May 19, 2014
Why does the evangelical community take book jacket design so seriously?
by Dustin Kurtz
The fallout continues in Christian publishing over a recent book titled God and the Gay Christian. WaterBrook Multnomah, the widely respected evangelical publishing wing of Pengiun Random House, has been forced to quit its membership in the influential National Religious Broadcasters over the book. That seems pretty harsh to me. I mean, the cover’s not that bad.
As we discussed last month, God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines was published in April by Convergent Books, an imprint of Crown begun in 2012 with a list meant to attract “a broad range of Christians who are drawn to an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith.” God and the Gay Christian would seem to hew pretty closely to that description. Convergent is run by Stephen W. Cobb, founder and publisher of WaterBrook Multnomah and a respected name in evangelical publishing. Because of this, much of the public anger and outrage about the book is being leveled not at Convergent, but at Cobb and WaterBrook, including the expulsion of that publisher from NRB. Evangelicals really dislike that shade of orange, maybe?
“In a letter to board members, NRB president and CEO Jerry Johnson said that employees of WaterBrook Multnomah worked on the book,” write Ruth Moon and Ted Olsen for Christianity Today. Johnson wrote, “This issue comes down to NRB members producing unbiblical material, regardless of the label under which they do it.” Come on now, maybe you don’t like that kerning on the jacket there, but to call it ‘unbiblical’ seems a bit extreme, guy.
NRB is a trade group of evangelical “communicators” with deep roots in the radio and televangelist communities going back to the ’40s. Billy Graham’s various ministries are members, for instance, and NRB was instrumental in the rise of the religious right in the ’80s. It’s hard to say where their seeming deep institutional hatred for thin serif-less typefaces comes from.
Again, from Christianity Today:
“I asked them to reconsider and end the practice of having Christian workers from their publishing house work on Convergent projects,” Johnson wrote. “They declined to do so at this time and asked how we would respond. I told them that if they wanted to remain NRB associate members, I would have to refer the matter to our Ethics Committee for review, or they could agree to resign their membership. They agreed to resign immediately.”
WaterBrook was no incidental member of the group—NRB employees include WaterBrook alums. Cobb’s willingness to leave the group may be a sign of growing diversity in the evangelical ecosystem: WaterBrook may simply not need NRB, particularly as an imprint of Penguin Random House. Or he may simply be sticking by his book. Perhaps Cobb doesn’t like that color of orange himself, but perhaps he recognizes that even in such insistently orange-phobic evangelical communities, there is an inherent benefit to publishing books that will foment discussion, that will make people reexamine why or how they hate orange jackets so stridently. Maybe Cobb believes that people who hate orange jackets do themselves no favors by precluding even the discussion of why others might somehow tolerate orange jackets.
Also maybe he’s not a raving homophobe.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.