Ministry in the market place

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Earlier this month, the 2009 film “The Blind Side” was pulled from the shelves of LifeWay Christian bookstores across the country.
“The Blind Side” is widely available from other stores, but for some, LifeWay’s censorship opens the door for a larger discussion on the subjective nature of Christianity in art. Where do stores – not to mention artists – find the balance between a realistic picture of the world and the cleanliness that denotes many books and movies as “Christian?”
Some feel the primary purpose of Christian art is evangelism. Without consideration of consumers who are shaky in their faith, Christian artists and marketers may unintentionally provide them with a stumbling block. Others say that cleanliness compromises believability, and consequently, becomes ineffective, unhelpful, and irrelevant.
Pastor and novelist John Armistead of Tupelo said too much sanitizing of a character “makes the character untrue, and it is a writer’s job to tell the truth,” and that literature and art should “reflect society.” To diminish the harshness of reality is to diminish the power of Christian grace, and in the end, the writer should let the story be what it wants to be.
“If a writer is trying to sanitize his work to meet the narrow expectations of a store or denomination or anything else, he will have a hard time producing anything of worth,” he said.
For Christian retailers, it is more important to be a beacon, to make sure their products have a positive impact on the faith of their consumers.
“Not everyone who comes in here is a Christian,” said Chris McCormick, manager of the LifeWay store in Tupelo. “When people come in looking for answers, we don’t want to inadvertently put something in their hands that would make them doubt more.”
LifeWay serves not only as a business, but a ministry. A Christian faith and testimony is mandatory for aspiring employees. The staff holds devotions before the store opens and before the afternoon shift.
“Not that we’re ‘selling Jesus,’” McCormick said, “but how can our staff be helpful in both a retail sense and ministerial sense without faith?”
He said that in the past, products were reviewed by individual stores, but now such mandates are handed down from the corporate level. In 2007, LifeWay placed “Reader Discernment” labels on products with mature content or ones that took creative liberties with the Christian faith, such as William P. Young’s “The Shack,” but discontinued the labels in 2011.
McCormick cited books which include graphic prose carried by LifeWay, such as Francine Rivers’ “Redeeming Love” and “The Patrick Bowers Files” by Steven James.
“Redeeming Love” re-imagines the biblical story of Hosea, in which God commands a faithful man to marry a prostitute. Rivers’ version takes place against the backdrop of the 1850s California gold rush, and does not shy away from the tale’s sexual themes.
“The Patrick Bowers Files” is a CSI-like series that follows an environmental criminologist as he investigates horrendous crimes and tracks depraved killers, which cause him to doubt his faith. James does little to spare the more gruesome details.
McCormick said Christian overtones are much more overt in these works than in “The Blind Side,” especially when the movie is compared to others like “Facing the Giants,” a PG-rated film about a mediocre football coach who injects Christian principles into his athletic program.
Jim Troxler, owner of The Village Green bookstore and member of a Baptist congregation, agreed with LifeWay’s decision, and said he was offended by the use of a four-letter-word in a Christian movie.
“I raised my children in that store, and was always conscious of what they see and hear,” he said.
Gary Holley, owner of New Life Christian Supply in Corinth, makes decisions about products on a case by case basis.
“Every situation is different,” he said, “but you can’t put your blinders on to what true life is.”
David Eldridge, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, said the responsibility ultimately falls on the consumer, and pointed out that the movie was already labeled with a PG-13 rating.
“Everyone Christian has personal convictions in weighing profit against morality,” he said. “We shouldn’t shelter ourselves as Christians, but should always use our wisdom and judgment.”
The resolution to remove “The Blind Side” from LifeWay stores was initiated by the Rev. Rodney Baker of Hopeful Baptist Church in Lake City, Fla. He protested LifeWay’s carrying of the movie since its home release in 2010 due to its explicit language including blasphemy and a racial slur.
LifeWay defended the film in a statement to the Florida Baptist Witness in 2010 as a believable representation of a Christian family who “put their faith into action.”
This year, Baker submitted his resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention Resolution Committee to be addressed at the 2012 SBC Annual Meeting, which took place in New Orleans in June.
In a statement to the Witness, a LifeWay spokesman said the film was pulled prior to the meeting so the issue wouldn’t draw focus away from the election of SBC’s first African-American president, the Rev. Frank Luter.
LifeWay Christian Stores is the main outlet of LifeWay Christian resources, a nonprofit organization owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and based in Nashville.
riley.manning@journalinc.com