Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Selling Salvation

This article is a policy statement from the Church of the Orange Sky. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent Capitalist Jesus™ in his new SUV.

Several days ago I invented a fantastic solution to the problem of gay marriage in Canada, at least for people who favour small government solutions whenever feasible. As a lapsed socialist and current anarchist, I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I'm pleased to announce it has passed peer review in British Columbia and Ontario. However, the grand unveiling will have to wait a little while, for the anniversary of the last gay marriage vote in Canada. (For those counting, that was the third vote in the third Parliament, tabled by the third Prime Minister. It's oddly trinitarian.)

After the 2005 vote under Martin, back when I was still writing at Notes from the Abattoir, I predicted that we would not see a sustained campaign from the religious or secular right now that gay marriage had been effectively legalized. This was for several reasons: it's a lot more difficult to motivate support to overturn a law than to prevent one from being passed; a lot of people probably came to realize that the sky has not fallen; and, let's face it, the contemporary Western church is really not very good at real political opposition. Maybe that's for the best, since the church should never really be a political movement anyways. The church isn't the only one to fall prey to this problem; a lot of protests don't last long once the issue is cemented into law and fails to provoke mass civil disobedience.

I did a little reading on the Web and confirmed that many of the marriage-defence sites seem to have started to abandon the issue; has not moved on from its 2006 petition campaign yet (and in fact has lost its separate domain name), Restore Marriage Canada hasn't updated its site since 2006 either, etc, etc. Many of the organizations should be transitioning back to a general Focus on the Family type of approach, like the Institution of Marriage and Family Canada, which held a conference on "good economic policy in support of good family policy," which sounds a bit like "social conservatives" adopting social democrat approaches to social problems if you ask me.

Anyways, along the way I came across, which revived my interest in another topic I've considered before. The site doesn't obviously sound like it's going to be an advertisement, and the main page even makes a token effort at raising some rhetorical points: "Christian civil government" is federalist, decentralist, and an "act of service" (to this end, it points out that senior politicians are called "ministers" in deference to "the Christian worldview," which teaches that politicians should be servants, not tyrants."

First off, this romantic myth of Christianity as the source of democracy and accountable government is getting very tiring. Historically, both the Jewish and Greek variants of early Christianity were explicitly dissenting movements with no great interest in political power. Political mechanisms were grafted on later, mostly borrowed from Greco-Roman political philosophy, which is where the actual concepts of political servant-leadership comes from. For every historic Christian source defending federalism, there are at least two more defending the divine right of kings and various other notions which don't fit our Christian democracy myth.

For the moment, however, I'm concerned with something else going on at the site, which is that it's really a gimmick intended to sell Timothy Bloedow's book on the subject, State vs. Church: What Christianity Can Do to Save Canada From Liberal Tyranny. You click on the "Buy!" link and Bloedow thanks you for visiing the web page, insists that "this book will be an encouragement and benefit" to readers fighting "Canada's culture war" (whatever the fuck that is), and offers the book for a fairly standard price of $20 (paperback).

We've all read this sort of article. Either on the Internet (as in this case) or in one of the countless Christian magazines out there, someone writes a column with some vaguely intriguing ideas about an important issue and closes with a couple paragraphs about how their book addresses the issue in more detail and everyone who's interested should buy said book. The "culture warriors" of the religious right make their pitch in militarist language, conveniently not-quite-mentioning the fact that, like arms manufacturers in every age, they stand to make big profits if you decide to join their culture war (in this case via the bookshop rather than the battlefield).

The intersection of business and religion is one that is inherently difficult to navigate. Churches have this problem, too; but the benefit of churches is that they are almost entirely donation-based. In most cases, people won't even look funny at you if you routinely receive the services of the church without actually contributing money in return. For the most part I don't really like the economic model of the Protestant church, but I have to admit one benefit: if you want to (or have to) free-ride, you can do so without too much difficulty. There's a fairly important theological rationale for this: most churches implicitly, and many churches explicitly, market their version of the truth as quite literally a matter of life and death. It would be deeply immoral, not to mention devastatingly unbiblical, to grant and withhold such truth on the basis of material wealth.

In the context of the church, the Biblical writings we have from the early church more or less bear out this argument, and to our credit this is something we've actually maintained, at least in part. James, from the Jewish side of the early church, wrote in his epistle that believers ought not to show favoritism to the wealthy by giving choice seats to "a man... wearing a gold ring and fine clothes," while directing a poor man "in shabby clothes" to sit on the floor. This was because, James reasoned, God has "chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith." Taken literally, this would seem to be going almost as far as liberation theology in specifically linking God with the poor, against the rich (who he later accuses of "exploiting" the church and "slandering the noble name" of Christ). A lot of evangelicals today would be uncomfortable with such an anti-materialist and anti-capitalist argument, but at least most of us have preserved the principle of free teaching in church.

Christian writing is a bit of a different story. Not that there's really an extreme shortage of reading material from pretty much any branch of the religion, available online. And if you time it right, you can often get a fair chunk of evangelical literature free of charge. I've known groups willing to hand out Lee Strobel's somewhat contrived Cases books, and I've also seen free attacks on The Da Vinci Code handed out by evangelical groups on campus. However, for the most part the Christian publishing industry operates the same way as its secular counterpart, with the twin exceptions of a more focused market and frequent claims that its books hold major significance for your life, in this world and maybe in the next as well. So my question is: why does written spiritual truth always come with a price tag?

There's a very good historical reason for books to cost money: they're expensive to produce. In past centuries, this cost was not merely inconvenient but truly extreme. Until the invention of the printing press, a single copy of any decent-sized book would require many months, and often years, of labour. Gutenberg's original printing press was derived from existing and predominantly East Asian woodblock printing, which did make printing easier - once you'd engraved the text, page by page, into a wood template. And that was only the writing bit - parchment required large amounts of hide, ideally (for the best quality vellum) from stillborn or unborn animals. Gutenberg's first Bible required 300 sheepskins - meaning that, even with movable type, Europe lacked the resources for mass book printing until paper was made from linen and hemp rags.

Even with the comparatively cheap ink and paper of today, books do still have to be printed, and as I understand it the publishing industry still takes the lion's share of the book price in compensation for providing this service. There are only a handful of books which one can easily get without paying someone for it, and for the most part they're religious texts like the Bible and Koran, purchased on your behalf by someone else willing to cover your costs.

Beyond covering production costs, however, books are copyrighted to preserve profitability, and here the Christian publishing industry could - but does not - provide any challenge to the prevailing capitalist model. At the moment, even most of our in-print Bible translations are under copyright protection - for example, the International Bible Society holds the text of the New International Version, and it is published exclusively by Zondervan, which is one-quarter of the Grand Rapids publishing cabal which holds a stranglehold on North American evangelical book publishing. The others are Eerdmans, Baker, and Kregel, and taken together they're the major partners of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, the Christian publishing lobby, which together does $2.3 billion in business each year. Since the 1980s, Zondervan has been mostly owned by Harper Collins, which serves the same general-purpose role in the secular world as Zondervan does in the religious one. HarperCollins is in turn owned by News Corporation, which means that every time you buy an NIV Bible, you're lining the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News.

The NIV is a common translation and this network of intellectual property is also common. The New King James Version is "owned" and published by Thomas Nelson, a Scottish firm which, with its network of subsidiaries, has grown to include educational presses, Thomson Corporation, Nelson Thornes, etc. It also owned the American Standard Version once upon a time, but sold the rights to an NGO in 1928 and lost its exclusive publishing contract in 1962 after failing to meet the demand for new printings. The American Thomas Nelson later bought the Christian music label Word from ABC, spun it off to Gaylord Entertainment, then bought the Cool Springs, World Bible, and Rutledge Hill presses; and also founded the dubious conservative propaganda and "news" site, WorldNetDaily. Today it's owned by InterMedia Partners (which bought the company for $500 million last year) and manages a number of profitable conferences, like Women of Faith and Revolve.

Given these tie-ins, perhaps it's no surprise that Christian book publishers are indistinguishable from secular ones: in many cases, they're the same people. Kind of ironic, considering the things some of those books have to say about the evils of secular modernity. Some other Bible versions are owned by non-profits, like the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is owned by the Lockman Foundation and published by that foundation's own Foundation press; or the English Standard Version, owned and distributed by Crossway Bibles (a subsidiary of Good News Publishers). However, even being a nonprofit evidently isn't enough to convince the Lockman Foundation or Good News Publishing that they ought to relinquish their ownership "rights" to the supposed words of God. Oxford and Cambridge university presses run a translation scheme too, which has produced the English Revised, New English, and Revised English translations.

Using the Bible as my example may be a bit extreme, and it's not generally too hard to find parts of any translation online in searchable databases, or even to find translations that are old enough to be in the public domain (like the King James Version). However, the absurd idea that one can "own" the text of 2000-year-old religious scriptures is one that need not be endorsed by the Christian community. There's no immediate need to rise up and seize these translations back from the publishing cabals, since for the most part anyone who wants an English-language Bible can get one, at least here in North America; but it should give us pause to consider where to draw the line between commercial interest and the dissemination of ideas about religious truth. At the very least, this could be easily carried over into the release of free online versions by some of the authors who currently spend so much time flogging their new books on Christianity in the 21st century, Christianity in the culture wars, or even Christianity with respect to some other more interesting topic I'd be seriously interested in reading about. If we're serious about promoting discussion amongst religious people, and also potentially religious people (i.e. converts with thick wallets), surely we are as wrong to tie up the discussion in potentially expensive legal protection as we would be to charge entrance fees to listen to pastors' sermons.

The standard capitalist response to what I'm suggesting is that there isn't going to be any more written innovation - i.e. more books - if there's no way to make a profit from them. This isn't a very good rationale among Christians, and it does suggest that we as the Christian consumers bear part of the blame. In theory there's no particular reason why we shouldn't think it natural and normal to give at least something back to the author with or without being legally required to do so. On the other hand, the dubious value of self-interest (our weak version of what would otherwise be called "greed") is hammered into us since childhood, inside and outside the church, and so except among friends we generally don't think about value except in terms of exchanging money. The only movie I've ever downloaded then considered sending some compensation for, for example, is The Corporation, and that one only because the producers took the innovative step of releasing a "shareware" version to the file-sharing networks, which is exactly the same as the standard version except for a brief spiel at the beginning encouraging viewers to send in donations if they enjoy the film.

There are conceivable compromises between the status quo on the one hand, and throwing everything into the public domain and trusting one's fickle readers on the other. The open source computing community, for example, has achieved growing success with free and copyleft licenses, which retain legal "ownership" while permitting people to copy and redistribute the book however they wish, including giving away copies for free. Many companies in the field offer free source versions downloadable over the Internet, but make their money selling hardcopies and customer support to consumers who need something more solid than an unsupported downloaded file.

In theory, many of the major writers in the evangelical field should be okay with these ideas. James Dobson, for example, says that, at least for his followers and listeners, he waives all royalties on his publications "to obtain the lowest possible price from the publisher." There's an even cheaper price - $0 - which could be obtained if Dobson were to post a PDF of his presumably very important books online. On the other hand, if this were done on a large scale, publishers might be less willing to publish the print versions, and that in turn would rob Dobson of his royalties from non-listeners, who (at least according to the link above) may not be eligible for the royalty-free book sales.

To see the future of Christian publishing, perhaps we can return once again to examining Bible translations. A handful of new versions, like the Updated King James Version (UKJV), literally are new works deliberately declared to be in the public domain. The World English Bible, which is still being prepared, is supervised by Rainbow Missions, which has waived its copyrights and will place the entire translation in the public domain. A Wiki-based translation, the Free Bible, is even underway here, which, if it ever goes anywhere, should prove very interesting. If worst comes to worst, Christian authors may even have to feed themselves by making tents during the day, like Paul did.

Once book publishing has been reformed a little perhaps people can start paying attention to the even worse state of the Christian music industry, which has managed to convince churches to pay annual "licensing fees," albeit minimal ones, for the privilege of having worship music available every Sunday (see, for example, Christian Copyright Licensing International). The big Christian record labels are also owned by the big record labels. ForeFront, Gotee, Sparrow, Tooth and Nail, Chordant and a few others are owned by EMI Christian Music Group, which, as the name suggests, is a subsidiary of EMI. Word Records and its various holdings (Myrrh, Canaan, DaySpring, Rejoice, etc.) followed a long and twisted path from ABC to Thomas Nelson, Gaylord, Time Warner, and finally Warner Music Group. Provident, which holds Brentwood, Essential, Flicker, Gray Matters, Reunion, and Praise Hymn Music Group, is actually Sony BMG's Christian music division. This corporate mega-structure isn't necessarily a problem if we want to see religious music as a major commercial venture - let's just not delude ourselves about what we're doing by coating it in charitable religious language.