When Do Christian Books Cause Too Much Damage?

book-christian

The last thing in the world that I want to do is write about that dating book—the one where the author now admits he had no actual experience in putting the book’s ideas into practice. He’s pretty sure that it’s wrong (calling it “speculative”), has been hearing people out, and even has started to formally collect feedback.

With no personal malice toward that author, I would very much like the rest of my life to pass without hearing about him or his dating book again. His book caused so much shame, judgment, and confusion in my own relationships that I’d like to assign it to the dust bin of history and move on. I’m just one of many Christians who grew up with this book and have spent significant time trying to work through the fall out. Even if you weren’t negatively impacted by the book, take a look at a small sample of the damage it has done:

What I Learned from Joshua Harris

Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl

I Kissed Shame Goodbye

Recovering from I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Storify of I Kissed Shame Goodbye Tweets

There are clearly better things to do than discuss books written by self-admittedly unqualified authors that have wounded us, the people we love and care for, or our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Here is my problem: That dating book is still for sale, and the simple fact that this book is for sale hints to me that everything we have feared about the Christian publishing industry may be true. Putting the most positive spin on this I can manage, the publisher of this book is at the very least unwittingly acting in a way that proves our worst fears

If I put my worst fears into stark language, they would be something like this: If you’re not a gay, drunk, adulterer, or heretic, you can write just about whatever you damn well please as a Christian author, provided that it makes money.

A lack of craft can be compensated with a ghost writer and a lack of substance can be excused provided the book makes money. If the book makes money but hurts people, the people who complain are just whiners, divisive Christians, or just collateral damage because the book didn’t harm everyone who read it.

Publishers have some limits, just not consistent limits.

Perry Noble? His latest book release was suspended because he was “too drunk.” Sorry, Perry. We can’t have alcohol abuse sullying the reputation of CHRISTIAN authors and publishers.

However, a pastor in Seattle could spiritually abuse people in his congregation, and he wrote a book on marriage—REAL marriage to boot.

And a very young conference speaker can totally handle writing a book about dating before he actually put any of it into practice. Never mind that the book has caused heartbreak and shame for many of our fellow Christians. It didn’t devastate everyone, so why not keep making money from it?

Where do we draw the line for a destructive book in Christian publishing?

We have piles and piles of stories from people who have experienced shame, intimacy problems, and unhealthy relationships because of this uninformed dating book. Sure, it may have helped some readers become a little more restrained, or at least confirmed their decision because a good looking author agreed with them. But shouldn’t the piles of stories AND the author’s admissions about the book’s speculative content prompt the publisher to pull this book from sale?

People can still buy this uninformed dating book after the author has gone on a national tour saying that he was wrong and has repeatedly apologized for it on Twitter. How is this possible?

I’ve been biding my time, waiting through one interview after another as the author goes on his anti-publicity tour where he admits he managed to publish a Christian book on dating that was deeply flawed and hoping that the publisher will pull the book. And so he says he’s sorry, people applaud his bravery, and then the next day people are still buying his bullshit dating book so that he can apologize to them in 10-15 years for their crippling shame and intimacy issues.

For all of the evangelical talk about preserving marriages, shouldn’t we be concerned that the “go to” dating book of a whole generation has been exposed by its own author as speculative? Doesn’t relying on a speculative dating book for advice sound like a “not strong” and “not healthy” way to start a marriage? Would we use a speculative book for advice on raising children? Shouldn’t we take all of the stories of hurt and heartbreak seriously and demand that the publisher pull I Kissed Dating Goodbye from all stores?

Well, the skeptics say, there were PLENTY of people who didn’t suffer shame and heartbreak, so what’ the big deal?

These are the people that the Christian publisher is no doubt listening to—the people who weren’t harmed by the book that is making them money. The bar has been set embarrassingly low.

Perhaps the people in charge at this publisher don’t see things this way. Perhaps they believe they are somehow doing great good in the world by keeping this book readily available. If they are living in this fantasy, I can only hope that spelling this out may help the light of reality start to shine in.

Looking at the publisher from the outside, there is no logical reason why this book should still be on sale. Period. A publisher somehow found the courage to suspend a book by a drunk pastor, but somehow a publisher is OK with a book by the author who is a well-meaning speaker who just did his honest best to help teens not have sex and made up a bunch of stuff along the way. If this is really a reflection of Christian publishing today, then we have a real credibility problem.

I write all of this as a Christian author who cares about the Christian publishing industry. I believe in many of the authors and editors I’ve worked with. We dare not lump everyone into the same boat here. There are many, many editors who would roll their eyes at the mere mention of this dating book. They know what we all know, but the opinions of individuals are quite different from the actions of organizations.

I know many, many Christian authors who invest years and years into their research and craft. They don’t speculate on anything. They seek out expert help, they go to workshops to get critical feedback, they read voraciously, and then they write really, really wonderful books that help make the body of Christ stronger. Readers may disagree with them on some points, but there aren’t entire movements of people sharing stories of shame, fear, anxiety, and heartbreak in response to their books.

I have also worked with Christian publishers who have extremely high standards. One editor at a favorite publisher of mine wrote in response to my 2006 book proposal that he frankly didn’t think I was qualified enough to write the book I had proposed. He was 100% right, and I had to work harder at my research and put my book ideas into practice in order to further refine them. When a publisher finally accepted my first book proposal, I had spent countless hours working with theology professors, pastors, small groups, and trusted friends. I had piles of research notes, and only a small percentage of them actually made it into my book. When I submitted my first draft, my editor pushed me to make it better, to do even more research, and to turn it into the best book I could produce. The book wasn’t a bestseller, but many college professors started to use my book for their classes, and I largely credit the people in the publishing industry for pushing me to make it a better book.

All of my first hand experiences in Christian publishing combined with my negative experiences with this dating book make this whole story extremely galling for me. I know that Christian publishing regularly does better than this. I know that there are excellent authors out there working with world class editors to give us books that don’t receive half of the attention of this dating book.

As much as I want to go my separate way from the author of this dating book and personally never hear from him again, I am grateful for the steps he has taken. I hope that he can move from remorse to actual repentance for his actions by also publicly calling for the removal of this book. I hope and pray that he can find his way again as a pastor, author, husband, and father. I just hope to God he doesn’t write another dating book.

At the very least, the publisher of this dating book owes us an explanation for why the book is still for sale. If the many stories about the damage of the book or the author’s admitted flaws about its content aren’t enough to prompt the suspending of this book, then we need to know what in the world the people at this publisher are thinking. Until they take action or offer an explanation, it sure looks like this dating book is only in print because it’s still making money, not because it makes the body of Christ stronger.

10 thoughts on “When Do Christian Books Cause Too Much Damage?

  1. It might be for sale because the author is in the news again, which might make some people who hadn’t read it before buy the book out of curiosity. This feels like a way for the publisher to sell backlist. That’s my cynical opinion– I could be wrong. Also, there are so many used copies out there (a good number might be slightly battered from being thrown across the room) that you can’t really remove them from the marketplace. But I’m very cynical about this author’s motives.

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  2. I definitely hold no ill will toward Joshua Harris but this book caused me some confusion in my dating life when I was single. First I felt like it wasn’t okay to accept dates, I had to be friends with a guy and hope he saw something in me and then we moved to courtship. That’s unrealistic for most single women. A guy asks you on a date, you think about whether or not it should be a courtship and go from there. I turned down dates because I felt like it was wrong to do so, you must jump straight to courtship. Which means dating sites, and fix ups are out of the question. Also it made me feel like my love story had to go a certain way. I don’t mean God’s way because we all want that, but it made it seem like if you’re perfect and blameless you will have this amazing storybook romance. I love my husband but we’ve made mistakes and our love story is a very ordinary one. I guess I understand what he was trying to do but I think this book and he makes some points I agree with but I think his concept throws out the baby with the bath water.

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  3. Here’s a comment via author Mary DeMuth that got lost in the shuffle in my blog’s admin:
    “I’ve had to separate “Christian” from publishing. It helps me realize the whole publishing thing is a business with a bottom line. Most of these houses are run by bigger corporations, so that’s probably why the book remains. It makes money.”
    Mary’s website is here: http://t.co/P5NU5tx2Ah

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  4. I’m guessing it’s still for sale because it keeps selling, which means the publisher maintains the right to keep selling it. I have no idea what kind of contract the author signed, but my understanding is that with most book contracts, the rights don’t revert back to the author until the book stops selling. Which it hasn;t.

    I did check the publisher: Multnomah, which is owned by Penguin Random House – not a Christian organisation (assuming such a thing even exists). PRH have no incentive to stop selling it, because they are earning money from it. And, yes, so is the author.

    And the author can’t do anything about it, because he sold the publication rights. One of the downsides of traditional publishing: if you change your mind about a topic, you don’t get to unpublish the book.

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    1. I agree with you and I definitely know how book contracts work, having signed several of them myself. But I had hoped he would distance himself more dramatically from it. If he can’t legally tell people to not buy it, then perhaps he could donate the profits so that he isn’t profiting from the shame of others. I don’t know. It just feels really hollow for him to say he’s sorry without taking some steps to prevent future damage. However, I’ve made the publisher my primary target. I agree that it’s still in print because it makes money, but that also means the publisher can just delete their mission, vision, and values statements from their websites. Sure, publishers need to make money, but then we come back to my question: at what cost to the body of Christ.

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  5. Books which have been linked with child abuse and death are still sold and promoted, too. (*cough, Pearls*) They are published by the authors’ “ministry,” so no publisher to appeal to. However, people have petitioned Amazon to not sell them, but still. . . $$$. . .

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