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From the January/February, 2000 issue of Touchstone


Bestsellers of the NCC by John Oliver

Bestsellers of the NCC

by John Oliver

The NCC asked the Protestant publishing house where I work to provide a bookstore for their fiftieth anniversary event. Our house has cordial relationships with many other publishers and vendors whose material is well suited for such a broad ecumenical gathering. One of the NCC’s principle requests was for us to supply Eastern Orthodox resources. (A litany of books and icons might make the Orthodox feel more appreciated.)

Unclear as to where to obtain such fare, my publishing house called me—an Orthodox Christian—for leads and reasoned that I should attend the event as an Orthodox interpreter. Because of the difficulty in purchasing from Orthodox publishers at wholesale discounts, we opened our bookstore on the first day with only four Orthodox titles.

But what we lost in Orthodox resources we more than compensated for in ecumenical ones on every religious subject under the sun. We supplied nearly one thousand titles that filled over forty tables. Cards were placed on each table, indicating subjects such as ethics, ecumenism, pastoral care and counseling, denominational books, children’s resources, gay/lesbian/bi-/trans-sexual studies, and free gift items.

The largest tables were devoted to the issues that receive the most care and attention from the NCC. Propped up for display were books such as Religion Is a Queer Thing: A Guide to the Christian Faith for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Persons; Gay Theology Without Apology; The Sexuality of Jesus; and Re-Imaging the Divine. Books about the persecution of Christians, the exploitation of children, environmental damage to the earth, and positive developments in poor countries were also available. Participants also could purchase autographed copies of Bishop Desmund Tutu’s autobiography, or buy a beautiful handmade cross from Central America. We had no shortage of books, only a shortage of buyers.

The individual who attends an NCC event is not generally a book buyer. The lay literacy of a Christian denomination can roughly be measured by the educational credentials required of that denomination’s clergy. Presbyterians and Anglicans tend to be more vigorous readers than, say, those in the United Church of Christ or the United Methodist Church. And since the mainline denominations are the principal financiers of the NCC, their members are most likely to attend an NCC event but less likely to purchase books while there. There were, to be fair, other reasons for our lackluster sales—for example, this was the first year participants were required to fully pay their own way, leaving less money for shopping. (We were also in a lousy location.)

Even though there were plenty of shocking titles and topics, one book in particular risked generating more controversy than any other. As we were setting up, the director of the bookstore brought one title to my attention. “This book,” he said, as he fanned its pages, “will probably generate the most heat and the loudest public outcry. We only have two of them, but we may have to pull them off the table because of complaints.” The book? The Right Choice: A Compilation of Pro-Life Sermons.

Each subject card in the bookstore seemed to have a forum to go with it during the conference. Participants could choose from workshops that mostly consisted of making some kind of social impact on behalf of any number of “victim” groups. The less obvious victim groups in our culture weren’t included: fathers, men in general, the unborn, traditional women and housewives.

The language of the event leaned toward favoring inclusion and diversity: “denominations” was replaced with “faith traditions”; “differences” became “celebrating those things that make us unique.” Nearly every color, every kind, every orientation, every ideology had a seat at the NCC table. The NCC is less certain, however, of what to do with God. The terms used at the podium were at least theocentric, and we were welcomed as “people of God” who were on a mission to impact the world for God (not “Him,” just “God”).

The politics and administrative disarray of the NCC make easy targets. But I did notice that the NCC was accomplishing some brilliant, significant, compassionate work. The Eco-Justice Working Group, for example, is doing a fine job in shifting public attention and opinion toward poor neighborhoods that are often afflicted with landfills, incinerators, and nuclear dumps. And the CROP Walk program stimulates funds for those in Third-World poverty who must walk long distances—for water, for food, for healthcare—just to survive.

Certainly, some people in the world lead better lives as a result of NCC social work. It is probably true, too, that others lead more hideous lives because of the NCC. Many poor are fed while many unborn children are denied life. A few minorities have higher visibility while many orthodox Christians wonder if there is any room left for them.

The over-arching goal of the NCC’s fiftieth anniversary was to get as many people as possible to work together. To what end, I’m not sure. Scanning the titles on our book tables and the titles of the workshops, I believe we were enlisted to work for some kind of social upheaval.

In the end, Jesus was still the best name to drop in town. But to wrap an arm around the shoulder of Christ and claim him as an impeccable reference for this or that ideology, while ignoring the Tradition of historic Christianity, can only result in an event like this one. Righteous Progress leads to a unified goal of political change while celebrating a diversity of faiths. In what and in whom you believe is less important than what government you’re trying to overthrow, what homosexual you’re helping to adopt a child, or what antiquated theology you’re endeavoring to freshen up.

Our bookstore staff packed into boxes almost as many books at the conclusion of the event as we had unpacked at the beginning. The pro-life book remained unsold, and so did each of the four Orthodox titles. Meanwhile, in the grand ballroom, just above us, diners at the Fiftieth Anniversary Banquet bumped glasses of champagne and toasted the future, practically lighting it on fire.

John Oliver, an Orthodox Christian, resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where he works for a publishing house.

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