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The American Evangelical Reading Market

On May 09, 2006

Ever since I was a child, I have loved writing. I love crafting good stories and entertaining people with them. Recently, it occurred to me that it might make a fascinating book if I wrote about my experiences as an American living in Britain. It's certainly been fascinating to compare the two cultures firsthand! I decided to make it a fictional book so that I could protect people's privacy.

Since I have never published a story before, I thought it would be wise to do some research about the Christian writing industry . I found a website run by an editor in a Christian publishing house, one which publishes for the mainstream evangelical audience and which comprises the bulk of readers and buyers of Christian fiction. This website also features a discussion board, but in talking to the other writers on that board, I have, to my dismay, discovered that the idea for my book may not be feasible. You see, there is one experience, which has been a large part of my life here in England: studying to become a Local Preacher.

The program I'm in is sponsored by the Methodist Church in Britain. In it, men and women undergo a study course lasting several months and at the end of it are certified as lay pastors. They are then free to have churches invite them to preach. The LP program is an integral part of Methodism in Britain; almost every Sunday, a church will have an LP as the minister at one of their services. I have heard that there are a few grumblers who don't like women preaching here, but I have never heard them. By far, the vast majority of people simply accepts it as no big deal, and would question why you would not want to have women in leadership. (At a Bible study I participated in last year, I mentioned how divisive this issue is in America. At first my fellow participants merely looked incredulous; then they laughed. The notion of not allowing women to use their spiritual gifts however the Lord guides them was simply incomprehensible to them.)

The writers on this discussion board told me that this issue was simply too controversial. Since the majority of people who read books put out by Christian publishers tend to be evangelical and complementarian, a publisher such as the one who sponsored this site would never dare publish my book for fear of offending their audience. Now, bear in mind that the LP program has been only one part of my life. I am also a devoted wife, co-worker, churchgoer, etc. I have had all sorts of adventures interacting with the British culture. And yet, all this would count for nothing, because I disagree with one segment of the American population on a theological issue. Indeed, one writer posted, "Well, I would never attend a church with a woman pastor. However, I like to read murder mysteries even though I don't approve of murder, so I guess I would read your book." While being a woman in church leadership doesn't quite rise to the level of murder (just what was this woman was saying?), there's still something vaguely sinful about it in some people's minds. Since one form of sin makes for great novels, then maybe another one will, too!

I suppose you can tell that my heart is broken. I knew this issue had caused much division in the American church, but the thought that people would not be willing to read a book with which they might disagree is just beyond words for me. Has it come to this? Is this the only kind of Christian writing that evangelicals will accept? A story where, like The Truman Show, everyone lives in a smiling utopia and where every thought and every word must conform to a certain viewpoint? One where dissent is not even allowed or discussed? If so, then, even though it brings me a great deal of pain, I am afraid that, like Jim Carey's hero, I will have to sail away from my comfortable Christian world when it comes time to publish my novel. On that day, reluctantly, I will begin looking for a secular agent and publisher.

I think it's interesting that on that discussion board, somebody brought up Christian novels that were published in the secular world, and how they tend to do phenomenally well. Certainly they have done much better than any novel published by a Christian publisher. (For instance, Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year.) Why? The conclusion reached was the obvious one: those novels deal with real people, ones who wrestle with God and have flaws, but who are still seeking grace. In other words, people who are far from perfect Christians. This is what breaks my heart most of all, that these characters have found more acceptance in the community of non-believers. I suspect that mine will probably do the same. But then again, Jesus found more acceptance among the sinners, didn't He? That thought is the only thing that brings me a measure of comfort.

-- Lori

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