Publishers Weekly

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Hammered by superstore chains and then the online omnipresence of Amazon, America’s bookstores are struggling.

Thus there was more sorrow than  shock when the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources announced on March 20 it will close down its chain of 170 brick-and-mortar stores, which sell books, Bibles, curriculum and a variety of other religious products.

Baptist Press reported the gap between LifeWay stores; sales and operating expenses grew from a manageable $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million by 2017. That year, LifeWay’s chief rival, Family Christian Resources, shut all of its 240 retail locations, following the 2013 demise of the United Methodist Church’s 38 Cokesbury stores.

The Baptist collapse raises two themes for solid stories, the limits on what products religious stores should be selling, and the ongoing disruption as U.S. religious retail, dominated by evangelical Protestants, shifts toward online and phone-ordering operations. As a company, LifeWay will continue alongside the likes of family-owned Christian Book Distributors.  There will be ever fewer independent stores surviving to serve as local ministry and fellowship centers. 

 On the first theme, officially Christian stores obviously are not going to sell lottery tickets, randy novels and movies, pop music that degrades women, or books that deviate from their faith’s doctrines. The Baptists’ no-no’s include the prosperity gospel and  accounts of purported visits to heaven. Some respondents danced on LifeWay’s grave over the way its policies reflected the Southern Baptists’ narrowing definition of doctrinal fidelity.

The most-discussed example occurred in 2012 when LifeWay refused to sell “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” a slightly sassy book on the gender wars by well-known author Rachel Held Evans,  published by Thomas Nelson, an evangelical subsidiary of HarperCollins that’s based in Nashville, the same city as LifeWay.  

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Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Fellow journalists, have no fear. Publishers Weekly assures us that an intriguing and newsworthy new book about religion is “enjoyable” and The New York Times finds it “lucid.”

This despite being written by a heavyweight philosopher and published by the intellectually elite Harvard University Press.  

The title, “The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View,” announces that author Tim Crane, raised Catholic in Britain, is, yes, a convinced atheist. But instead of preaching to his choir he seeks tolerance and disputes the contempt for belief from “new atheists” in media-beloved books like “Breaking the Spell,” “The End of Faith,” The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great.”    

To Crane, atheists of that sort do not grasp the immensity and sheer humanity of religion, why the world’s 6 billion assorted believers are neither fools nor knaves, and why faith cannot be liquidated in our scientific age though many have tried -- whether through education, propaganda, prison, or executions.  

The Religion Guy has not (yet) read this book but alerts fellow journalists to the news potential signaled in coverage to date. Note especially the Times treatment by James Ryerson, whose Book Review columns cover university press offerings. 

Crane -- reachable via --  is no slouch among philosophy professors. He just moved to Hungary’s Central European University after holding the Knightbridge chair at the University of Cambridge, and previously headed the philosophy faculty at University College London.  

He laments atheistic portrayals of religion as some unfortunate carryover from primitive civilization that tries to explain the cosmos in the way science does, as a result appearing “irrational” and “superstitious.” Instead, he figures, two natural factors underlie faith.

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