Guilt By Association

Here’s the breathless headline to an article from Christianity Today which I’m sure will generate heated discussion somewhere:

NRB Forces Out WaterBrook Multnomah Publishers over ‘Gay Christian’ Book

As with most headlines, it’s not entirely accurate, and the story which follows isn’t quite that simple. Let’s begin with the players.

Random House is a large organization. Here’s a simplified diagram of its structure:


Oddly, Convergent is not currently linked or listed on either the Random House or Crown Publishing Group websites, though Convergent clearly identifies its placement within the Random House organization on its own website and has been part of Random House since 2013.

Although they are independent legal and business entities, some staff is shared among WaterBrook/Multnomah, Convergent, and Image, and they work in the same building. Chief Publishing Officer Stephen W. Cobb oversees all three divisions. WaterBrook publishes books of interest to the Evangelical community, including fiction such as historical romances, fantasy, and supernatural suspense. Several authors of my acquaintance have published successfully with WaterBrook/Multnomah (thus my interest in this article). Image publishes books for the Catholic community. Convergent publishes books of interest to less-traditional believers and seekers, including the book at issue, God and the Gay Christian, by Matthew Vines, subtitled, “The Biblical case in support of same-sex relationships.” Convergent characterizes itself as a place for “open discussion of spirituality, ethics, faith, social justice, theology, and everyday experience.”

The National Religious Broadcasters identifies itself as “a non-partisan international association of committed broadcasters and Christian communicators coming together to spread the life-changing Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through every electronic medium available,” with a mission “to advance biblical truth; to promote media excellence; and to defend free speech.”

It’s more than an association of like-minded communicators. “With headquarters in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and offices on Capitol Hill, NRB maintains a close working relationship with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Congress, the courts, and the Executive Branch, representing the interests of NRB members and the people they serve.”

Bottom-line, NRB is a lobbying organization. Like most lobbyists, NRB offers information and educational services, provides social and networking opportunities for its members, and solicits funds to support its efforts to influence lawmakers. Unlike most lobbying organizations, members of the NRB must subscribe to both its Statement of Faith and Code of Ethics. NRB has appointed itself a watchdog over the Christian broadcasting and publishing industries and convenes an Ethics Board to examine any questionable actions by its members. WaterBrook/Multnomah was a member of the NRB. Convergent was not.

Item 8 in the NRB Code of Ethics bears on this incident: “8. I will refrain from any sexual conduct or life-style, such as homosexuality or adultery, which is inconsistent with Scripture, or any promotion of the same.” When some members of WaterBrook/Multnomah’s shared staff assisted in Convergent’s publication work on God and the Gay Christian, NRB interpreted this action as promoting a lifestyle inconsistent with Scripture. Convergent’s position, as articulated by Mr. Cobb, was that Convergent works under a separate editorial policy from the other Crown divisions and the book, while not suitable for publication by WaterBrook/Multnomah, is congruent with Convergent’s stated purpose of facilitating dialogue among Christians on significant issues and its focus on a target audience that desires frank and open debate on such issues.

When Mr. Cobb refused to restrict members of his WaterBrook/Multnomah staff from voluntarily assisting with publication of Convergent products, NRB CEO Jerry Johnson threatened to convene an Ethics Board to review WaterBrook/Multnomah’s activities. WaterBrook/Multnomah chose to resign its NRB membership. Cue media firestorm.

malletSo, what do I think?

1. NRB clearly has the right to define standards of conduct for its own membership and to decide with whom it will and will not affiliate itself. However, I don’t see that NRB—a lobbying organization—has the right or authority to declare itself the arbiter of business practices among Christian publishers or broadcasters, or to determine what issues may be discussed in the public square, or to decide which opinions may be offered for debate between the covers of books published by, for, or about Christians. Attempting to stifle discussion on any issue or impede publication of controversial books doesn’t aid the credibility of an organization that declares itself a champion of free speech.

2. In hindsight, Random House would probably have been wise to put more organizational distance between its WaterBrook/Multnomah division and the more freewheeling Convergent imprint. These entities reflect the contentious split between doctrinally conservative and liberal wings of the Protestant community, and mingling their management and staff left them open to suspicion and gossip from both sides. The Christianity Today article quotes Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler’s belief that WaterBrook/Multnomah “is in serious danger of crashing its brand in terms of evangelical trust,” and trust is the fragile keystone of Christian publishing. Christian readers need assurance that Satan hasn’t slipped a heretical mickey into their cozy novel when they weren’t looking.

3. Publishing a book doesn’t imply the publisher agrees with the author’s opinions, nor does it constitute a litmus test of a Christian publisher’s faith. I don’t agree with Mr. Vines’ argument, but I don’t fault Convergent for publishing his book, or any of their other books. I spent 24 years serving in the military to ensure, among other things, that nobody in this country can be summarily shut-up, whether you or I agree with them or not. Censorship, whether subtle or ham-handed, never serves the cause of truth. Ultimately, it’s a failure of faith.

5. NRB couldn’t directly hammer Convergent for publishing God and the Gay Christian, because Convergent wasn’t an NRB member, but WaterBrook/Multnomah was close enough to serve as the whipping boy. Guilt by association. Censuring WaterBrook/Multnomah (and its employees and authors) because they live next to Convergent, share their coffee, and pitch in to help their fellow Random House employees when they’re short-handed seems mean-spirited and petty.

6. I doubt NRB’s actions will have much impact on Convergent’s sales overall or on Mr. Vines’ book in particular, as the Convergent audience probably doesn’t give a hoot about what NRB thinks. If anything, the added controversy will stimulate sales. There might be a negative impact on WaterBrook/Multnomah, whose conservative readership could interpret this affair as evidence of a Christian publisher that’s compromised its values after being gobbled up by a secular conglomerate. I’m curious to see if there will be any response from the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) and/or the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW).

UPDATE: 6 November 2014 – Christianity Today reports that Crown Publishing Group, WaterBrook/Multnomah and Convergent’s parent organization within Random House, is both organizationally and physically separating the two divisions. Convergent will move from the Colorado Springs office it shared with WaterBrook/Multnomah and relocate in New York City. New publishing officers will assume direction of each imprint following Stephen Cobb’s retirement in March 2015. WaterBrook/Multnomah is expected to seek reinstatement of its NRB membership. CT’s article includes a color-coded diagram illustrating the current corporate hierarchy for Christian publishing and the target audience of the various publishing entities.

So, Crown does what it probably should have done in the first place—at the cost of a black eye for Waterbrook/Multnomah, which meekly creeps back to the NRB fold, undoubtedly to be welcomed as the lost lamb reunited with the ninety and nine, and as validation of NRB’s self-appointed oversight. I expect any damage done to W/M’s “brand” among the Christian readership will be quickly forgotten, but it may be a very long time before anybody else takes a stand against NRB’s strong-arm tactics.

5 thoughts on “Guilt By Association

  1. I saw this too, but I don’t think the NRB was wrong in what they did. Vines book is heresy, and you can’t use a shell game of “oh, it’s a separate imprint” to somehow make it okay that you let it go through when you personally approved it. And in that blog post you linked, Cobb seemed to me to say that he approved of it; he just didn’t force the others who didn’t want to work on it to do so. He spoke positively of Vines’s book; he’s not publishing it under duress.
    I get why you have reservations, but I don’t think this can be written off. At some point, we have to demand our publishers not print heresy. There is no separate “progressive” section, and Cobb called him an evangelical; so convergent’s books probably will be put in the Christian section of secular bookstores. If we aren’t careful, secular people will use our own publishers against us.

    1. But why smack WaterBrook/Multnomah instead of Cobb (or Crown, the parent publishing group)? Now they’ve labeled a bunch of people ethically-suspect, many of whom had no involvement or say in the publication of Vine’s book. And according to the article, NRB was demanding that no WB/M personnel participate in publishing anything from Convergent again, regardless of content.

      I’m not comfortable with a lobbyist arm-twisting a publisher (and making an example of them to the entire publishing community) the same way they’d lean on a legislator or government agency. I can’t verify Cobb’s personal feelings about this book, but I think it’s dangerous to say, in principle, that a publisher can only publish books and authors he/she agrees with (or that NRB or any other self-appointed watchdog agrees with).

      This was an easy heresy to jump on. Does NRB plan to take on Word-Faith next? Skeptics of Young Earth Creationism? Who draws the line between good-faith disagreements and heresy? Priests for Life is an NRB member—will they be taken to task for their positions on ecclesiology or the Sacraments? It’s fine for NRB to enforce its code of ethics, but enforcement should not be arbitrary, inconsistent, or capricious.

      I think the truth is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. Stifling dissent portrays a community fearful of opposition and insecure in its beliefs. Heresy is best confronted when it’s out in the open, in black-and-white, for everyone to see.

    2. I’m guessing because Waterbrook was the only arm of Crown in the NRB. There’s also a point where you have to look at the editorial chain on the one hand approving evangelical books, and on the other often pointedly anti-evangelical books. You wonder how they can do this, even granting exemptions due to conscience.

      I’m not really a fan of dissent when its being pushed from the top-down and masquerading as Christian. The problem is that progressive Christian books sell worse than anything; one progressive press has shuttered already, the one that did Nadia Bolz-weber’s book. The companies are going to try to integrate this tighter into normal Christian books; witness how Rachel Held Evans’s book “Evolving in Money Town” was recently rebranded to the more neutral “Faith Unraveled.” We’re going to see more of a push for the normalizing on progressive views; that’s why I was so incensed that Evans and Vines are now “evangelicals” for one thing.

      I don’t know. I have the feeling that we may need to simply write off Christian mainstream publishers.

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