Push Back from the Keyboard, Put Down the Pen

kinnon —  August 12, 2009 — 9 Comments

UPDATE: Jordon Cooper jumps off from this post and adds greatly to the conversation.

This post is a little like thinking out loud via pushed pixels on the screen. I apologize in advance for it’s disjointedness.

Two blog-posts south of this one, I reviewed a book. It generated more response than usual for this nanonode on the interwebs, both hot and cold. The Tall Skinny Kiwi Missionary in a Truck, Andrew Jones said this,

Bill Kinnon restores the art of writing a review on a book that you dont like. This has been a big issue for me. I am often sent rubbish books and I would rather not say anything at all than put up yet another negative review and have everyone mad at me. But maybe if some of us were more honest with their first book, rather than trying to be nice and encouraging, then perhaps the situation that Bill describes could have been avoided.

My point is not to highlight the praise (though I do appreciate it, TSKMiaT) but rather the “I am often sent rubbish books” aspect of Andrew’s comment. It would seem that everyone has a book in them. And perhaps that’s where most of them should stay. Instead, publishers, hoping to capitalize on whatever the latest trend is, rush rubbish to market – or at least to bloggers, in the hope of creating a market.

In the comments on two south, Frank Turk challenges the iMonk to a survey “on the top 50 books in the category of church critique.” (Frankly, Turk and Spencer have better things to do with their time.) What scares me is that there probably are at least 50 recent books on church critique. Along with a myriad of other “hot topics.” (As a cranky aside; if you’re going to write a book on “Christian parenting”, please wait ’til your kids are grown so we can assess the results.)

Who is reading these books? Other than bloggers, of course. (And not for much longer, I add.) Not a whole heck of a lot of people. In fact, as Adam Witty notes, the average Christian book sells 4,000 copies in it’s lifetime, with the average secular book only selling half that amount. Witty also quotes this sobering reality from a 2006 New Yorker article (on Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail),

In 2004, Nielsen BookScan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books and found that nine hundred and fifty thousand of them sold fewer than ninety-nine copies.

99 copies. And that number isn’t any higher because your Mom can’t afford to buy any more of your books. Are you still convinced you have a book in you?

Now let me free the beagle to chase a rabbit.

Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind, unpacks how we are moving from the information age to the conceptual age – the age of creativity,

Today, the defining skills of the previous era – the “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age – are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous – the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning – increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. (emphasis added)

He states that wise businesses are hiring more MFA’s and fewer MBA’s. (MFA = Master of Fine Arts) Pattern recognition and storytelling are becoming more important than number crunching and the latest management theory.

Now let me jump back to the church. From a recent Christianity Today edtiorial, Mega Mirror,

…the megachurch is like a megaphone. It is not so much an aberrant form of church as a large, flashing icon of the American church. It’s no secret that too many evangelical leaders are captivated more by business culture than biblical culture, spending more time absorbed in strategies and effectiveness and relatively little time in prayer. No, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, but let’s face it, it often is.

Western Church culture has been dominated by left-brain thinkers for a rather long time. Some would suggest from the time of the Geneva Reformers. Systematic theology, a rationalistic approach to the mysteries of the faith, (grab your ukelele and sing with me as we Tiptoe Through the TULIPs, arguing over who gets to sing which Sola), with newer innovations of pastorpreneurs in the previous century (Bill Hybels used to have a sign outside his door that said, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?”), where the pragmatic focus became on how best to get butts in chairs, elect or otherwise. (Yes I realize that this is my 80,000ft view of 600 years of Protestant church history.)

The 99 – 4000 selling Christian books reflect this left brain dominance. We are given a plethora of books with titles like, Five Ways to…, Understanding X in Light of Y, How the Church Should…

Too often these books suggest that if we only follow the map laid out by the author then everything will change for the better. But it just never seems to, now does it. (And quite frankly, most of us forget what the writers have written scant hours after putting the book down.)

If you are an aspiring writer who longs to be published (and sell a few more than 99 copies of your book to your Mom), let me remind you that we are a people captivated by stories. Read the Gospels; Jesus draws us into God’s meta-narrative through the stories he tells. (I’m always shocked at the dissonance between the view of an angry narcissistic God on the part of so many of my brethren and the Father describe by Jesus in the story of the Prodigal Son.) And we tend to remember stories – they are sticky. (Think of how many sermons you’ve heard where you can’t recall the central point – but you can recall the illustrative stories.)

Brian McLaren, bête noire for the writers of the book I reviewed two south, established himself as a voice to be reckoned with, with his book, A New Kind of Christian. His “diabolical” thesis presented in a captivating fictional story.

The dangerous theological treatise, The Shack, was cleverly constructed as an engaging tale fooling millions of people into purchasing it – many of whom hadn’t thought about a loving God in years, if ever.

C.S. Lewis, best known in popular culture for his Narnia series but whose primary focus in his professional life was as an expert on medieval English literature, used fiction to challenge, engage and entertain people whilst providing them with theological insight – The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces.

Randy Alcorn, a contemporary writer, has written fiction that is full of theological truth but is also engaging and entertaining. The Kinnon family have enjoyed Randy’s books, Deadline, Dominion and Safely Home.

All of these books sold well. People who might never pick up a true theological treatise were engaged with stories that told them about God – whether they realized it at a left-brain level or not.

And story-telling does not need to be fictional. Years ago I read Chuck Colson’s Loving God, in a single sitting. The power of his writing had me in tears numerous times – as he told story after story of the lives of Christians who love God, often at great cost to themselves.

At Sundance this year, I sat with a friend who is well known Christian writer. He’s a great story-teller. His deadline for his next book loomed in the not too distant future as we talked. I challenged him to consider writing it as fiction – using a few of the examples above. I wasn’t successful for this book, but perhaps the next.

One of that writer’s favourite films @ Sundance was The Cove, a documentary on the outrageously cruel slaughtering of dolphins. This documentary is told with the pacing and storytelling of a blockbuster – the message delivered as an edge-of-the-seat thriller. People will remember this story.

Let me end my disjointed ramblings by suggesting that here at this lonely node pumping pixels at the edge of the interwebs, I’d really rather you told me a great story. Please quit attempting to force feed me your opinions, prognostications, facts and figures – or “rubbish” as Andrew succinctly stated.

I will have hopefully more coherent thoughts on this in the not too distant future – with some choice words for publishers. (And yes, I’m busy writing a novel, in case you were wondering.)



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

9 responses to Push Back from the Keyboard, Put Down the Pen

  1. Here is a response in story form:

    Once upon a time a blogger wrote his readers and told them to stop feeding him their rubbish of opinions, prognostications, facts and figures. He said he preferred stories. He made this request right beside an ad for his own piece of non-fiction which was trying to convince people to buy it. The irony of that seemed to have escaped the blogger.
    The end.
    Sorry Bill – but the ad sitting right next to your call for no more non-fiction rubbish was just too much to resist.

  2. Too funny. I do offer the book for free somewhere on this blog. Which leads into another thought I will share on another post – which is the Power of Free.

    And for folks who don’t know Ken, he can make me cry when he tells stories – he’s that good. Though his wit here may not be as indicative of his talent, 🙂

  3. Exactly why I really wish Patrick Oden’s It’s A Dance had gotten more attention … he did a great job putting a lot of difficult theological concepts into narrative.

  4. My my, you’ve been busy. Loved the review, btw. I like this cranky mood you’ve been in lately : )

  5. I like the idea of hiring more MFAs and fewer MBAs. Thanks Bill.

  6. Totally agree, Bill. I just wish I had any skill as a novelist. My few attempts have been flop- good concepts, weak execution. I also appreciate that you are not rejecting ALL non-fiction, just the imbalanced crap load that as me weeping for the forests needlessly lost for their production.


  7. Sonja,
    Thanks for reminding me of Patrick’s book. I need to read it. Patrick might want to consider doing a blog marketing storm like Jared Wilson is doing for his new book.  (Which, though not in any sense fiction, is well written, witty and full of life. The book is Your Jesus is Too Safe.)

    I guess I’m gettin’ my crank on, eh! And most of my busyness is to do with building things at our place – which is not my forté.

    I have a good friend, trained as a sculptor with his MFA, who is one of the top institutional investors in the country. His ability to see patterns is unsurpassed. He was an early indicator of this trend.

    Perhaps you aren’t ready to write a novel, but I do know you as a good writer and storyteller – and that’s really what I’m attempting to say here. The post might better have been called “Show, Don’t Tell.” Which is one of the standard “rules” I’ve received in every creative writing course I’ve taken.

  8. Hey Bill,

    Thanks! You are right about the standard rule of “show, don’t tell”. That is one of the most significant disciplines to develop as a writer.

    On a funny side note, my wife says I will never write good fiction because I don’t know how real people talk. She teases me that she needs a dictionary to have a conversation with me, then smiles and affectionately calls me a nerd.


  9. Mark that was gracious of you considering you are working on your book.

    As is Wendy, as is Michael, I think Dan is…all bloggers.

    I’ve done one review, lost track of the begging and offers.

    Will never do another. I try not to be rude to publishers and authors, but I’m really sick of the requests.


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