Should Christian bookshops be protecting customers or provoking them? Building walls or breaking them down?

I asked this question on twitter in response to an article I found on the Canadian Christian publishers and writers blog, Future Tense: Are Warning Stickers on Book Jackets coming to Canada?

Do Christian booksellers have a duty to “protect the minds” of their customers?

Most Christian bookstores in Canada carry items with the potential to cause the least offence to the fewest people possible, because they don’t want to lose customers or forfeit that big Bible order from the local church. Here’s a trend I sure hope doesn’t spread from the US to Canada. Lifeway Christian Stores, the large, and powerful, and conservative, American bookstore chain owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention denomination, has developed a company practice to sticker certain books with the words, “Read with Discernment.”

It’s a trend that I wouldn’t want to see emerging here in the UK either, a trend which begs the question of why we’re in business as Christian booksellers. Are we there to help maintain the status quo of established doctrine and dogma, stocking only those titles that meet the approval of particular church leaders? And if so, which church leaders, given that most of us will have several different denominations represented in the areas we seek to serve?

Or are we there to provoke and challenge, to provide a prophetic presence on the high street? To be places where people will find books that challenge their faith, forcing them to think through what they believe and why — and then go on to explore what that implies for the way they behave?

Or are we there as mission outposts? Places where people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church — even for their own funeral — can walk in and explore questions of faith and spirituality freely and openly, without fear of being bludgeoned over the head by any one particular blinkered view of Christianity?

Or are we no different to any other booksellers: simply there to make a profit by supplying our customers with whatever books they want, no questions asked?

Putting aside the issue of insulting the intelligence of our customers by suggesting that they might not read with discernment anyway, placing warning labels on books also raises an important ethical question: if we believe a book is going to lead people astray or put their spiritual lives in jeopardy, then is it not hypocritical to stock it and take a profit from its sales, even if we do sticker it up with a ‘spiritual health warning’? I can just imagine the conversation: “But Lord, I did put a sticker on it…”

My stock policy at LST is to carry as broad a range as possible within the constraints of my budget: to stock titles that will encourage my customers to think outside the evangelical box, that will enable them to engage critically with the full spectrum of Christian thought rather than simply pander to preconceived notions of what Christians are supposed to believe. What’s your stock policy, and why?

4 thoughts on “Should Christian bookshops be protecting customers or provoking them? Building walls or breaking them down?

  1. Those of us who trained to be Chartered Librarians, signed up to a professional code of conduct which included no censorship in book selection. I hope that Christian Booksellers would do likewise. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

  2. Presumably one can read the ‘non-stickered’ books in these shops without discernment – they can be swallowed whole, without troubling the mind.

    I do find this sort of thing quite scary. But beyond that, I cannot help wondering who makes the decisions as to what books should be stickered? Is it done by committee, or by an all-powerful individual? Do they read the whole book in each case, or is it done by author – or are entire publishers’ outputs deemed to be in need of ‘discernment’? The sheer logistics of an exercise like this must be daunting.

    Having said that, I have to confess that we have a few books that we do not put on display with the other books in the shop, but keep in the office at the back. These are a few books at the extreme end of the ‘spiritual warfare’ spectrum, mostly by Rebecca Brown. We have a fairly consistent demand for these books, which is why we keep them. On my reading of them they (just about) fall within the bounds of trinitarian Christianity, but we feel uncomfortable about having them ‘on view’ as we feel they could be quite destabilising for impressionable Christians. Does anyone else have similar issues, or policies?

    Having written this I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it. ‘Lord, we did keep them in the back office…!’ However I am actually quite happy with this arrangement – it has worked fairly well for us for a while now.

    With regard to ‘carrying as broad a range as possible within budget constraints’ I agree. That is what we do. However if I am honest budget constraints weigh so heavily, so often, that the temptation is to always go for the tried and tested. I would like to push the boundaries a lot more than I in fact do!

  3. Where do you start with such a scary idea as this? How do you grow if you do not read beyond your comfort zone? Who decrees what is acceptable? Thankfully as an independent this isn’t going to hit us any time soon (unless my Trustees are reading this!).

    But on the general point of stock policy, surely being a Christian bookshop implies we already have some sort of discernment on the books we sell? Here in Newbury the Trust has a Statement of Faith, drawn up by the Trustees, which I use as the final arbiter on whether a book would be a stock item or not.

    Obviously when selecting titles to stock you have to have one eye on whether it will sell. Sadly I have a number of old friends (books that have been in the shop almost as long as I have) that serve as a warning not to ignore that! Thankfully, if we are serving the whole of God’s family there are plenty of opportunities to broaden our horizons (and others).

    And books I find difficult to display? Well, I have to say the books that cause me to most anguish are those where all the energy is devoted to finding differences between us and condemning those in “error”. Which probably brings this post full circle and is a good indication that I should stop rambling.

  4. Phil asked about policies for display, and this would be our offering from GLO Motherwell.

    I do find this area all a bit difficult. I certainly have no wish to be a policeman of spirituality. And I don’t think I’m very well qualified to tell people what they should/shouldn’t read! But I also think it is clearly taught that there is an element of accountability for the spiritual lives of others we come across- whether in work, church or family- ‘Am I my brothers keeper?’. And also that we will be held to account for every ‘careless word’ (Matthew 12:36). So I don’t think I can simply wash my hands and say, ‘Anything goes’. Somewhere, I have a responsibility to ‘pastor’ those who come into my shop with good quality and helpful Christian products. So I do think carefully about what we bring in. We are fortunate to a little interdenominational team (and customer base) here, so we have to look outside our little denominational prejudices when thinking about the ranges.

    Our overall ‘Stocking Policy’ can be found on our website, and is displayed in store.

    In terms of the ‘doctinal baseline’, we have a decision to go back to the Apostles Creed, rather than (say) the Westminster Confession. That gave us a bit more room for stocking a wider range of titles relevant to different denominations than perhaps our core ‘Independent Evangelical’ base would accept.

    We also (like John Duncan) have a category of books that are ‘Kept in Store’, of a variety of persuasions that we think are perhaps unhelpful in some way. On the shop floor, there is also a shelf for various (generally) self-help & life-recovery books which is labelled as ‘These books are not necessarily recommended by GLO’.

    I do think this all works quite well, enabling us to offer a wide range, but also to maintain a consistent position as genuinely ‘Christian’ bookshop.

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