Just in case you thought the evangelical furor over same sex marriage was cooling off, the last twenty-four hours shows otherwise. In that time the internet exploded (or at least the evangelical blogosphere and twitterverse did) over Eugene Peterson’s apparent endorsement of same sex marriage.
Peterson has since walked back his comments. But what I’d like to talk about here is the position taken by LifeWay Christian Bookstores in the midst of the controversy. In short, they stated that they would withdraw all Peterson’s books from sale if he continued to endorse same sex marriage.
I’d like to make several points by way of response.
First, in principle I respect any Christian bookstore that sees itself not merely as a vendor of merchandise that is marketed toward a Christian audience but as a curator of good (i.e. orthodox) content.
Second, while I respect the curator role, it also places one at the top of a very slippery slope. If I ran a Christian bookstore, I’d have a hard time living with myself while selling John Hagee’s irresponsible end-times schlock, for example. No worry: if you really want to pick some up, LifeWay has a wide selection. It also has the absolutely terrible Left Behind Series, including the kids’ version.
(Having said that, I’m suitably impressed that I couldn’t find Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar or Kenneth Copeland books on LifeWay’s website.)
Third, while I respect the aspiration for a curator role, curator is not the same thing as censor. “Curator” is, in fact, my charitable interpretation of LifeWay’s goal, but in point of fact they are acting as censors of what they perceive to be good or respectable material.
This leads me to a fourth point: a real curator equips and enables readers to read critically and find both points of agreement and disagreement with a book. Eight years ago when I was doing the interview rounds for my book Finding God in the Shack I did one interview in which the radio host insisted we shouldn’t read The Shack because, as he opined, the book contained “heresy”. To support his point he invoked the metaphor of cake batter with a spoonful of poop. Even though it’s only a spoonful, you wouldn’t eat any of the cake because it’s all “contaminated”. Likewise, if a book has doctrinal or moral error, you should reject it wholesale, because the whole thing is contaminated.
When I shared that gentleman’s analysis with another interviewer (a southerner who liked The Shack), he replied incredulously: “Well as I see it professor, reading a book is like eating a piece of fried chicken: you eat the meat and leave the bone!”
Yes, exactly. The proper response to a book with “error” is not generally to toss the whole thing, but to learn to read it critically, to eat the meat and leave the bone. And if a vendor’s “curation” is little more than censorship, the reader never learns to acquire that skill.
No surprise, LifeWay doesn’t sell a single book by John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg as these are the very epitome of “liberal” scholars. Over the years I’ve read a few books by each (and I’m reading Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian right now). I’ve found a number of bones in their books: but I’ve also found a lot of meat. And even chewing on the bones helps sharpen one’s teeth.
Finally, my last point, and the one that applies to Eugene Peterson. To my knowledge, he has not endorsed same sex marriage in print in any of his books (hence the widespread surprise at yesterday’s revelation). Consequently, LifeWay’s willingness to censor all Peterson’s books for his answer to an interviewer’s question on a contentious contemporary ethical issue that is not addressed in any of his books strikes me as arbitrarily nasty and punitive at best … and a shameless ploy to court free media attention in order to drum up more customers at worst.
All this leaves me deeply conflicted on the continued existence of that bastion of commercial Christian subculture we call the “Christian bookstore”.