The Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, Robert Wright, recently suggested to his people that they read Rick Warren’s book, The Daniel Plan, during Lent. Evidently, he stirred up quite a lot of trouble because he had to write a lengthy letter explaining why he could suggest a book written by someone who did not support same-sex marriage. For what it’s worth, I think the letter is a fine example of the kind of reconciling work which bishops are called to.
But there’s another problem here and it has to do with the missed opportunity this selection represents.
It is no secret that the publishing industry is in bad shape. This is especially true for religious publishing and even more especially true for books published by authors in mainline churches. I know because I am such an author. In the course of publishing my books, I have received a steady stream of rejection letters that say, essentially, “Your book proposal looks nice but in this climate we just can’t afford to take a chance on it.” In the end, I was fortunate enough to find publishers for both books I have written but I know many people who have not been so fortunate. That’s distressing. The church needs a constant circulation of new ideas, new thoughts, and new projects. Books are one major place where authors are able to develop their ideas and help contribute to the conversation about the future of the church. When those books can’t be published, our conversation and our life together is impoverished.
Publishers have managed to survive in the current climate by relying on a handful of superstars to generate most of their revenues. They want as much assurance of success as possible before they publish. In the religious world, Rick Warren is a superstar. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is apparently one of the best-selling books of all time. (I note that The Daniel Plan is currently #83 on Amazon’s sales chart.)
Many bishops suggest that their people read a particular book during Lent. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a Lent book every year. What I would love to see is bishops deliberately choosing books that are not published by superstars but by those authors who make important arguments that are insufficiently heard. Choosing such books would be one more sign to publishers that if they take chances on books and new authors, the church will be there to support them and make those chances successes.
Now, lest anyone think this is a purely self-interested post, let’s look at some of the books that have been published in the last year that might be suitable for Lenten reflection.
A young Episcopal priest has offered Bubble Girl, a book about her journey to faith, tied in with theological teaching, reflection, and questions for discussion. A great book to be used by a group of people who are new to the faith or wanting to go a little bit deeper beyond what they hear on Sunday.
An Episcopal bishop in South Sudan has published Come Let us Rebuild, a thoughtful reflection on the state of his country and a call for action for the future. South Sudan is, unfortunately, in the news a lot lately. How often do we get to hear directly from its leaders in such an extended, unfiltered way?
A tutor at a theological college has written a helpful, instructive guide, Why Sacraments? that goes a long way to helping people in the pews understand the rites that are at the heart of our common life.
(And, OK, fine, I’ve recently written a book that sheds light on the life of Anglicans at the grassroots level around the world and thinks about how the unity of the worldwide body of Christ is connected to our witness to the world. I would love it if you read it.)
None of these books comes with a cook-book tie-in, as The Daniel Plan does, but they are all books which church members would benefit from reading. I want church leaders who help us broaden our horizons, help us see things we hadn’t seen before, and point us in new directions. Pointing us to Rick Warren seems to do none of these things.