katya Covrett, v-p, publisher at Zondervan’s academic imprint, says the health of the category is robust. “We have fared well over the pandemic,” she explains. “But it is good to see academic publishing bouncing back to a more ‘normal’ rhythm, not least with the upcoming annual meetings back to a more-or-less familiar pace and level of energy.”
Exploring faith’s flexibility
New scholarly books on religion highlight rapidly changing attitudes and increased secularism in the U.S. Looking at American Christianity from the colonial period to the present, Turning Points in American Church History: How Pivotal Events Shaped a Nation and a Faith by Elesha J. Coffman (Baker Academic, Jan. 2024) examines 13 events with the goal of helping “readers understand their own faith and the landscape of American religion,” according to the publisher. By studying people and events from the past to the present, Coffman hopes to demonstrate how Christians found ways to live faithfully, despite major changes in the church.
Focusing on present challenges associated with religious beliefs, Does Christianity Still Makes Sense? A Former Skeptic Responds to Today’s Toughest Objections to Christianity (Tyndale, Apr. 2024) by Bobby Conway, host of YouTube’s One Minute Apologist channel, addresses 20 questions—such as “Why are there so many scandals in the church?” and “Why do Christians use God’s name to oppress others?”—in an effort to build confidence in believers.
Jesus Portrait: Jesus Through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages by Grace Hamman (Zondervan Academic, out now) examines medieval representations of Jesus in art and literature in order to demonstrate how contemporary cultural ideas about Christ fall short.
The practices associated with religion are also shifting. Hope Is Here! Spiritual Practices for Pursuing Justice and Beloved Community by Luther E. Smith Jr. (WJK, Nov.) centers on Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a community in which every person is safe and cared for, offering five spiritual practices aimed at achieving what the author calls “the work of hope.” The practices—contemplative praying, prophetic remembering, crossing identity boundaries, transforming conflict, and celebrating community—are intended to prepare readers for engagement with issues including racism, mass incarceration, environmental crises, divisive politics, and indifference that, the publishers says, “imperil justice and beloved community.”
WJK Books’ v-p of publishing and editorial director Bridgett A. Green says the book stood out to her because of its view that “spiritual practices, engaged personally and collectively, guide, inform, and transform our commitments to justice as well as our personal lives and society.”
While a number of scholars are looking at shifts in American religiosity, cultural anthropologist Annika Schmeding conducted long-term ethnographic field research on the religious landscape in Afghanistan for her book Sufi Civilities: Religious Authority and Political Change in Afghanistan (Stanford Univ., Nov.). Contemporary analysts suggest that Sufism is on the decline, but by studying multiple Sufi communities, the author showcases “navigational strategies employed by Sufi leaders over the past four decades to weather periods of instability and persecution,” according to the publisher. The book also examines how members of Sufi communities work “in creative and ingenious ways to keep and renew their networks of community.”
Theology and the Family
Topics among academic religion books often stem from theological debates or biblical events, but what can scholars tell us about more familiar topics, such as family life? Jennifer Bird’s Marriage in the Bible: What Do the Texts Say? (R&L, Dec.) features an examination of biblical stories, laws, and sayings from Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Augustine in their original contexts in an effort “to help people know how to handle the Bible” in conversations about marriage, according to the publisher.
Bird has been speaking about what the Bible says (and does not say) about marriage since 2012, when North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Marriage in the Bible “explains why Christians who advocate for ‘biblical marriage’ often don’t know what they’re talking about,” R&L’s Brown says. More specifically, he notes, Bird’s work “makes clear that marriage in the Bible is never entered into by two equals, nor is it based upon love.”
In Parenting: The Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children (Baker Academic, Jan. 2024), Holly Taylor Coolman, assistant professor of theology at Providence College and mother of five, offers theological and biblical commentary on parenting, positing that child-rearing can draw parents into a deeper connection with God.
Geared toward parents, youth leaders, and anyone who works with children, The Kingdom of Children: A Liberation Theology by R.L. Stollar (Eerdmans, Nov.) takes issue with how the church treats children, who are often relegated to Sunday school or silenced during sermons for adults. Drawing on the stories of children in the Bible, Stollar argues that young people can be leaders—even priests, prophets, and theologians—in their communities.
Several new academic titles are considering women’s perspectives of religion as well as their roles in the Bible. In Eve Isn’t Evil: Feminist Readings of the Bible to Upend Our Assumptions (Baker Academic, out now), author Julie Faith Parker applies a feminist lens to biblical texts. PW called the book a “smart and impressive analysis” in its review.
From Buddhist press Shambhala, Lifting as They Climb: Black Women Buddhists and Collective Liberation (Feb. 2024) by Toni Pressley-Sanon explores what the publisher calls “a new expression of Buddhism rooted in ancestry, love, and collective liberation” via the lives and writings of six leading Black Buddhist women: Faith Adiele, bell hooks, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Spring Washam, angel Kyodo williams, and Jan Willis.
“My aim in this book is to explore the message of liberation that contemporary women of African descent offer,” Pressley-Sanon writes in the introduction. “I see their work as a legacy of our ancestors who for centuries used their voices, pens, and bodies to advocate for our individual and collective physical, mental, and spiritual freedom.”
Pressley-Sanon’s interweaving of personal experience with literary and historical interpretation drew Shambhala editor Matt Zepelin to the book. “I think she succeeds in showing how something that looks relatively new—the emergence of Black women as Buddhist teachers in America—is in fact an organic outgrowth of the long history of Black people’s religious creativity and struggles for freedom at various levels,” he says.
Out now from IVP, Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament by Sandra Glahn is “a rigorous and much-needed reassessment of a passage long used to silence women in the church,” according to PW’s starred review. IVP’s Jon Boyd says the book “hugely expands the range of context for reading the New Testament texts connected with the Greek goddess Artemis of the Ephesians.”
Drawing on ancient texts as well as paintings, mosaics, and sculptures, Glahn “retunes our ears to listen to the Greco-Roman conversation about who Artemis was and enriches our understanding of Paul’s words,” Boyd says.