You can't sell books in Church and still be Prophetic [bad.hack]

A bad.hack (read more about it here) is a manipulation of a Christian system either using illicit means to achieve an end, or achieving goals that leave the system worse off and less open than before. Read on for the hack!

I'm struck at more and more churches that have bookstores within the church walls.

Sure, it's a great place to get discounted devotionals, pre-approved books, no worries about your kid wandering off to the Erotica or the (gasp) Gay & Lesbian sections of Barnes&Noble.

But is it a good idea? Is it right to sell books in church? To answer this question with a question:

What do Medieval Cathedrals, Fashion Magazines, Flowers, and Church Bookstores have in common?

Find out after the jump...

First up, Medieval Cathedrals. Bryan Caplan from EconLog just got back from Europe and engaged another blogger on medieval cathedrals.

Seeing a bunch of French cathedrals makes me even more skeptical of the claim (made by Larry Iannaccone and others) that people weren't more religious in earlier centuries. If people weren't far more religious in the Middle Ages, why did they pour such a high fraction of their surplus wealth into century-long religious architectural projects? You could say "It was primarily rulers, not donors, who allocated the funds," but that just pushes the question back a step. Were rulers vastly more religious than the masses? That's hard to believe. Were rulers trying to impress the masses by building churches? Well, why would churches impress the masses unless they were highly religious?
...
Religious architecture and art were to medieval feudalism what advertising and commercialism are to modern capitalism: A rather effective way to build support for the status quo using aesthetics instead of argument.

Cathedrals depicted Feudal relationships in positive ways.To Caplan, cathedrals were not just monuments to God and gathering places for the people of God. They were endorsements of the relationships that people held; namely, feudal relationships of Lords, vassals, peasants, etc. We see this echoed in atonement theology etched out during one period of Cathedral-building: humanity has offended God's honor and Jesus restores God's honor by taking the shame on himself. You see how not only theology, but also church architecture/art endorsed the status quo.

Were Cathedrals intentionally supporting feudalism? No. But by their depicting the type of relationship in art, building, and theology, they were supporting feudalism.

Next up...Flowers. Caplan continues:

Less than a decade ago, I drove from former West Germany to former East Germany, and was struck by how much more beautiful the West was. Houses in the West had flower boxes. Houses in the East did not. I reflected that the aesthetic gap between West and East used to be vastly greater. And I recalled how people I knew who toured the Soviet bloc were more likely to sadly describe the "greyness" of communist life than the machine guns at the border.

The upshot is that the private pursuit of beauty in the West had a striking externality. Every time a West German put a flower box in his window, he was making capitalism look prettier than socialism. And while intellectuals may say they couldn't care less about such things, I suspect that sheer aesthetics changed a lot of minds about East versus West.


Flowers made socialistic life look drab and boring.Again, art and aesthetics portrayed life in the West as better than life under the socialist East. In people's daily walks, they would pass by more flower boxes than they would anti-socialist propaganda. In pictures comparing the two Germanys, the color of life contrasted with the gray monotones of order.

Did the West intentionally put flower boxes out to oppose socialism? No. But by endorsing the relationship between socialism and monotony, they were opposing socialism.

Finally, Fashion Magazines (Vogue, GQ, and other fashion magazines). Caplan once more:
Corporations do not advertise to create support for capitalism, any more than West Germans planted flowers to fight communism. But advertising does more than just sell one firm's products; it also contributes to the beautiful image of the whole system.

Flip through a popular magazine, or wander through your local mall. Even if you don't remember a single product, you get an overall impression of a world that is colorful, fun, glitzy, and sexy. And that probably leads more people around the world to admire capitalism than Milton Friedman ever did.


Fashion mags sell an image, not just products.We see that fashion magazines do not overtly support capitalism. They are simply trying to sell products and earn money, and I doubt "let's support capitalism" is on their radar. But by their marketing and imaging, they portray the capitalistic world as better, prettier, and sexier.

As Caplan concludes:
My claim, in short, is that Notre Dame played the same role during the Middle Ages that fashion magazines play today. Notre Dame was not an argument for feudalism, and Elle is not an argument for capitalism. But both are powerful ways to make regular people buy into the system.

All of the above endorse the Status Quo of "proper" relationships.Now, we can answer the original question: What do Medieval Cathedrals, Fashion Magazines, Flowers, and Church Bookstores have in common? They all endorse the Status Quo. Be it exemplifying feudal relationships, anti-socialism, or capitalism, they endorsed the current relationship between aesthetics and society in attractive ways.

Is a bookstore an endorsement of consumerism?So what happens when a visitor comes into a church door, gets greeted by an usher, and to the side...there's the church bookstore, with a flashy display of Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now? I would claim such a church bookstore is exactly an endorsement of consumerism.

We approve of what happens within the church walls.Within the Church, we act and speak in ways that are pleasing to God. We act differently in church, we speak differently, we treat our children differently, we respect our elders differently. Within the Church, we endorse types of relationships by exemplifying them. Whatever is tolerated or lifted up within the church walls is assumed to be good.

Within the Church, if we have a bookstore where we sell things, we are endorsing consumerism. That sounds blunt and hardline, but it is a simple comparison. If you remember the SATs and syllogisms, here it is made perfectly clear:
  • Church Bookstores are to Consumerism what Cathedrals are to Feudalism.
  • Church Bookstores are to Consumerism what Flower Boxes are to Anti-Socialism.
  • Church Bookstores are to Consumerism what Fashion Magazines are to Capitalism.

If we offer a flashy bookstore, aren't we making consumerism look good?Consumerism is believing that buying something will lead to happiness. That's the simple definition. And by offering convenient ways to buy a devotional book, bookmark, card, BibleMan action figure...we are saying within the church walls that buying something will lead you to happiness. How can a Church preach against consumerism, against materialism, against the Prosperity Gospel, against shopaholics...if we are suckling Consumerism by endorsing it within the church context?

Convenience is the polar opposite of being prophetic.You may say that by running our own bookstore, we are not encouraging people to run and buy them at Mardel's or Cokesbury or Walmart. But Zondervan will send you the flashy displays, right? Abingdon will send you the catalogs to put out. The whole "selling" side of bookstores will still be present.

In short, we cannot stand against the culture of consumerism, and preach against the corrupting influence of materialism on our nation if we endorse such a relationship within our church walls.

For this web community, church bookstores can be seen as bad.hacks: manipulations of the Church's stand against consumerism and materialism by allowing consumerism-lite within the church walls. By allowing it within the church walls (because it brings in money, it is convenient...so many excuses!), we are watering down our social witness against materialism. And that's a bad thing!

I will allow that there may be ways that do sell things in church and not truly endorse consumerism. (This may seem like splitting hairs and I fully expect to be accused of double-standards...but....great! It means people are reading my blog! Ha!)
  • In my parent's church, they sell fair trade items from a "World Market" where the highest percentage possible of profits go to third-world countries. This seems to be a nice fit between recognizing people will buy gifts, so why not funnel that money away from corporations and to the world market? It is still getting happiness from buying things, but that happiness would hopefully come more from knowing you are supporting a family or village far, far away.
Your turn...What do you think? Are church bookstores endorsements of consumerism and contribute to our society's materialistic tendencies? Or is there a middle road between church bookstores and finding solid ground to offer a prophetic word against consumeristic cultures?

Thanks for your comments, and welcome to Hacking Christianity.

4 comments:

Pastor Justin Hildebrandt June 6, 2008 at 10:16 AM  

I have to admit, I've never thought of church bookstores in that way. I'm not sure I completely agree, but I do see your point. Would all church book stores be bad? Is selling anything in a church bad. So for instance when churches sell coffee that is fair trade to help coffee growers, is that bad?

Being in New England, I'll likely never serve a church with a bookstore. But I do have a similar issue with church suppers. The idea of eating together for fellowship and to feed the hungry is a great one. But too often now church suppers are mere fund raisers for the church budget. Many even provide take out. That just sits wrong with me. And I think diminished the differentness we are called to as the church.

In my current appointment we've reached an agreement. Church suppers will be free-will offering where I make a statement that as followers of Jesus, those of us who have more should give more...those of us who can't pay anything are welcome to eat as much as they like. And second, the offering is for an outreach ministry...not the general church budget.

I believe one of our deepest problems as the church is that we've forgotten we aren't supposed to be like everyone else. We're different than a fraternal organization or a service organization. We are the church, the body of Christ.

DogBlogger June 6, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

I'm reminded of the episode of the Simpsons in which First Church of Springfield gets a drastic, sponsor-laden rebuild. I believe the moment Lisa loses it is when she hears, "Money Changer! Get your money changed, right here in the temple!"

Not sure how I feel about the whole church bookstore thing, but I do admit having that audio clip come to mind last time I walked into one at an area megachurch.

John Leek June 6, 2008 at 1:59 PM  

When you were talking about middle ground I started thinking about the church libraries I USED to see in churches, but rarely see anymore. In each church I saw them in they were removed at some point to make room for this or that expansion (choir practice room or offices). It's good to think about though.

Eric Helms June 9, 2008 at 9:46 AM  

I agree and would go a step further--emersing our youth in fundraisers to pay for their trips teaches them how to win and survive in a consumer world rather than become mature disciples.

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