Odd ducks

ON THE WAY HOME FROM SANTA FE – I’ve spent the past few days at PubWest, an annual meeting of the publishing industry based in the western part of the U.S. and Canada. Western is interpreted loosely as “west of the Hudson River.” Name a genre, and you could probably find at least one publisher. Chalice was one of only two Christian publishers at the event; the other was Ave Maria Press out of Notre Dame, Indiana. (Indiana is, after all, west of the Hudson.)

As a PubWest first-timer, I enjoyed the diverse nature of this group. Introductions typically contained statements like, “we publish literary and children’s fiction” or “we publish outdoor guides” or “we publish books about national parks,” and it was easy to see their mission. Then I would explain Chalice Press’ mission, but then, because we’re a faith-related publisher, I was asked to go a step further and explain our ministry, because clearly among this crowd, faith-based publishers are odd ducks.

“We’re 105 years old, based in St. Louis, we’re affiliated with a Protestant denomination blah blah blah,” I’d say quickly before seguing to, “but we know faith is changing, so Chalice Press plans to be the go-to publisher for Progressive Christians.”

The phrase Progressive Christians generally elicited one of two different looks:

  • confusion, because they could guess what that meant but weren’t entirely sure they were correct, or
  • a blank stare, meaning they couldn’t even begin to process what I’d just said.

At least nobody just turned and walked away. And better yet, nobody slugged me.

Then I would unpack the meaning of Progressive Christians: We’re inclusive and welcoming of anybody who wants to have a personal relationship with God through the teachings of Jesus Christ, and we know there are as many ways to relate to God as there are snowflakes in an avalanche. We support the LGBT community. We’re broadening our offerings on social justice in areas such as gender equality, the environment, education, criminal justice reform, a living wage, and voting rights. In everything we do, we want to empower our readers to change their world in ways that make it a better, more caring place. Once I finished that definition, I got a lot of smiles and “cool!” and “that’s really great!”

What stuck with me, though, is that time after time, I had to defend Christianity while at the same time critiquing it. It’s a fine line we Progressive Christians walk, isn’t it? You know the conversation: The divisive, nasty, incendiary garbage cloaked as faith drives people to be blasé about religion in general but, even more so, hostile specifically to Christianity. And I don’t blame them.

Try this exercise to view the world like a publisher: When you look at bookstore shelves, you see what readers are most likely to buy. Most of the time, the books you see represent the market pretty well. Now, in that bookstore you’re envisioning, walk over to the Religion and Spirituality section. The books you’re likely to notice first are from conservative pastors, often proclaiming social-morality agendas, or megachurch pastors powered by multi-million-dollar marketing budgets. When publishers see which books represent Christianity, no wonder they think Christians are all so ridiculously conservative!

The great thing about publishers and editors and marketers and designers and others who work in the publishing industry is that they are all, at heart, curious. They gave me the opportunity to explain Chalice Press’s work and mission, and then they asked thoughtful, challenging, but respectful questions. And in the end, I didn’t meet a single person who criticized what we do. My favorite response was “I knew there were some good Christians out there!”

I cannot report any baptisms or conversions or speaking in tongues at PubWest, but I can report that a good number of people may go home from Santa Fe remembering that there is at least one Christian publisher doing things differently, working to tell the world that our diversity can unify instead of divide. I return to St. Louis with new friends, new counterparts, and new insights, but also knowing that what we are doing — and by we, I mean not just our crew at Chalice Press and our authors, but also our readers, so that includes you — is holy work, and it is making a difference in the world. Progressive Christianity in 2016 is a challenge, no question about it, but know that there are people you will never meet who are thankful for the work we all do.

Grateful to be your partner in ministry,

Brad-signature

(Here’s Publishers Weekly’s article on PubWest.)

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.