I went to my local Christian bookstore today to take a peek at Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism. I’ve read reviews and a friend recently told me about an interview with the author where he specifically talked about race and the Westernized church. I didn’t see the book in the “Christian Living” section, so I decided to peruse a little while before I approached a salesperson about it.
As I was looking, I noticed that most of the books dealt with “self-help” topics. None of this is new to me. It’s long been a complaint of mine that Christian non-fiction publishing is lacking in every topic apart from self-help. I saw the familiar face of Joel Osteen, the names of big-timers like Max Lucado or Rick Warren. I saw a book on how to win the heart of a firefighter (an essential skill if you plan to follow Jesus):
And I saw a books on how to read the Bible in 30 days, 40 ways a mom can pray, and countless other numerically-based challenges for the believer to undertake. There were books to inspire you to live boldly, like this one:
Apparently when God told Joshua to “be strong and have courage” he meant for that to also apply to selecting the right rug for your living room.
The store was full of books that the Christian publishing world felt would help me get closer to God and godliness. But amid all these shelves loaded with helpfulness I could not find anything useful for dealing with the sin of racism. Sure, there were one or two books about forgiveness and reconciliation, but they were about problems in other countries, like Rwanda—where the genocide was so foreign and abstract in its immensity and immediacy that most of us could quite easily depersonalize it in our minds and remove it far from our own domestic history of ethnic warfare. I only found one book, edited by Brian McLaren, a white pastor of the emergent strain of evangelicalism, discussing how racism was one of America’s social sins and it only devoted one essay (out of 20 or so including many on “global” topics) to the issue. Proportionally, the book was way off the mark.
Seeing this famine of material, I walked up to the register and asked my brother behind the counter if the store carried the book I came to see. He hadn’t heard of it before so he looked it up in the computer. The salesman told me I could order it and it would be there in 7-10 days if I wanted to pre-purchase it. I was still willing to give the store a shot at having something akin to what I wanted, so I asked for a book I’ve already discussed once on this blog, Divided by Faith. Our small church bookstore carried it, so I thought there was a good shot it might be at this store, too.
“Sorry, you’re striking out today,” said the bookseller. “Y’all are the ones striking out,” I thought. I gave him one more chance and asked if her knew of any book that talked about race, racial issues, racial injustice, anything like that. I told him about the book I found with the essay. He said, “If there was going to be anything like that, it would have been a McLaren book.”
I was embarrassed. I wasn’t ashamed of asking for these materials, I was ashamed that this place, a resource for faithful Bible-believing people, had nothing to offer folks on one of the greatest sins of our lifetimes (and many lifetimes back, for that matter, if anyone’s counting). I could get free of my issues with my parents. I could settle all my financial problems. I could learn to love my husband better. But I had no resource for dealing with my own prejudices nor the superstructures that reinforce them.
I could find books by black authors. Okay, one author, T.D. Jakes. And maybe a handful of others like autobiographers Ben Carson or Tony Dungy. Apart from the “charismatic” section, I was hard pressed to find books, particularly theology books, penned by black authors, and there was nothing on the shelves about issues related to race. Why is this such a problem for us?
A few years back I found Edward Gilbreath’s book, Reconcilation Blues, at my local library. My local library, an institution that only carries Christian books once they’ve hit the bestseller list, had this book that I couldn’t find at any given branch of Lifeway or Family Bookstores. Gilbreath talks about how working as a black man in Christian publishing as an editor at Christianity Today has been an isolating experience at times. He speaks to both black and white evangelicals, through his personal account of what he calls in the subtitle “a black evangelical’s inside view of white Christianity.” He specifically and poignantly writes about the challenges people of color face as they act as integrators of white communities.
Yet despite all his experience as the first black man to enter white spaces, his book on the subject is notably absent from the shelves in my local bookstore. Could it be that the Christian publishing and book selling industry is one of the last visible bastions of segregation?