Since it was a Saturday, presumably the meetings weren’t too much of a problem (image via). I would have been interested to see how things panned out on a weekday.
Let’s consider the flow of events:
- Friday: This video, made by HarperCollins to promote an upcoming book is released to relatively little fanfare
- Saturday @1145: A very prominent Christian blogger links to it and offers comments
- Later Saturday, comments on the post are through the roof (1,000+ for the weekend)
- Several prominent evangelical pastors Twitter a brief response.
- By the end of the day, the author was a trending topic on Twitter.
For more roundups of responses to Saturday’s festivities, see here and here.
I think the initial response and post might have been slightly premature, especially in light of what this person who already read the book pointed out. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong to raise the question, but I think it could have waited until the book is out. It would not be surprising in the least if this particular author does affirm a universalist position, but it would be best to have it in writing before making any judgments.
That being said, I am personally not fond of this particular author, but I would rather not see him unjustly maligned, or misrepresented in his views. Granted, he is not the best at making his views clear, but all the more reason to read his books carefully and not just clip sound bytes here and there. I’ve posted my thoughts on a couple of his books, noting the positive value, as well as the negative. In that light, I am not here to anathematize, but nor am I really here to defend either side.
I realize this blog is titled, Think Theologically, but for just a moment, let’s Think Economically. This video was presumably made by the publisher. Publishers are generally good at marketing and they know how to create a stir for a book. It would not be that surprising then if HarperCollins has researched the evangelical world enough to know that a video hinting at a denial of semi-controversial but traditionally held doctrine would do work on several levels.
By making a video that implies “Christian isn’t what you always thought it was,” marketing was able to target two key groups:
- Conservative, evangelical, Reformed type Christians would do not like this author but will now read the book because of the buzz/controversy surrounding it.
- Disenfranchised, previously disinterested non-Christians who will resonate with the questions raised and find this author’s re-imagining of Christian doctrine to be hip and interesting.
Could there have been a better laid marketing plan for this book? The video is well crafted to stir interest in the two demographics that would seem least likely to care about a book like this. Certainly the fact the author ending up being a trending topic on Twitter by the end of the day means in terms of estimating value, the marketing campaign was a huge success. HarperCollins baited the hook and by and large everyone bit. By having a conniption over it all, the book has garnered more attention than it deserves and more people will now buy it and read it than would have had it been ignored until after its release and a fair review had been posted.
In a way though, by posting the video, the publisher already slanted the way you approach the book. After watching the video, which seems intent on stirring the pot, it is unlikely that many evangelicals will be able to approach the book without some bit of negative bias. So then the next question is why does the publisher want you to approach the book in that way? It also raises the question, “to what extent was the author complicit in this marketing ploy?” I’ve raised the question myself in regard to his last book, which I felt was aimed making a profit (which may be the publisher not the author), but given the author’s vision for the book, it seemed to conflict with the message of the actual book.
I think what should have been reflected on all along (and maybe was somewhere in those 1000 comments) was how smart the publisher might be in exploiting a weakness of the evangelical Reformed community; namely, how we handle controversy over doctrine. We’ve become predictable, but in a highly negative way. If there is one thing the Reformed community has a bad rap for, it is for always claiming to be right and holding a corner on the truth. But even among ourselves, we can’t seem to stop fighting.
Certainly there is a place for arguing over theology and for clarifying important doctrines. But I think it might be a problem if the public, non-Christian perception (and other Christian’s perceptions) of a particular Christian community is such that they can anticipate what will get everyone riled up and then market an upcoming book accordingly. I think it might be worse as well to have played right into their hands. In a sense, the evangelical Reformed response over the weekend actually became an extension of the marketing campaign, taking it much further than it might have otherwise gone. Information travels fast, and these kinds of reactions make it even faster.
So in the end, hopefully there are some things to be learned from this weekend, much of which has little to do with the actual book about to published or the actual theology of its author. I think the lesson is in looking at ourselves and seeing how we react and potentially thinking through those actions a little more before setting them in motion. I know I have been guilty in the past of over-reacting to things like and will probably still do so in the future. I don’t intend to downplay the significance of the questions raised by the video, but just wanted to highlight that the weekend yielded no answers to those questions, but did provide answers to questions that should be raised in response.