Hooters, Blackjack & the CBA Odyssey 2005

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So I’m in the air from Denver to Seattle, returning from an event hosted by the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), which was originally envisioned as the Christian version of the ABA (American Booksellers Association). Whereas the ABA still focuses on books and hosts the annual Book Expo, having yielded over 50% of their floor space to gift items, Christian booksellers now call their convention the International Christian Retail Show in an organization now described as an International trade association of Christian product suppliers and retailers

I was there at the invitation of JB, my publisher to promote “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters.”

Seeing old friends is a rewarding by-product of the event.

–Phil Vischer, founder of Big Ideas and creator of Veggie Tales announced his new venture “Jellyfish.”
–George Barna introduced a new associate, Thom Black, a new book, “Revolution” and a new “division,” Barna films with a website, Barnafilms.com
–Jim Rutz pitched his new book, “MEGASHIFT”
–Les Parrott was caked with makeup when I saw him, running from TV studio to TV studio saving marriages and relationships through ever mounting book sales.
–I discovered the work of a couple of new authors that look promising, Patton Dodd (My Faith So Far) and Russell Rathbun (Post Rapture Radio)..
–From his mezzanine studio overlooking the convention floor, my buddy Mark Elfstrand, recovering from quadruple bypass showed me his scar, and it was hard to tell which was more troubling, his scar or the frantic shucking and jiving I could see in the distance just behind him and down a half floor. (Today’s art is by Robert Cenedella, internationally renowned painter and pictorial satirist and is titled “2001 A Stock Odyssey.” His vision of Wall Street replicates my view of the CBNA Convention floor.)

One sign on the floor caught my eye–Sub Culture. Closer inspection revealed that while it described the scene below, it was actually a billboard for a sandwich shop. Since it was a useful metaphor for the frenzied event itself, it raised the question, if this is a microcosm of evangelicalism, what is the state of the evangelical subculture?

I came away with two impressions.

1) A Thriving economic enterprise. Religious stuff is big business and a lot of people are moving a lot of units. Books, music, videos, trinkets–this is a burgeoning niche with tons of discretionary income and an appetite for sub-cultural retail products. As CBA reports, “Sales of Christian products grew to $4.34 billion in 2004, up from $4.2 billion in 2002, and $4 billion in 2000 according to the new Size of the Industry study conducted by CBA.”

2) An enterprise that is running out of intellectual and spiritual gas.

At a business level there is the realization that the best selling Christian books & records don’t need the Christian bookstore like they once did. Big retailers see evangelicals as an emerging market and are getting increasingly big pieces of the pie and stocking a bigger and better selection than the typical Christian Bookstore.

For example, one delegate chastised me for carrying a Barnes and Nobel bag onto their convention floor. I opened the bag and showed my purchase, C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” and asked if her store carried it. She had never heard of the book, I’m not convinced she had heard of C.S. Lewis and therein is the problem.

At a cultural level the convention highlights a bigger problem. It seems (and I confess this is anecdotal) more and more attendees of these types of events try to differentiate and distance themselves from the event. They tell me they have to attend it for work–they aren’t like these other people–they don’t belong here.

I think for some this partly a reflection of the nagging sense of dissonance between the stated purpose of the enterprise, which is spiritual, and the real priority of the enterprise, which is commercially driven with celebrity, money and power as the blood running in the veins of the enterprise. However the dissonance is also rooted in cultural embarrassment. Evangelicals have worked hard to break out of fundamentalist ghetto, to be part of the world to reach the world. Now a lot of them have decided they LIKE the world’s culture better and don’t want to be associated with a Christian sub-culture that is weird. Just as “secular” record executives will go where the money is, holding their noses to produce rap music, evangelicals hold their nose to associate with the people who produce Christian stuff.

For me the most sobering and perhaps summarizing conversation of the event was two industry professionals getting caught up on their kids. Her daughter was working at Hooters and his son was dealing Blackjack at a club somewhere. They were not judging each other, just reporting, and I was but a witness to their conversation

I am confident this is not what they expected the evangelical enterprise to produce in their kids, but I wonder if this is exactly what we should expect when evangelicals mirror an entertainment culture driven by money (“Hooters pays well”), amusement (“Blackjack is just a diversion, he’s helping people have fun and he’s good at it”) celebrity and power.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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