Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Jay Jay the Jet Plane & Looking For Mars Hill

I never thought Jay Jay the Jet Plane could provide the foundation for an in-depth discussion on the nature of Christian retail. Boy was I wrong. My coworker, “Don” (not his real name) and I were labeling new Jay Jay videos to put out for sale.

Out of nowhere, Don remarks, “I don’t think a Christian bookstore should be selling Jay Jay the Jet Plane videos. I’ve watched parts of them, and they’re not overtly Christian. They’re probably very moral in what they teach, but I just don’t think it’s right for a Christian bookstore to sell items that are not overtly Christian.”

I should note I am opposed to Jay Jay for purely stylistic reasons. I hate children’s videos that showcase machinery with human faces. It’s just not right. It begs the question, “Why does Jay Jay, a plane, have a big smiley face like a person?” I have come to one of two possible conclusions. 1) He is some weird, demonic plane-human hybrid or 2) Somebody had a bad acid trip and decided to make a kid’s video out of it. Either way I don’t like it.

But I digress.

Don raises an interesting point. His complaint is based on a particular assumption about the nature of Christian retail. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it did lead to a great dialogue about the question, “What should a Christian bookstore look like.”

I know some people feel Christian bookstores are a waste of space and should be burned to the ground as some sort of physical act of worship. Others believe it is the only place for certain artists, writers and musicians to exist without either “selling out to the world” or being ignored by nonreligious venues. You could also define a third group that may not question the idea of Christian bookstores, but they would question the practical application of that idea.

Depending on a number of factors including how much coffee I’ve had, how many evil customers have entered the store or how many pieces of “art” I’ve sold, I could fit into any one of these categories. After talking to Don, I wonder if I have too easily written off Christian bookstores? Let’s be honest, I have an entire blog devoted to mocking the very thing that helps pay my rent. That’s not a very grateful thing to do. Maybe there is something there.

I tend to believe that Christian bookstores provide a place for Christians to hide from the real world. We have created this infrastructure of marginally well-produced literature, music, film and “art” that seems to sustain us. We have no need to engage with the greater culture, unless we’re picketing to stop gay marriage or to let teenage girls seeking abortions know they’re going to burn in hell with Hitler, Osama and Clinton.

I wonder if I dismissed the idea of Christian bookstores because the vast majority of them are exactly what I described: a safe haven for Christians who forget the parts of the Bible that call us to be active participants in the world around us. Maybe there is hope for a Christian bookstore that seeks to be countercultural instead of anti-culture?

We should seek to engage culture instead of running from it. Carry books that have Christian themes but are not overtly Christian (or are too well written to be described as “Christian fiction.”) Have film discussion nights about films like Magnolia or Big Fish. Have art shows featuring local artists with no religious agenda but exist merely to showcase good local art and to build relationships. Carry music by bands who are Christ-haunted (a phrase I stole from Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine). Have debates about Christian responses to social injustice in the area. The list could go on.

Maybe the Christian bookstore I envision looks more like the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill instead of Bob Jones University. I’m just throwing things out there. I’m not even sure how to bring about such a store. Some would argue that it sounds like your average independent bookstore that is quickly being driven to extinction. Maybe it is. All I know is that as I spent a long October day putting price stickers on Jay Jay the Jet Plane and the Jump 5 Christmas album, I had to ask myself, “Why are we doing this? Why is this the path we have chosen?”

36 comments:

Democratic Girl said...

I like your blog.

I'm Catholic, and find going into Christian/Catholic stores just...odd.

I feel like, at every turn, someone is trying to get me to buy their version of Christianity. -The copies of bibles with "tips" from different pastors of varying interpretations of the Bible.

Not to mention that as a Democrat of faith, it is discouraging to see so many signs (quite literally) of hate for people who are different that those who typically fill the store. More and more, my very "devout" (some might say cultish) friends eschew parts of life for watered-down "Christian" versions of things (music, TV, radio, books), and by doing so, only get to see one side of the world.

Everything they do or buy is set up to re-confirm their faith for them. There is no challenge to being a Christian to them, no real broadening of hope, faith, or love for others.

I recently saw a t-shirt on a 13 year old boy that read, "Arrest me. I prayed at school today." I came out of that kind of childhood, where I had that kind of attitude about Christianity and how it must be at odds with the "outside world" (in this case, the public school system). What I wanted to say to that kid, but didn't, was that his public school is set up so that he, and any other kid, can pray at school freely, in their own way, without forcing someone else's religious beliefs on him.

If others are supposed to know Christians by our t-shirts, it would be nice if we knew others by our knowledge and experience with them.

James said...

I'm new to this "Jay Jay" thing.

Are you sure that this attaching human faces to the machines isn't actually a clever subversion, demonstrating the tendency of marketing to humanise the dehumanising machine and thereby encouraging children to bring a serious critique to the machine that grinds them down?

That's what I'd like to see in a Christian bookshop. But I suspect it may be overly wishful thinking....

Abigail said...

Interesting thoughts, Ben ...

Your site has lately spurred me to reflect on my own Christian bookstore experiences, and the whole phenomenon of growing up immersed in evangelical Christian culture as a whole.

As I think about this, I have to wonder how big a role that fear plays in this whole thing. I grew up listening to the Christian versions of secular singers, reading the Christian versions of secular books, tuning in to the Christian version of radio. On one level, there’s this whole idea that we can be just as cool as the secular world only without all the bad stuff (especially sex, violence, and cussing).

But I think that underneath that is a culture that was built on and thrives on fear. It’s almost as if suddenly the gospel lost the power to answer the great questions in life that are being posed all around us. Rather than coming together and working out ways to be part of the greater cultural conversation by injecting thoughtful, well-articulated answers to these questions, we circled up the wagons and started preaching to the choir.

I think this explains some of the disaffection with Christianity so many of us raised in this culture have as well ... we eventually come to the point where we realize that our faith hasn’t really equipped us to be in real relationship with the people we see every day, and to understand the crap that life deals everyone through eyes of faith. I’m sure many of us here know people who have left the church after high school or college. I recently ran into a couple of Taylor U. alums who aren’t going to church at all, and haven’t for several years. It’s sad, because so often we’ve reduced the power and drama of the gospel to little more than moral lessons telling us how to be better people and live better lives.

Michael said...

If it were only for money Christian Book stores would not exist. There is more than the dollar that motivated your owner.
And yet to exist they have to make money.
So we ask ourselves if being a commercial christian does any good?
I see many of your points as you show us the hypocracy. But with all things it's all in the degree. Can't you say it is better than being an x-rated book store? Can't we hope and wonder if the commercial christian crap doesn't at least grab the attention of a non-christian and help them to value other people more?

Check out this link of a link.
Recycle your soda cans and stop thinking you have to be GandhiMakes you wonder,

Take Care
Michael

Brad said...

This Christian vs. the world mentality sure does fly in the face of being all things to all people without forsaking the law of Christ, doesn't it?
Oh, if the life were only like the world of Terrytown Airport. As Brenda Blue would say, "Think about it."

jwb said...

I think the idea of an independent Christian bookstore sounds really interesting. I wonder if any actually exist?

So here's my spin on Christian book stores. I think that commercialism is merely part of the American language. It's how we talk to each other. Case in point, the "modern" (post-1896) political campaign. It resembles a brand launch as much as anything else. In more than one way, the canidate _is_ the brand. How do you get your brand to to public (buyers)? Consumerism. Parties get people to display their bumper stickers, and before that buttons, and before that paper hats and fans.

More evidence for consumerism as a language: I worked at an EB store in the mall for 3 years. Immediately following 9-11, a flag store went into the open space next door. It did very well for quite a while, selling flags and t-shirts and bumper stickers and books in a fashion not at all unlike a Christian bookstore. People were using the behavior of consumerism, buying, purchasing, branding, to express grief and (hot word of the day from 9-11) solidarity.

Maybe the Christian book store is actually God dialoging with American culture in our own language: with Jesus erasers, Test-a-mints, and Jay Jay the Jet Plane DVDs as words in that language. Maybe it's not so much the words on Christian t-shirts that resonates but the actual t-shirt itself, an artifact of consumerism and a demonstration of purchasing. Maybe we understand purchasing and brands and consumerist artifacts better than we understand some guy preaching on a hill, and God knows this. Hence, the Christian bookstore and Jay Jay.

jwb said...

Replace "hence" in my above post with "ergo" and it sounds ten times smarter, even if it does remind you of the Matrix.

I have so wanted to use that word.

Cersten said...

I agree with you on Jay Jay the Jet Plane. And that also can be said for Veggie Tales. It's downright scary and if kids aren't having nightmares after watching them. They should be.

It's just not right...

Cersten

Ben said...

A lot of interesting thoughts. I agree with the idea that while money was not the motivating factor in opening a Christian bookstore, my owner still has to take it into account. This is a business. And in the case of the family that owns my store, they are not rich. Whatever profit is not reinvested in the store is donated to various Christian causes such as mission organizations. I greatly admire that committment.

As far as the argument, "Maybe all of this Christian 'stuff' we sell will somehow impact a non-Christian." I suppose, but how many non-Christians actually enter Christian bookstores? Will t-shirts actually change the world?

Some would argue that Christian bookstores exist to serve the needs of Christians. It's a place to buy Bibles and Bible studies, etc. There is definitely a place for that. I just wonder if the Christian bookstore is a symptom of a larger problem in the church: we have created a subculture that is so far removed from the world that we have lost the ability to communicate.

How do we serve the needs of the Christian community and yet not insulate ourselves so much that we are unable to fulfill the Great Commission?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...something crazy is that I was looking up lyrics from Over the Rhine and stumbled across your blog. And I couldn't help but read your comments on working in a Christian bookstore. Some really good thoughts. I just started Bethel this Fall and found it simply nice to know someone else was a bit disallusioned by the Christian subculture and the lack of interaction with society(other than the "ministry" programs Bethel offers).
I like the idea of a non-mainstream Christian bookstore--something bigger than a place that sells "Testamints" and poor literature. A place that intrigues the seekers instead of smacking of Christian elitism and isolationism.
Joy

jwb said...

Ben, you asked "how many non-Christians actually enter Christian bookstores? Will t-shirts actually change the world?"

Does anything?

I think that merely writing off Christian bookstores (and all that that entails) with our generation xyz cynicism as hyper-subculture is a) elitist, and b) simplistic. There's too much going on in and with Christians bookstores to snub them away as raw, and "evil," commercialism.

So you can't accept Christian bookstores as a commercial language used by God. Fair enough. But what is harder to deny is that Americans, and it could be said all people from all times (although Americans are particularly good at it), have always used purchasing and ownership and consumption to communicate to others and to express identity. Purchasing and consumption reinforces and even provides identity. What we buy and consume, then, reflects who we are. Sports fans buy jerseys of their favorite stars. Hipsters buy black wire frame glasses. A 50 year old business exec buys a certain brand of golf clubs. So why do we act so surprised some Christians spend their money on "Christian" things in a Christian book store?

And now that I think about it, why can't God can'work through the channels of consumption?

Bringing this back to your post Ben but keeping an eye on the ball of consumption: I can't help but wonder if you and I (and I would assume most of us) are attracted to the idea of a hip indie Christian bookstore that has discussion nights about Magnolia and Big Fish and local artists and "Christ-haunted" music because we identify ourselves as hip indie people who like movies like Magnolia or Big Fish, local art, and Christ-haunted music. Of the 5 specific characteristics you mentioned of this indie Christian bookstore, 4 were still inherently commercial in nature, and at some point involve the transaction of money, purchase, consumption. Consumption of cool hip indie christian stuff -> Identification as cool hip indie christian.

How that's different than the Christian bookstore you work in?

Anonymous said...

Hey did this "post" generated some comment.
I'd love to see Christians that ran bookshops with a really comprehensive Christian Spirituality section. I struggle with the safe clique mentality and even more when Christian bookshops ban certain titles.
I'm really encouraged that on Amazon I can buy theology and fiction, best sellers and devotional, humour and Bibles all from the same place. If that can be done in virtuality why not in reality?
Youthblog

Benjamin said...

earlier, JWB said:

And now that I think about it, why can't God can'work
through the channels of consumption?
I fully agree with this sentiment. Personally, I believe that He's been working in my life through the channels of hard liquor and loose women.

Anonymous said...

well, i've forgotten my password and can't get it to return to me via email, so alas, i'm anonymous.

someone above asked this question: "I think the idea of an independent Christian bookstore sounds really interesting. I wonder if any actually exist?"

the answer is: why, yes! and i'm so glad you asked, because the progressive, thoughtful, christian bookstore does exist in the small and unlikely town of dallas, pa.

hearts and minds bookstore, anyone?

i realize the site's not much to look at, but it's one of the greatest bookstores around. i try to order everything i can from them, even though it's a little bit more expensive. i'd rather support these people who are really engaged in their community and who are trying to make excellent literature available to christians. also, it's great to place an order and receive a personal email confirming your purchase, with a little note from the owner, byron, describing why it's one of his favorites on that subject. you can't get that at amazon.

by the way, byron is also a writer, and he regularly reviews books for the CCO (coalition for christian outreach). you can read them here.

-kate b.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with this sentiment. Personally, I believe that He's been working in my life through the channels of hard liquor and loose women.Wow.

That's all, just wow.

I'm pretty sure we could make a music video for "Awesome God" and use this line as an inspiration for the drama behind the music. Whaddya say?

Just a thought.

Brandon

greg said...

Linford got the phrase from Flannery O'Connor, someone who definitely needs to be in the indy Christian bookstore. Not that I think a Christian bookstore is a good idea.

God using consumption and marketing? Aren't those two of the things Christians are supposed to be combating in our culture? Things that dehumanize, marginalize, and strip words of meaning as conduits for the Gospel? Yeah, I don't think so.

I asked an atheist friend to check out one of our local Xian stores. I'm always curious how the "unchurched" feel about these places. Unfortunately, he's an artist and couldn't get past all the theft he saw. You know, the knock-offs in the t-shirt aisle. It didn't help his impression of the Xian community.

Ben said...

jwb-

I can accept, to a certain degree, the idea that what we buy and consume reflect who we are. I have a harder time accepting your line, "Purchasing and consumption reinforces and even provides identity." I wonder how much that view is steeped in a decidedly Western worldview. In other words, can you say that the same concept is true in the poverty stricken third world? If a poor person is unable to buy anything, then do they not have an identity?

So, if what we consume reflects who we are, does that mean that the majority of Christians believe theology is only valid if it can be reduced to bumper sticker form instead of being nuanced? I would also question whether these "Christian" things people buy at a Christian bookstore are truly Christian.

While your view on consumption and a commercial language might express a particular reality within the Western world, how do you fit in the idea that Christians are called to live differently? I guess what I'm asking is do we control the consumption or is the consumption controlling us?

Anonymous said...

A really good general bookstore ought to be able to carry a reasonable selection of theology and ecclesiastical history and specialized poetry and fiction, but few do, and those few are generally the independent non-chain stores near universities.

Any decent independent music store ought to be able to carry classical, traditional, or gospel music. I can walk into just about any music store with the most puny classical section and pick up a copy of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Christian rock makes me choke, just like any other rock, so I can't speak to its availability in secular stores.

The secular (BN, Borders) chains seem to do mostly popular devotional books, with a small sprinkling of others.

I have to admit that the chain Christian bookstores are more than a bit disappointing for a serious reader. Too many knick-knacks and Left Behinds, too little of substance. One visit was enough. I see a better selection at my local independent, with about one-twentieth the shelf space devoted to specifically Christian-topic books.

Holt said...

An independent Christian bookstore exists in my town. In fact, it is run by close friends of my family. All in all, the family is good people (aside from the fact that their oldest son - the one I'm closest too - has been booted from more colleges than you can image for dealing). I can attest to the fact that he is in the market not for the money as his store has never turned a profit but in reality to provide a place for Christians to purchase "Christian media". Unfortunately, what ends up happening is he ends up competing with the Family Christian store in the next town over and has to peddle even more nonsense to keep his shelves full. Books and art and most everything is shit. However - he has done an amazing job with music. Granted, most of it is Christian music. But he's gone out and found the most amazing underground hardcore groups - he's gotten records from every possible genre across the spectrum. Popular, unpopular, rock, rap, country, folk, metal, hardcore, punk, Gaither....it's all there. I grew up as a pastor's kid and wasn't allowed to listen to secular music in the house...so this place WAS my haven. I've since grown up to be bitter about the mainstream Christian music that most of my Christian friends listened too...but there are still some good bands out there that I found at that store in high school. If anyone likes 80's Rock and lyrics that will make you uncomfortable...check out a group called Jacob's Dream. I'm not even sure that they're making records anymore...but they got me through high school. And that was in the late 90's.

Vals said...

Have you ever checked out Wild Goose Publications from The Iona Community? Their website is http://ionabooks.com/homepage.asp and I really like their offerings. You might, too.

super said...

Greg: You asked (or stated) that Christians are supposed to be "combating" consumption and marketing. First: is consumption and marketing flawed? Unarguably. Can God use them? I certainly hope God can use flawed channels like those, because when we start putting perfection requirements on the means by which God can and cannot communicate we can get in big trouble. To suggest that anyone or anything is any less flawed that the culture we create is to deny our own selves the gospel. The only flawless and perfect channel God ever used here on Earth after the fall was Christ. We killed him. You also said that consumption and marketing strip words of their meaning. Doesn't that depend on the user? Why can't consumption and marketing be used for God's purpose, and who are you to say what God can and cannot use? Secondly, since Bable language itself has been inherently flawed, has dehumanized and stripped words of their meaning. Does that mean God can't use language either?

I don't know you, so forgive me if I'm making too far a leap Greg, but I wonder if you haven't inadvertantly connected the cool and hip anti-corporatism of alternative culture with a vain of evangelicalism (hence, perhaps, your use of the word "combat"). Greg, what comes to my mind when you say "combat" marketing is some strange Christian hybrid of the anti-smoking Truth campaign or adbusters or something. I think that if we're to combat it at all, it's a periphery objective. In other words, I don't see God calling us to set up boycott lines in front of McDonald's, but maybe you meant something else.

Ben: You suggested that my perception might be too Western - which is always fun to toss around - and you're unquestionably right. I've been raised Western, I've been taught Western, and I live Western. Nevertheless, transaction and ownership has always provided people with identity. You used the word "poor" and even in that, Ben, you set up an identity for that person as "not rich." Are we defined primarily by consumption and purchasing (or lack thereof)? No. But I think that we ought to in the least admit its presence. Moreover, I don't think you'll find many Christian bookstores in a third-world country. And finally, this is who we are. We are Americans (or American). Like I suggested to Greg, we should be aware of the influence of "alternative" culture (more technically the "New Left") on our thinking. It's not bad - I'm just saying that this anti-corporatism, pro-third-world comes, ultimately anti-western from somewhere, and I would suggest that it can't be from Christ. His "Western" world was of the Romans and the Greeks, and he said very little about it.

This is getting too long and too useful as a means of procrastination, but I can't ignore your statement about the bumper sticker. I used to make fun of them as much as anyone ever can. I used to walk with friends at Lee University (a very Christian college) and laugh with them at all the bumper stickers.

The thing that I've come to realize, Ben, is that the bumper stickers are more than just bumper stickers. It is simplistic and elitist of us to assume that a person's entire theology is not "nuanced" merely because their car sports a Christian bumper sticker. That bumper sticker carries with it an immense amount of theological and emotional backage that we all too easily write off, merely because it's not intellectual or smarty-pants or we don't like Nascar.

My wife's conversion point was at and partially because of a Carmen concert. Is she what you might consider "nuanced" now? Probably. But you can't deny that God used Carmen to reach my wife. Neither can you say that bumper stickers - or marketing, or consumption - is a channel which is "too evil" for God to work through.

(Way too many quotation marks in this post, and way too long. Apologies all around.)

super said...

Hmm - for some reason Blogger put me as super, and not "jwb". Whatevs.

Anonymous said...

I share your aversion for Jay Jay...I saw it on PBS while channel surfing once...truly obnoxious.

Anonymous said...

Hello, and welcome to Eighth Day Books. Their website is concentrated almost exclusively on their religious offerings, but inside the physical store, they have an impressive collection of both new and used books on "matters of timeless interest." Literature, history, science, etc. It was one of my favorite bookstores even when I was going through my most anti-Christian rebellion phase.

-Jen

Anonymous said...

In my town recently, a coffee shop/bookstore was opened by an Episcopal Church downtown. It is really cool, and has books from a lot of different spiritual traditions as well as meditation aids such as icons, bells, singing bowls, etc. They see it as a mission and welcome anyone, even the homeless people wandering around downtown, to come in and sit as long as they want, no purchase necessary. Last time I was in there they appeared to give several homeless people some food and a drink. That is the coolest to me, but probably not what most people would consider a "Christian Bookstore".

Anna

Anonymous said...

A note on "Christ-haunted": there's an excellent book that came out this year about Flannery O'Connor, called _Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South_. I believe the title comes from a comment she made about how the South was not so much Christ-centered as it was Christ-haunted. I have the entire quote around here somehere, but I can't find it. I'm not saying she invented the term, but people who write about her get a lot of mileage out of it.

TS said...

Nice Blog!!!   I thought I'd tell you about a site that will let give you places where
you can make extra cash! I made over $800 last month. Not bad for not doing much. Just put in your
zip code and up will pop up a list of places that are available. I live in a small area and found quite
a few. MAKE MONEY NOW

Julian Silvain said...

I skim a lot of blogs, and so far yours is in the Top 3 of my list of favorites. I'm going to dive in and try my hand at it, so wish me luck.

It'll be in a totally different area than yours (mine is about mens male enhancement reviews) I know, it sounds strange, but it's like anything, once you learn more about it, it's pretty cool. It's mostly about mens male enhancement reviews related articles and subjects.

TS said...

Nice Blog!!!   I thought I'd tell you about a site that will let give you places where
you can make extra cash! I made over $800 last month. Not bad for not doing much. Just put in your
zip code and up will pop up a list of places that are available. I live in a small area and found quite
a few. MAKE MONEY NOW

lokokid said...

Hi i am totally blown away with the blogs people have created its so much fun to read alot of good info and you have also one of the best blogs !! Have some time check my link to !!Make money using the internet

Mark Hultgren said...

Hello, I just wanted to post a comment on how well you have put your Blog together. I was doing a search for money making home business idea and came across your Blog. I personally run my own Blog for money making home business ideamoney making home business idea so I know a good Blog when I see one.

Frank said...

Looking forward to reading more great info on your blog, I added you to my favorites and will be checking back often.

My site is about make money web site

If you have an interest in make money web site I would love to hear what you think of my site.

Best Buy said...

Decent page, enjoyed it a lot, I can never get enough of titleist golf equipment if you can't either check out my site titleist golf equipment

lokokid said...

Hi i am totally blown away with the blogs people have created its so much fun to read alot of good info and you have also one of the best blogs !! Have some time check my link to !!Business opportunity make money at home

Kevin Jackson said...

Hey, great blog! Sounds like you need folgers coffee.

I love coffee and did a keyword search on folgers coffee and came up with your site. The association was close, anyway. Take care! Dave

George said...

Why would you want to marketing research your business hare at marketing research"\? With all the good ebook here you can't good wrong.