Sign in / Join

Jesus is getting a makeover by new publishers

Nashville has long been known as a national hub for mainstream religious publishing. It may also become known for Christian writers, publishers and literary agents who challenge the status quo of their religious elders.

The new Christian authors are usually not complete renegades, but they often tolerate–and sometimes welcome–opinions and discussions previously deemed off-limits by many evangelicals.

Many, although not all, are under 40 and are driven by Christian ideals such as service to the poor and underserved, rather than a strict adherence to religious doctrine. They usually dislike the traditional labels of conservative and liberal because they usually see themselves as a mix of both.

One of the most visible examples of the trend is Jericho Books, a new, Brentwood-based specialty publisher designed to focus on non-traditional Christian voices.

The new book imprint has got some power behind it as a subsidiary of Hatchette Book Group, the second largest book publisher in the world. Jericho is headed by longtime publishing pro Wendy Grisham.

Grisham, the sister of popular author John Grisham, moved to Nashville from England to launch Jericho. The imprint will publish about a dozen books a year and has already signed a cadre of out-of-the-box Christian authors and theologians.

Among them are several residents of Middle Tennessee, including:

  • Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest and founder of the Magdalene & Thistle Farms, a social enterprise and ministry that helps women recovering from a life of prostitution
  • Matthew Paul Turner, a non-fiction author, blogger and humorist and former editor of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music magazine).
  • Singer-songwriter, producer and Emmylou Harris band member Phil Madeira.

“I believe we are doing something that no one else has done,” Grisham says. “We’re providing a place for difficult conversations in the faith community. There’s a growing movement of voices that are pushing traditional boundaries, and we’re creating a place for them.”

Jericho’s list of high-profile authors also includes Jay Bakker, the 37-year-old preacher son of the late evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Justin Lee, 35, founder of the Gay Christian Network. Both Bakker and Lee preach a gospel of inclusiveness, one that puts them at odds with many traditional Christians.

Non-traditional Nashville voices

“I think it’s just brilliant that Jericho is based here in Nashville,” says Becca Stevens. “We have a long and rich religious publishing history, and it only makes sense to widen it. Wendy is creating a place where you can write about your faith and not condemn anyone in the process, a place where you can express yourself without fear of reprisal.

“I know Wendy thinks of Jericho as her ministry, and it’s a very important one. It’s a huge gift because it’s given us (alternative Christian voices) a home.”

Stevens’ book, “Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling,” due out in early 2013, broaches uncomfortable topics such as her childhood sexual abuse and the broken lives of the prostitutes she serves at Magdalene and Thistle Farms.

Nashville resident Turner, who signed a deal with Jericho in mid-December, is known for a popular blog and Twitter account, “Jesus Needs New PR.” He often writes satirically about his strict upbringing in evangelical circles and his attempt to still be a part of that community as a free-thinker.

Turner, 39, is working on a book, tentatively titled, “GOD IS FAT: A Short (but stout) History of America’s Ever Growing (and evolving) Deity.”

He says the book will be “a thoughtful and humorous exploration of America’s history of God–how we’ve affected God, changed God, molded God into our image.”

Turner says his social media fans (46,000 followers on Twitter) have helped sustain his career as an author and speaker. He also works part time for World Vision, a Christian relief organization that works to overcome poverty

“Change and growth are slow within religious communities,” Turner says. “But honestly, I think evangelism is finally evolving. It’s growing up, finally starting to shift and change. While this new wave is indeed large among the under-30 crowd, it’s actually a trend that is bleeding throughout demographics and denominations.”

‘The evangelism monolith is breaking up’

Grisham says she doesn’t always agree with the provocative views of her authors but supports their rights to express them.

“I challenge them, and we have some really great debates,” she says. “I’ve promised I won’t censor them. We are having the hard conversations.”

Marcia Z. Nelson, religion reviews editor for Publisher’s Weekly,’ says the decision to create the Jericho imprint is creating ripples in the wider publishing world.

For example, Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House and the world’s largest publisher, announced the launch of the Convergent imprint in November 2012. The purpose of the imprint, according to a news release from Random House, is to “explore the contemporary faith experience for a broad range of Christians who are drawn to an open, inclusive and culturally engaged exploration of faith.

“These readers don’t typically see themselves as liberal or conservative, evangelical or mainline,” the release continues. “Yet they frame their spiritual journey in Christian terms, and they’re absolutely passionate about what theologian Brian McLaren has called ‘the sacred endeavor of loving God, neighbor, stranger, alien, outsider, outcast and enemy.”

McLaren, who is often called a “post-evangelical” author because he challenges the traditional evangelical emphasis on salvation and end-times philosophy, has signed a book deal with Jericho.

“There’s definitely something going on here,” Nelson says. “The evangelism monolith is breaking up. It’s evolving over time and in response to circumstances. It’s not only happening with the new imprints; I am seeing evangelical publishing houses move towards to the middle.”

Nelson says there’s an upcoming crop of new Christian voices poised to make a splash in the publishing marketplace.

“They are focused on authenticity and service, and they are tackling a lot more liberal or social issues than their parents or grandparents,” he says.

The labels don’t work’

Middle Tennessee Christian authors, who are penning books in the new vein of Christian vision, are populating publishing houses outside of Nashville.

Jeff Goins, 29, a popular blogger and proponent of social entrepreneurism, signed with Moody Publishers, a Chicago-based evangelical publishing house. Goins’ book, “Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life,” was released mid-2012. The book explores Goin’s ideas about radical sacrifice and selfless service.

“You are seeing more young people who want to own their faith,” Goins says. “The labels don’t work for the things they are trying to do. You are seeing people being intellectually honest about their faith, and quite frankly, there’s no political term that encompasses it. Where in the bible does it say you have to be affiliated with a particular political party?

“I would say the idea of being evangelical is changing, and it should,” Goins says. “It may even be time to retire the term ‘evangelical.’ The old terms can get stagnant.”

Goins says he’s considers himself conservative in many respects, but doesn’t think questioning and doubting organized is heretical.

“We tend to demonize the doubting Thomases, but fail to remember that Thomas got closer to his savior because of his doubt.”

From success to rejection

Nashville resident Jim Palmer has gone the route of self-publishing after enjoying success in mainstream Christian publishing at Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Inc.

Palmer’s breakthrough book, “Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God,” is based on the premise that God works through common people and not exclusively through ordained church leaders.

His second book, “Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity,” expanded on the ideas in the first book. The two books were successes, and Palmer found himself at the center of bidding wars for his third book.

He signed a two-book deal with Zondervan for, “Being Jesus in Nashville.” However, Palmer says his final manuscript was rejected because the publishing house said it “did not lie within the boundaries of biblical orthodox Christianity.”

As a result of the failed deal, Palmer says he lost $80,000 and had to file for bankruptcy.

The former mega-church pastor was devastated, but he was able to self-publish the book successfully and finds work as a speaker and retreat leader, counselor and coach, and adjunct professor. He is now working on, “The Religion-Free Bible Project;” a recasting of the Bible that he says is “free of religious bias.”

Palmer is in his element when he’s mentoring people who have been hurt by the traditional church. Many are younger Christians who “have an interest in Jesus but not Christianity as it’s been presented. It’s a generation that has a great capacity to embrace the paradox of life in a way the previous generation just couldn’t do.”

They are more interested in the ‘here life’ than the afterlife,” Palmer adds. “They challenge the status quo and challenge the church to be better.”

Palmer says it’s possible to be deeply Christian without the structure of a traditional church.

“The church is not an address; it’s not a location,” he says, “Life is the religion. Life is the church.”

Literary agent sees ‘reformation’

Literary agent Greg Daniel heads a Nashville-based firm that specializes in representing spiritual and religious authors. Some of the writers Daniel works with are what he calls “top progressive Christian authors,” including Turner, Peter Rollins, Sara Miles, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Justin Lee, Doug Pagitt and Sharon Baker.

Daniel says many of the new Christian voices have been influenced by Memphis-based author Phyllis Tickle, who penned the highly-acclaimed, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.”

Tickle says there is a major reformation in the Christian church every 500 years, and one is happening now.

“I think (the influx of non-traditional Christian voices) is a natural counterbalance or reaction to the ‘orthodox belief is all that matters’ brand of faith that Christianity has been espoused by evangelicalism in the 20th century,” Daniel says.

“There are many Christians who have come to realize that ‘orthopraxy’ (doing the right thing) is at least as important, if not more important, than ‘orthodoxy’ (believing the right thing). This has opened the door afresh to a lot of questioning and rethinking.”

Turner praises Jericho Books for publishing books that “offer fresh voices that perhaps would never have been heard elsewhere, or perhaps would have only been heard if they watered down their message and tried to placate all the traditional gatekeepers in the Christian publishing industry.”

“This is a terrific time for both the religious and the non-religious, the believers and seekers alike, to find voices that resonate with their own experiences of mystery and doubt and a faith that really has to be wrestled with,” he adds. “There’s a longing for something more than what has been served up by traditional evangelicalism that is deeply felt all across the country by many believers, young and old.”

Leave a reply