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?”