If you’re not familiar with the term imprimatur, it’s a Latin expression that means “let it be printed.” It’s associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and depending on the context, was used to actively censor books that either a) disagreed with the Church’s teaching, or b) could possibly damage the Church’s reputation. Many of these books– banned because they contained “doctrinal or moral error,” supposedly– would appear in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Books included in the Index could not be printed, and considering the influence that Roman Catholicism had over Europe during the dawn of movable-type printing, this religious censorship targeted many Protestants and early European scientists with brutal efficiency. They still issue imprimaturs, although the context is very different today.
A little while ago I reviewed Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, and gave it my endorsement. I think it’s a good introduction to sexuality in the Bible, and when I read it I knew it was going spark an . . . interesting discussion. The day it came out, Albert Mohler put out a collection of essays by several contributors titled God and the Gay Christian? — which, honestly, throwing on a question mark to the end of someone else’s book title in this digital publishing age seems really dirty and underhanded. But hey, they contributed to the conversation, so good on them I suppose.
Convergent Books, Vines’ publisher, has recently come under fire for daring to publish his book. Not only that, but the talking heads have gone after Waterbrook-Multnomah, too– because Convergent is a sister imprint.
If you’re not super familiar with how publishing houses work, an imprint is essentially a marketing method. W-M is a well-known Christian imprint owned by Crown, which is owned by Penguin-Random House, and they’ve published everything from Francine River’s Redeeming Love to David Platt’s Radical. Crown decided to create Convergent alongside W-M, in order to “explore the contemporary faith experience for a broad range of Christians who are drawn to an open, inclusive and culturally engaged exploration of faith.” Crown also owns a Catholic imprint, too– Image Books.
As seems to be pretty typical– of new imprints, especially– there’s a lot of overlap in the staff between W-M and Convergent. They’re just getting started, and no one goes into book publishing for the money. As a freelance editor, I can swear to that.
Frustratingly, the National Religious Broadcasters has forced W-M to resign from their organization because they published “unbiblical material.” Albert Mohler, who’s been published by W-M, said that Cobb’s decision to publish Vines puts W-M “in serious danger of crashing its brand in terms of evangelical trust,” and Robert Jeffress, who has not even read the book, said that ” it is a mistake for any Christian publisher to legitimize a point of view that is a clear perversion of Scripture.”
It’s a mistake. It should not have been published.
While American evangelical culture doesn’t have the ability to enforce censorship the same way that the Roman Catholic Church did during dawn of modern printing, they hold an unbelievably massive amount of power when it comes to communication and media. LifeWay and Family Christian have refused to even put books written by more progressive authors (like Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey) on their shelves. God and the Gay Christian isn’t even listed anywhere at christianbook.com.
They are like the Sanhedrin, who would rather stuff their fingers in their ears and scream than listen to Stephen.
This isn’t government censorship and technically these organizations and companies have every right to enforce whatever standard they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that what they’re doing is wrong. They are stifling discussion and blatantly refusing to even have a conversation about difficult and charged subjects– like marriage equality and feminism, for example.
It’s like evangelicals don’t even understand the purpose of books.
Christian publishing is extremely difficult because of this. A few years ago, I spoke with Dani Pettrey, a Christian fiction writer, and one of the things that came up was how careful she had to be as she was editing Submerged— evangelical consumers are notorious for being easily offended by content. When I was in undergrad I fell in love with Karen Hancock’s Legend of the Guardian-King quartet, and I asked a local independent Christian book store if they had any copies. The store owner said they had decided not to carry any of her books because so many people had returned them (they had allegorical “magic”).
I understand the desire to maintain an ideological bubble. I have trouble not isolating myself from differing points of view in the media I consume and the people I talk to, especially because I’m an ISTJ. Being black-and-white is second nature to me, and it’s something I deliberately make an effort to overcome every day.
But while I can understand this impulse, it angers me that evangelicals, collectively, hold so much power over what can be written, published, sold, and broadcasted. Books exist in order to expose us to new ideas. If people like Jeffress declare books to be a “clear perversion of Scripture” when they haven’t even read the damn book can get away with not just silence, but open applause, it’s a clear sign that the evangelical community is broken. Evangelical culture, evangelical leaders, seem wholly and entirely incapable of even listening to people who disagree with them. Instead, they become “heretics”– for simple things, like using “Herself” in a poem or emphasizing the eternal, long-suffering Grace of God.
*full disclosure: I’ve written for the Convergent Books blog, and will continue to write for them. They do not pay me for those posts.