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We Are What We Read

by Michael Leach

Mr. Leach is associate editor of Crossroad boos, the religious division of Seabury Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 20, 1974, pp. 1089-1092. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The most popular novel of the past few years had nothing to do with violence or sex; it was a religious parable about a celibate bird. And the best-selling nonfiction book had nothing to do with he latest recipe or the newest diet; it was (and is) a recent version of the oldest book of all: the Bible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Living Bible -- someone said you could fly a kite to the moon with the miles of thread that bind together the pages of the 25 million copies of those books now in print.

At the same time, a major new study by Daniel Yankelovich shows that only 28 per cent of American college youth consider religion important, compared with 38 per cent in 1969; and that among working youth, the number considering religion an important value dropped from 64 to 42 per cent. Nor is it a secret that church attendance among all age groups has been dropping for a decade and that membership plummets each month. We could easily use these and other statistics to argue that religion is losing its impact on American society.

Meanwhile, 50,900 adults make the pilgrimage to Notre Dame for a Pentecostal rally, a teen-age guru turns on young people from coast to coast, and demand rises for books that run the gamut from thin prayer guides to thick encyclopedias of theology. Last year’s 12 campus best sellers included seven that treated religious themes, ranging from the inner journeys of Carlos Castaneda to the far-out fantasies of Erich von Däniken.

I

Hence the question: Are Americans really losing interest in religion, or are they looking for it in different ways? If there is truth to the saying "We are what we read," a look at the numbers and kinds of religious books that Americans are reading may prove more revealing than a poll on church membership. The fact is: while church membership is dropping, the demand for books that appeal to religious needs is soaring.

"Religious interest is growing in this country," affirms Word Books publisher Jarrell McCracken, "but probably away from the established church and denominations. We may find a smaller percentage of total commitment to church membership or identification, but a greater intensity of interest among those involved. If there is a trend, it is toward books which help people in the gut-level experiences of life, but which do have some content and help people feel they are growing."

A look at the current scene gives us a clue. The credibility of all institutions, including the church, is under attack. As a result, the moral teaching of the church is challenged, its doctrinal foundation questioned, and its worship neglected. But at the same time, moral issues of major proportions are the daily bill of fare in newspapers and on television, and our nation seems infected with social problems that have a deep religious dimension: poverty, pollution, discrimination, runaway technology, to name a few. To fill the gap left by a weakened church, people are not only experimenting with both new and ancient forms of the spiritual and psychic life; they are searching for religious books that deal with the complex problems of society in personal, direct and simple ways.

"After all," says Barbara Rogasky, an editor of religious paperbacks for Pyramid Publications, "while institutions as such are all in disarray, that doesn’t change people’s need for definition, direction and guidance. In fact, it intensifies it and throws the burden of fulfilling that need almost entirely on the individual. Thus, institutional religion losing its influence while religious books grow is no real contradiction."

Gerald Battle, marketing manager for the Cokesbury bookstores, reports that the demand for religious books "has never been larger. Here at Cokesbury we are selling more religious books of every kind than at any time in our history -- and we have been booksellers to America since 1789."

Nationally, religious book sales increased by $9 million from 1971 to 1972, and by a further $7 million in 1973, according to annual reports issued by the Association of American Publishers. Milt Steinford, a religious books salesman for 25 years, echoes the opinion of his colleagues when he predicts that "this trend probably won’t crest for several years to come."

In the decade from 1963 to 1973, sales climbed from $73 million to almost $125 million, despite a celebrated late-‘60s slump. Despite today’s inflation, many publishers are expanding their religious programs. Seabury Press, for instance, published 13 new religious books in 1972, 85 in 1973, and 50 so far in 1974. Specialized religious houses (such as the Anointed Music & Publishing Company of Meriden, Connecticut) are springing up all over America,

These figures and projections do not include religious paperbacks, which are now sold at supermarkets, airports, drugstores and newsstands. And, as Jean-Louis Brindamour, who developed Pyramid Publications’ religious program, points out, "The phenomenal growth of sales so far tells us that time and a determined public will eventually force even greater space for such books where they do not yet appear." Pyramid editor Leslie Schwartz indicates one reason for the vast volume of religious paperback sales: "Rather than [in] a specifically religious bookstore, these books are sold in very open, public places. [They are] so accessible, it becomes easy to ‘pick up religion with your groceries,’ as it were. This may sound commercial, but it’s also putting, religion into the marketplace, where it also belongs."

II

In both cloth and paper, religious books ranging from heavy theology to lighthearted verse are generally gaining in sales. The most dramatic increase, however, is in sales of Bibles and simple books of personal religion related to everyday needs. "When the world shakes," suggests Zondervan’s corporate executive Gary Wharton, "those in it grab onto something of substance and durability. The Bible and books that build on it are such stabilizers."

The phenomenal sales of Bibles over the past few years might even suggest that the Parousia is around the corner. John Delaney, editor of Catholic books for Doubleday, has figured out that so many Americans have bought Bibles during the past ten years that one out of every three of them (excluding children who can’t read) should he able to quote chapter and verse in unison. A new translation or paraphrase seems to come out every six months, but readers still hunger for more.

Cokesbury’s Gerald Battle reports: "Periodically we hear, through such ‘religious market experts’ as the Wall Street Journal, that Bible sales are declining. Bah and humbug! Doubleday, a house dominantly oriented to trade sales, and Ken Taylor’s Tyndale House have sold more than 18 million copies of The Living Bible to the trade in just three short years. Oxford and Cambridge have sold The New English Bible very well in many editions. Such Bible exotics as The Jerusalem Bible have had healthy sales. Zondervan has sold its Berkeley Bible, Amplified Bible, and Layman’s Parallel Bible in substantial quantities. The RSV in its myriad editions sells and sells, and the King James Version is with us always in a significant sales-producing role -- paying the rent for many a shop, large and small alike. Cokesbury alone sells more than 100,000 Bibles annually."

In addition, durable theological reference books, particularly those related to the Bible, are being sought out by old and young. Patricia Schreck, manager of the Episcopal Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, is one of many who report "an increasing number of young people and those in the 25-35 year range getting into intense Bible study. Suddenly Barclay’s commentaries are becoming a fast-moving item!"

Strong’s Concordance, which has sold steadily for 50 years, is now out in a new edition and also going stronger than ever. Abingdon’s Interpreter’s Bible series, begun in 1952, has earned $22 million in sales to date and is still doing well. Eerdmans plans to run another 50,000 copies of its Handbook to the Bible and "launch the most extensive advertising campaign we have ever mounted." Westminster’s Historical Bible Atlas continues to be a standard, along with the Oxford Bible Atlas. Harper’s new edition of Harper’s Bible Dictionary went into its second printing within just a few months. Seabury’s scholarly Dictionary of Biblical Theology is being bought in large numbers by Catholics and Protestants alike. And Zondervan has a whole series of Bible reference books designed for the nonscholar that are enjoying good sales.

III

The increased interest in Bible study could well be interpreted as marking an intellectual swing back to the center, but the huge demand for simple books of personal religion suggests an emotional retrenchment somewhere to the right of center. "The books that seem to sell most today," says Alex Liepa, editorial director of religious books at Doubleday, are those quite evidently written for people who are looking for a very personal, inward inspiration or enlightenment. We seem to be going through a period of aversion against religion or theology that seems to influence or change society or the world, and from my desk I can see no sign that the tide will be turning."

Many of these books convey messages of hope or courage in terms of story or autobiography (e.g., The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom). And while despite their often staggering sales, most best-seller lists don’t even recognize their existence, the National Religious Bestsellers newsletter, which does, spells out what it means: "A few years ago, a religious best seller enjoyed an annual sale of ten thousand copies. Now even the number ten title on the cloth list sells better than 75,000 copies." It is considered an achievement when the tenth title on a general best-seller list hits that figure.

Using these sale figures as a starting point, one could easily argue that Anita Bryant has more followers than Germaine Greer, that Pat Boone speaks to more important needs than David Reuben, and that Marjorie Holmes will be savored long after Xaviera Hollander is remaindered. Apples and oranges? Maybe. Tongue in cheek? Not really. Something to think about? Surely.

But not in the context of that mythical prairie called Middle America. It’s no accident that Norman Lear placed Archie Bunker in Queens. Large numbers of New Yorkers relish Two from Galilee just as large numbers of Iowans enjoy The Love Machine. It’s not so much a question of regional taste as of a growing, nationwide hunger for a personal, satisfying spiritual way of life.

"These readers are searching," says Doubleday’s Liepa, "for inspiration and assurance in their individual, personal, everyday lives" According to Patricia Schreck, they are seeking books of a "comforting or supporting nature, no doubt because of the times" East and west of the Hudson, books of this kind are enjoying vast sales.

IV

Those of us who read The Christian Century and consider ourselves at least semitheologians should not shrug this development off with a casual distinction between "educated" and "noneducated" readers. That distinction is a half-truth at best, and it misses two important points: the widespread reading of such books not only tells us something important about the overall religious temper of our times; it may also give us a clue to one possible theological expression of the future.

Martin Marty, in a prophetic Christian Century article (February 27, 1974), wondered where the bright new religious thinkers were hiding, and suggested that we won’t find them until we are ready to accept a form of expression quite different from that of the theological thoroughbreds we justly revere:

It may be that the seekers and spotters cannot see a new generation right under their nose because they use the definition and expectations of an earlier time. Certainly any new generation will seek fresh expression. Maybe Frederick Buechner and Keith Mano have the right idea: speak through the novel. Watch for poets and pamphleteers. Psychology, the social sciences, imaginative literature, will all go into the making of a new language. Any new survey will include people who are writing what two generations ago might not even have called theology.

In other words, a new generation of creative religious writers may not sound like theologians, though they may have something important and substantial to communicate. Given all the varieties of new journalism now known, and some not yet discovered, it is not unlikely that they will tend to express themselves in a genre resembling that of the religious best sellers of today -- a genre personal, concrete, narrational and, in application, universal.

V

Traditional theological studies will and must continue to be published, of course, but only the most rigorously scientific and groundbreaking of them may find adequate support. Meanwhile, we might also hope for a new generation of writers who, like Buechner, will make life imitate art in awakening the reader to possibilities and not just to categories -- writers who will practice what many excellent traditional theologians are now preaching: story theology.

And we might expect certain writers who have already won their credentials to lead the way. "Story theology" is hardly new to such diverse theologians as Langdon Gilkey (Shantung Compound), Sam Keen (To a Dancing God), and Harvey Cox (Seduction of the Spirit). Eugene Kennedy’s recent book Believing introduces an interesting variation on this form by getting into the hearts and heads of public figures ranging from Eugene McCarthy to B.F. Skinner. And for many young people, Martin Bell’s book and record The Way of the Wolf hold the same basic appeal that Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey holds.

Conrad Hyers’s witty parable, The Chickadees, went into two fast printings this year, and perhaps the most controversial religious book of the year is Thomas Klise’s apocryphal novel The Last Western. Next year will see at least two major theological novels: Exit 36, by Robert Capon, and Protocol for a Damnation, by Peter Berger; the Capon chronicle has already been bought as a mass-market paperback for five figures.

In addition to the substance lacking in so many books of an evangelical nature, these writers have brought to their works the voice so often lacking in traditional religious books. Readers are aware that someone is speaking directly to them, almost as if over a coffee table. Reading, after all, is a uniquely solitary experience and even a theologian should strive to create the mood of a one-to-one relationship. There is no reason why theology and story cannot mix to form a potent tonic for individual growth and change, both intellectually and emotionally.

If this trace of a trend among solid thinkers develops further, the books that result may also be a leaven for those who seek a meaningful spiritual way of life but often have to settle for something that is less than substantial. A midwest book salesman, who probably reads as many religious books as most theologians, makes a comment on evangelical churches that applies to many evangelical best sellers: "They show a steady growth, but I fear it is immature. In the long run, it does not meet the needs of the rational thinker, and its overemotional status is bound to wither in various directions eventually. The brainwashed in this category will always remain, but the thoughtful, seeking kind of individual will continue to seek a spiritual way that is more substantial and rational."

Werner Mark Linz, president of Seabury Press, identifies the challenge: "The center of serious religious thought seemed to collapse during the past decade, and nothing may be more important in the long run than rebuilding it. Since the church’s critical, prophetic mission is best received by basically secure persons, a supportive publishing program providing substantive religious information and values for personal growth should be well received. There is a vast-scale ferment and the publisher that can make a deep-rooted impact on these readers will be both doing a service and selling his books."

VI

At the same time, while a more personal approach to religion is desperately needed and certainly worthwhile, religious publishers generally agree that to make a lasting impact the books they put out must also focus on the social dimension of religion and the moral crises of our day: poverty, the crumbling of values, pressures on the family, the plight of the aged and other minorities, problems in ecology, the life sciences and public affairs.

And perhaps it is in these vital areas that it will be most difficult to find new writers to communicate the issues from a religious point of view. John Shea, a young theologian and author of three books, says that many fine thinkers of his generation prefer to "act out what they believe in social or political programs, or talk out their ideas in conferences and workshops, rather than write them out." Whether or not these thinkers create via the typewriter no doubt depends on many factors; but certainly it depends in part on the encouragement that established religious media are willing to give them -- e.g., the invitation offered by Martin Marty in the article referred to above. If a new generation is convinced that the publisher of religious books or journals expects them to hold to the style of their predecessors, they may be even more prone to resist the troubling urge to write.

Today, both those who have not yet written and those who have been writing for years are perhaps more needed than ever. Author John Charles Cooper, dean of academic affairs at Winebrenner Theological Seminary, sums up the situation: "People do feel that religion is losing its influence on society, and they may be right -- but the majority of people do not wish this to be true, and so it is an important time to be publishing good religious books. Religious interest, in this sense, is growing, but it is not on the whole being fed solid food through the books that are published. Even in the face of cultural chaos and color TV, there is a great need and demand for materials that are both interesting and mature.

VII

The institutional church has gone through many hard times. It will surely survive the present storms of cultural and social change, though it is difficult to say just when things will look better instead of worse. But that the interest in religious books will continue to grow is a very safe guess, at least for the near future. "The greater the world pressures," says Zondervan’s Gary Wharton, "the greater the need for an answer, and the greater the future of religious books that provide answers. Sometimes I am much more optimistic about religious publishing than I am about the world tomorrow."

"How should the religious book not have a future?" asks Karl Rahner, one of the most important theologians of any time. "It will be transformed, but it will endure. It will achieve this even if it takes the form of an unending variation upon a single basic theme: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Even then it will endure and will lead us to that point in our human existence at which this existence is thrown headlong into the redeeming mystery."


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