No doubt the evangelical Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) picked the Anaheim Convention Center for its annual convention last year because the place is enormous and has a certain architectural inspiration. Conventioneers can pause as they approach the huge lobby, with its three-story glass wall, for a view that seems to offer a glimpse of heaven. Unfortunately, Disneyland's Space Mountain ride is always in the way.
When I joined the CBA attendees in Anaheim last summer, row upon row of mostly white men and women dressed in their Sunday best were filing into one of the big conference rooms. CBA President Bill Anderson welcomed us; those present, he said, represented some 50 states and 60 nations. Then he got down to business, as it were.
What followed had all the trappings of a religious service -- songs, testimonies, a sermon. Technically, it was a religious service. But it was overtly commercialized to a greater extent than any religious gathering I had ever observed (and as the son of a Baptist minister, I've seen a lot of them). The printed programs, for example, were underwritten by the publisher of Pastor Lee Strobel -- he'd preached the sermon -- and featured an ad for his many books. The singers at the service were in town to promote their latest CDs to retailers.
If the participants felt any shame about the nakedly commercial nature of the event, they did a good job of hiding it. In his invocation prayer, Anderson addressed God on behalf of "a group of colleagues working together under Your Lordship." Strobel, between jokes and stories about his days as an "atheistic reporter" in Chicago, commended the retailers for doing the Lord's work and assured them that "we've got the truth," thus giving them "an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas."
The CBA was nothing if not a marketplace. At 350,000 square feet, the floor of the convention center is nearly the size of eight football fields, including three halls, two outdoor eating areas, and several restaurants. Over the next few days this huge space would be home to almost 500 display booths, over 12,000 people, and even a special Internet café. In its zeal to grow and serve its market, the Christian culture industry mirrors its secular counterpart. As important, it shines a light on how both true believers and non-believers use culture to create all sorts of identities and communities.
Many glass cases displayed such wares as crosses, paintings, color-coded Bibles, T-shirts, mugs, greeting cards, bracelets, CDs, necklaces, children's videos, diet books, jigsaw puzzles, backpacks, board games, and decorative plates. And that was just in the lobby. It wasn't until I got past the security guard, flashing my scarlet-lettered press pass, that I had a chance to see what was on the sales floor.
All of the major evangelical Christian publishers were present in force, with some booths the size of small houses. Older mainstream names such as Doubleday, Penguin, Random House, and Oxford University Press were well represented. Young upstart publishers such as Canon Press and Relevant Books -- publisher of such tomes as Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 and The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (do unto others and then split?) -- had smaller but still impressive booths. There were several Spanish-language publishers and a couple of African-American presses, along with a few Catholic ones. A number of children's publishers sat alongside hawkers of Christian comics. The book area was surrounded by "personality booths," where authors autographed and gave away lots of free books to dealers in the hope of pumping up sales.
Books were only a part of the story. Also pushing their wares were such movie companies as Cloud Ten Productions, music and multimedia booths run by companies such as Word Entertainment, and plenty of Christian "gift" outlets in a section of their own. In addition to the items in the lobby, these gifts included everything from Scripture Mints shaped like little fish ("reaching the world one piece at a time") to hand puppets.
Word Entertainment took the prize for best attention grabber with spotlights, free popcorn, and -- I am not making this up -- a "Catch the Cash" booth with money swirling around: You stepped into it and grabbed as much as you could as fast as you could. Other memorable promotions included inflatable sharks, Jews for Jesus shopping bags, a guy in a kilt, and one booth that featured a stop sign altered to read, "STOP Liberals!"
The CBA may be the only trade show that sets off spasms of conscience among its own participants. Several editors and publishers told me, under condition of anonymity, that they were appalled at some of the products on the floor -- and they weren't necessarily sparing their own titles. The Rev. R.C. Sproul Jr., son of a famous Calvinist polemicist, published a brief Internet commentary that considered the possibility of driving out the moneychangers, though he finally concluded that it is, after all, a trade show. Christianity Today review editor Doug LeBlanc complained to me about the "buffoonery" of such crass gimmicks as the money booth. The promoter with the inflatable sharks sent me a note that made fun of the fish-shaped mints ("Mmmm, minty fresh Scripture").
Nor is this discomfort a new development. In his 1997 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America, Columbia University professor of religion Randall Balmer tells of his trip to the 1988 CBA convention. He describes a gathering similar to, if slightly smaller than, the one I attended, including wild promotions, a cornucopia of products, and, of course, fretting by evangelicals over how commercial and gaudy the industry had become. John Pott, an editor at Eerdmans, confessed to finding the whole scene "utterly demoralizing." Publisher Lisa Shaw admitted that she had gotten "so fed up with the whole thing that I went...to my hotel and cried for two hours." If blatant commercialization is cause for tears, it's a wonder that Shaw stopped after only two hours.
The Christian culture industry, as represented both by the CBA convention and by its member stores, may have been less concerned with sales in the past, but I've found little evidence of that. The sense of guilt that hovers over the convention may reflect the growing pains of an industry that is expanding its services to a slice of society whose cultural demands grow each year.
Most Christian book companies started as small family affairs or as publishing arms of Bible colleges; many CBA stores started as mom-and-pop operations. Through a process of sifting much like what goes on in the secular publishing and bookselling industries, some went bust while others innovated, grew, and sold out to secular publishers who wanted a piece of the Christian action. In fact, most large Christian publishers are now owned by otherwise secular houses. Random House, for instance, owns Zondervan, a leading Christian house. While no Christian chain yet rivals Barnes & Noble, Family Christian Bookstores has several hundred outlets across the country.
The older presses that have not sold out to the secular giants either struggle or get religion, the religion in this case being marketing. One editor of a very conservative holdout told me the only question his publisher asks about a book is whether it will sell. (Theology does play an indirect part in the selection process: If a book's message is likely to offend readers, it probably won't sell.) Publishers that have typically peddled more highbrow fare are experimenting with different sorts of titles. The current catalog of the high-toned house Westminster John Knox Press, for example, features The Gospel According to the Simpsons.
In fact, the publisher Thomas Nelson, one of the few holdouts to make it big, recently reversed the familiar process and started a secular imprint, WND Books.