A HarperOne editor reveals a behind-the-scenes look at publishing one of the most controversial books of 2011
By Mickey Maudlin
Sixteen months ago HarperOne published Rob Bell’s Love Wins to a strange and overwhelming mixture of praise and condemnation that combined to create a perfect media storm (and a New York Times bestseller). With the release of the paperback this month, I thought it a good time to reflect on the phenomenon. While there is much to celebrate—the book’s success, the notes from people who say it restored/healed/even saved their faith, etc.—I thought I might focus on lessons learned.
First, we cannot create Zeitgeist events. Contrary to much blogosphere speculation, we at HarperOne did not manufacture the initial Twitter-driven frenzy–if we had, we would have timed it better than four weeks before the original on-sale date! Yes, we did create a wonderful and provocative book trailer that raised questions more than gave answers, but the goal was to point people to the book, not generate controversy. The frenzy was driven by others, by a cadre of mostly young and mostly Reformed plugged-in guardians of the faith who made sure everyone knew about this “dangerous” book. Our role was mostly reactive, in that we decided not to have Rob talk to the media before the book went on sale (why settle all the questions before people could read the book for themselves?) and make sure as many people as possible heard him after that date.
Second, despite the book’s success, it was a little scary. Here was Rob, a pastor, dealing with what he saw as the biggest cause of spiritual harm among the people he ministered to—an image of God as violent, angry, hateful, and pleased by torture—and this unleashes a barrage of angry and hateful criticism by Christian leaders? Not all the critics were hateful, but the negative energy the book unleashed was very troubling. What is this force within the church that caused so many people to mishear or distort the message and quickly pronounce judgment and censure? I shudder to think some might name this force the “Holy Spirit.”
Third, “loudness” is not a good measure of popularity. I was struck by the sheer quantity of negative attention from Christian leaders and how few public figures rose to Rob’s defense (Richard Mouw and Eugene Peterson being notable exceptions among a handful of others). And yet, week after week for over 20 weeks, the book stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List. How did people know not to listen to the critics and to read it for themselves? It is easy to underestimate how shrewd, diverse, and independent the Christian reading public can be.
Finally, I am struck by the cost of speaking out. Yes, Rob sold many books and received more media coverage than ever before, but at a cost. The book altered his place in the world in a way that made it harder for him to simply be a pastor for his church. Many churches, colleges, and seminaries will think twice before inviting him to speak. Speakers and writers at many institutions will feel compelled to qualify anything positive they say about Rob by adding, “While I certainly don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says . . .” It is a lonely path he has chosen.
I am comforted somewhat that others whom I admire have traveled this path before. Martin Luther King frustrated church leaders who wanted him to slow down and wait. Billy Graham provoked his conservative base at several points in his ministry: when he refused to speak to segregated audiences, when he decided to invite all churches to participate in his crusades (not just conservative Protestant ones), and when he accepted an invitation from the Soviet Union to preach. Lonely does not have to mean “ineffective.”
I will close with a quote my pastor emailed to me during the publishing storm around Love Wins. It comes from the German evangelical author Helmut Thielicke, who wrote wise and wonderful books in the post-war decades. I am tempted to commit it to memory:
“The unfaithful witness is the one who simply transmits the conventional and familiar, unchanged and undigested. He is unfaithful, in the first place, because he is lazy. For the labor of interpretation and contemporization, the work of ‘translation,’ is grueling work and it is never done without abortive trials and breath-taking risks. . . . He who simply repeats the old phrases takes no risks; it is easy to remain orthodox and hew to the old line. But he who speaks to this hour’s need and translates the message will always be skirting the edge of heresy. He, however, is the man who is given this promise (and I really believe this promise exists): Only he who risks heresies can gain the truth.” (The Trouble with the Church).
ABOUT Mickey Maudlin
Mickey Maudlin is SVP, Executive Editor and Director of Bible Publishing at HaperOne. He has spent over thirty years in religious publishing, including working at Christianity Today and InterVarsity Press.
HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, strives to be the preeminent publisher of the most important books and authors across the full spectrum of religion, spirituality, and personal growth literature, adding to the wealth of the world’s wisdom by stirring the waters of reflection on the primary questions of life, while respecting all traditions.