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In Pt. 1 of this series I suggested that both the demographics of readers and publishers, as well as the demographics of the evangelical church, have contributed to the disparity of male readers of Christian fiction. Admittedly, that disparity is the result of a confluence of other complex factors. So for those interested in increasing male literacy (both in fiction and non-fiction) as well as seeing more male readers engaged by Christian publishers, there is no easy fix.

Thus far, I’ve offered two possible reasons why Christian publishers have lost male readers. Those reasons were The Gender Gap and the fact that Evangelicals don’t read much fiction. Below I list three more possible reasons for this gender disparity in Christian fiction publishing.

“Clean”fiction” is not a high priority for most male readers

The term “clean fiction” has become a defining characteristic of Christian fiction. Clean fiction is, basically, “family friendly” or “safe” fiction. It’s “safe” because it contains no/very little profanity, no nudity, sex, or sexual innuendo, no/minimal graphic violence or gore, and is mostly uplifting, hopeful, and inspirational.

But is this the kind of content most men require of their stories?

Earlier books for boys and men were often characterized by images of rugged, muscular, adventurous men battling monsters or savages while fighting alongside busty heroines or rescuing swooning damsels. Political correctness has now rendered such stereotypes anathema. (It’s also replaced said stereotypes with a new one, the Strong Female Character.) Nevertheless, the visceral appeal of the early “boy’s genre” tapped into something that drew young men to those books and stories.

That phenomenon illustrated an important fact: Boys will often read what interests them. One of the first things that prompted me to become a reader was my love for monsters — dinosaurs, space aliens, nuclear mutants, etc. It led me to comic books, Weird Tales, Eerie, and a host of other graphic novel-type fare. Some 50 years later I still love monsters… and reading. Of course, temperament and environment played a part in cultivating this discipline. However, it was the subject matter and the visual allure that first drew my interest.

This dynamic was recently evidenced during the Harry Potter craze. In Potter’s magic spell turns boys into bookworms, the author notes how the series about the boy wizard energized male audiences:

Debbie Williams, children’s buyer at Waterstone’s, said: ‘I think that Harry Potter has had a big impact on literacy and particularly in encouraging boys to read more books. Following Harry Potter there has been a real demand from boys aged nine to 14 – traditionally a group that was not interested in reading books. Reading books is now cool and has a playground credibility, and boys want to have read the latest thing.’

The HP phenomenon is likely unrepeatable. Nevertheless, a similar formula seemed to have been at play in the early comic book and pulp magazine era. Those early pulp magazines were gateways to many male readers and writers, engaging them through images and narratives that evoked traditional masculine impulses.

A search for contemporary “Men’s Fiction” reveals lots of Must-Read lists, but few actual best-seller lists. Perhaps the closest is the Amazon category Men’s Adventure Fiction. The genre (predictably) includes espionage, survival, combat, sci-fi, western, noir, and martial arts. Similarly, Ranker aggregates Best Guy Movies, with the top ten containing films like Goodfellas, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Die Hard, The Terminator, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

It doesn’t take an expert to conclude that men prefer less romantic and emotive fare for the more visceral, gritty, action-packed content. Which creates a potential problem for the Christian fiction market. For if “clean fiction” is one of the defining elements of Christian literature, much “masculine” content won’t make the cut.

This is not to suggest that Christian men want nothing to do with romantic content, are actively seeking “unclean” reading fare, or that profanity, violence, and sex are required for Men’s Fiction. Nor is it to suggest that “clean” fiction cannot be compelling reads. Yet to the male, occasional profanity, blood and gore, or even cleavage is not as off-putting as to traditional Christian fiction readers. The active gravitation away from such content, and branding an entire genre as “family friendly” or clean,” has exacerbated the existing gender gap and driven the Christian male’s interest in stories (whatever still exists!) to other alternatives.

Evangelical churches are losing men

According to Pew Research, about one in five men attends religious services weekly US Congregational Life Survey corroborates, noting that women constitute 61 percent of churchgoing adults. The lack of men reading Christian fiction is evidence of a much larger, and more serious, issue — the evangelical church’s inability to connect with men.

The Church’s difficulty in attracting males may be due less to a deficient outreach model and more reflective of a much larger cultural issue — the feminization of boys and the shaming of traditional masculinity.

Earlier this year, one of the most venerable American institutions, Boy Scouts of America (BSA), filed for bankruptcy. This announcement came amidst declining membership and a wave of sex abuse lawsuits. As Al Mohler notes in his February 19, 2020 podcast of The Briefing, back in 1991, BSA released a position statement that stated, “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the scout oath that a scout be morally straight and in the scout law that a scout be clean in word and deed and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts.” But a slow creep began, as BSA progressively softened their stance on homosexual inclusion, in 2013 stating it would “no longer deny membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation.” Eventually, they accepted gay Scout leaders. And after ongoing pressure from LGBTQ groups to accept transgender boys (that is, girls who declared identity as boys) the group eventually changed its name to Scouting USA. This, compounded by the numerous sex abuse claims, led to the group’s bankruptcy. But as Mohler notes, the heart of this collapse was the moral erosion of BSA’s central mission of “helping boys to grow up into maturity and into manhood.”

The collapse of the Boy Scouts of America is reflective of a much larger moral decline and attack on traditional masculinity.

Christine Hoff Sommers in her book The War Against Boys, outlines this assault on traditional masculinity by suggesting that it has become “fashionable to pathologize the behavior of millions of healthy male children. We have turned against boys and forgotten a simple truth: the energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring of normal males are responsible for much of what is right in the world. No one denies that boys’ aggressive tendencies must be mitigated and channeled toward constructive ends. Boys need (and crave) discipline, respect, and moral guidance. Boys need love and tolerant understanding. But being a boy is not a social disease.”

Some have even went so far as to define masculinity as mascupathy (masculinity-plus-pathology). This “pathologizing of masculinity” has resulted in a demonization of “traditional cultural masculine norms.” The term “toxic masculinity” is now used to describe

…traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.

While traits like leadership, courage, protectiveness, adventure, self-reliance, competitiveness, and daring can be used for “toxic” ends, they can also be God-given virtues designed to equip and further men. Nevertheless, the shaming of traditional masculinity, the pathologizing of inherently masculine traits, the normalizing of gender fluidity, and the rise of a more aggressive feminism, have led to what some call a “crisis of masculinity.”

The statistics are staggering:

  • 99.999% of American combat deaths and casualties (historically) are men.
  • 76% of homicides are men (DOJ).
  • 80% of Suicides are men (CDC).
  • A woman is the party filing for divorce in about 66% of divorce cases.
  • Women receive custody in about 84% of child custody cases.
  • The sentencing disparity between men and women exceeds that between whites and any other minority.
  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
  • 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (CDC)
  • 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average. (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (National Principals Association Report)
  • 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes – 10 times the average. (Rainbows for All God’s Children)
  • 70% of youths in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 1988)
  • 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Fulton Co. Georgia, Texas Dept. of Correction)

Despite this “crisis of masculinity,” many assert not only that the Church has failed to engage boys and men, but that it has become “feminized.”

In his article The Feminization of the American Pulpit, podcaster Eric Conn chronicles the Church’s historical shift away from men to women as heightened by the advent of the printing press and mass media:

In her book, The Feminization of American CultureAnn Douglas details how many ministers in the early to mid-1800s took advantage of the advent of mass media that arose because of the advancement of the printing press. 

Rejected as effeminate by the masculine world of business, trade, and politics and facing extinction, liberal ministers recognized they could build a platform of influence among literary-minded, middle-class women and urban intellectual elites by writing for leftward newspapers, inhabiting academia, and publishing sentimental books. And write they did. 

Aimed at middle and upper class women, their content was, Douglas says, highly sentimental, emotionally driven, and politically liberal. They knew they had to retain at least an homage to Calvinism to get Americans to swallow the pill, so they softened it for the sake of widespread palatability. Call it Calvinism Zero.  

Rather than dealing with the masculine world of business, politics, or theology—a world from which they had been banished—their writings focused on social causes: women’s rights, alcohol abuse, slavery, children, etc. Rather than creating a new market with their content, Douglas notes, ministers were instead tailoring their message to already existing female interests and appetites.  

Likewise, two fundamental assumptions among liberal clergy (and the women they addressed) were that, first, women are morally pure and more naturally disposed to religion than men; second, that men were worldly for being business-oriented and culture-facing, ruined women and children through alcohol abuse, and must become more like women (receptive, passive) if religion were to benefit them. 

One of the most prominent early publishers, the New York-based Harper’s realized the key to success was writing to women even when a book or magazine was supposedly for men. Their theory—and a successful one at that—was that women would buy the books and tell the men what to read. 

While this doesn’t sufficiently answer today’s disparity of female to male ratios in church attendance, it does provide another historical context for the evangelical church’s inability to engage men. While, more recently, groups like Promise Keepers were wildly successful at attracting Christian men, the movement was predictably undermined by criticism that such endeavors furthered a type of patriarchal toxicity. This is also a charge often brought against John Eldridge’s popular Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secrets of a Man’s Soul.

So another possible reason that evangelical publishers are losing male readers is simply because evangelical churches are losing male congregants. Not only has the Church and its leaders failed to properly counteract the culture’s attack on masculinity and traditional gender roles, but it has drifted leftward, embracing a kind of soft emotivism and femininity that many men do not find compelling.

Christian publishers market mainly to women

I recently commented on my Facebook page about the disparity of female to male nominations for the 2020 Christy Awards. I wrote:

Wow. Only one man (out of 28 nominations) made the Christy cut this year. And even THAT book was co-written with his daughter. Is it me, or is Christian fiction becoming almost exclusively a female genre?

Of course, this disparity is more evidence of the existing demographic tilt than it is some conspiratorial effort. Indeed, Christian publishers — like ANY publisher — would want to broaden their market as much as possible. Which leads one to ask whether the Christian market is interminably fixed. One need only browse the Christian fiction aisle at their local bookstore to see the proliferation of romance, historical romance, Amish fiction, and mysteries written by and for women. While some cite the historical arc of the mainstream Christian writers’ organization (American Christian Fiction Writers Association, the largest professional organization for Christian writers, began as American Christian Romance Writers before changing its name), others see the disparity as partly organic.

Tim Challies in an article entitled Why Men Aren’t Reading Women Writers, notes “Men write for men and women; women write for women. In other words, a substantial percentage of the books written by women are for women while a substantial percentage of the books written by men are for both men and women. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, women are far more likely than men to write books specifically for their own gender.” He concludes:

“…publishers are asking women to write books for women. They are not asking women to write books for men and women.”

Whether or not Challies’ theory holds water, the marketing element of the male reading equation is in play. Best-selling thriller author Jason Pinter, in his article Why Men Don’t Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population, describes this lack of marketing to men as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because if you’ve worked in publishing, you’ve heard the tired old maxim: Men Don’t Read. Try to acquire or sell a book aimed predominantly at men, and odds are you’ll be told Men Don’t Read. This story is not an isolated incident. And while the book I’m discussing is not everybody’s piece of cake, is is a microcosm of what I believe is a huge problem within the industry. If you keep telling yourself something, regardless of its validity, eventually you’ll begin to believe it. So because publishers rarely publish for men and don’t market towards men, somehow that equates to our entire gender having given up on the reading books. Hence the mantra ‘Men Don’t Read.’ THIS MUST END.
In my opinion, this empty excuse of ‘Men Don’t Read’ has begotten a vicious cycle.

Men read. Tons of them do. But they are not marketed to, not targeted, and often totally dismissed. Go to a book conference, a signing. Outside of a Tucker Max event, what percentage of attendees are men?

Paul Maxwell, a former acquisitions editor for Zondervan, echoes the above sentiment. In THIS YouTube video, Maxwell revealed some fascinating publishing practices — the majority of books are marketed to women. Even books written for men are marketed to their wives. Maxwell notes:

“There is one piece of folk wisdom among Christian publishing that guides a lot of book acquisition and marketing. Men don’t buy books. Women buy books. That governs most publishing acquisitions and marketing strategy. So even books that we acquired for men were actually marketed to sell to women, mainly, to buy for their husbands or sons.”

In fact, Maxwell goes on to suggest that Christian men are now gravitating to public, more alpha male-type figures like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Ben Shapiro, partly because traditional masculinity is being replaced by “beta males” and the American church is somewhat following suit.

Perhaps the lack of marketing to males is simply a reflection of the lack of genres which male readers gravitate towards. Whereas the general market contains all possible genres, from Crime to Sci-Fi to Western to Horror, the Christian fiction market is surprisingly narrow. Thus, publishing genres that might be attractive to males are far more risky in the Christian market.

A good example of this comes from Jon Breen, writing for The Weekly Standard, about my writer friend J. Mark Bertrand. In Divine Deduction, Breen describes Bertrand as “a major crime-fiction talent,” admitting that he’s “one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years.” Breen proceeds to describe Bertrand’s three-book crime series (beginning with Back on Murder), published by Bethany House, in rather glowing terms:

The police procedure has a feel of authenticity, with extensive detail of weaponry and forensics, and the course of the investigation bears some of the messiness of real life. The narrative energy is relentless. The visual, cinematic style sticks to a single first-person viewpoint, a unity some contemporary thriller writers violate to their detriment. Present-tense narrative annoys some readers (including this one at times), but its sense of urgency and immediacy is effective in the [Roland] March novels.

There’s just one problem…

Bertrand is a major crime-fiction talent—one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years—but he has not reached nearly the wide audience he deserves for a simple reason: His novels come from a religious publisher. (bold mine)

One would think a religious publisher, just like any publisher, should be about cashing in on their clients’ talents. Then again, perhaps the genre itself and the audience for it, are nowhere to be found in Christian publishing circles.

Because Women’s / Historical / Suspense fiction is the wheelhouse of the Christian market, publishing houses are now designed to crank out this product. With our changing economy, said publishers are forced into “safe mode.” And since men who read gravitate to specific fare and that fare is, mostly, outside the purview of the Christian market, male Christian writers and readers are forced to look elsewhere.

In this way, one possible reason that Christian publishers are not connecting with male readers is because of marketing. A viscous cycle is being fed. Not only have we embraced the myth that “men don’t read,” attempts to engage them are dismissed as having been tried and found lacking. Thus, we create our own self-fulfilling prophecy.

***

Let me conclude by saying that I write this out of appreciation and hope for Christian publishing. I sometimes get charged with being overly-critical of and unfair to the Christian fiction industry. But while I’ll agree to being critical, I do so out of hope and a desire for industry growth. As a Christian, a Christian reader, a church-goer, a father, and a grandfather of five boys, I want to see men engaged more by the Church and by Christian publishers. That would begin, however, by seriously considering possible causes of the existing disparities and the courage to tackle them directly. My hope is that this short series will contribute to that end.

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“The Third Golem” is Now Live!

The third book in my Reagan Moon series is live. Here’s the blurb for The Third Golem:

He was the Prophesied One, the Twelfth-borne of Chaos… and he drove a ’66 El Camino.

Reagan Moon is a survivor. He’s bested ghosts, lizard people, and death angels. But his greatest foe is waiting in the wings. When an herbalist is ritually murdered in Chinatown, Reagan Moon and the Imperia are drawn into a mysterious plot to reawaken a mythical monster. Seems Balfour Rothbard, chaos magician and technological whiz kid, is seeking to resurrect the legendary Third Golem.

Rooted in Kabbalistic lore, the fabled golem was created as the ultimate super soldier; a kick-ass artificial intelligence fueled by magic. With the help of Ki, the Wayward Guardian, the magician now seeks to awaken the ancient golem and empower it to occupy a place of ultimate power: The Crossroads of Time.

Only a sacred staff, an renowned relic from antiquity, can counter the magician’s madness. But will Moon manage to master the staff in time to thwart the Third Golem, or will his “survivor streak” finally hit the wall?

Myth and magic collide in the third installment of what Publishers Weekly called “one of the best indie novels of 2015.”

The paperback is currently available, while the ebook releases Sept. 9. You can purchase your copy HERE.

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“Cultural Apologetics” — A Review

The Apostle Paul knew the importance of a proper approach. In the Book of Colossians he wrote,

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 4:2 NIV bold mine)

Knowing how to answer everyone assumes that there’s no pat answers. In the case of the Christian faith, a proper approach varies per person. Some spiritual seekers need an “answer” to complex philosophical questions; others don’t. Some need to be engaged emotionally; others intellectually. But to do this requires flexibility, as well as a more nuanced approach to traditional apologetics.

In Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, author Paul Gould suggests that knowing how to respond to spiritual seekers involves more than just answering a checklist of objections. Rather, contemporary apologetics demands understanding the cultural zeitgeist.

Using the biblical account of the Apostle Paul preaching to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17: 16-33), Gould outlines a more “holistic” approach to apologetics, one that involves identifying “a [cultural] starting point for building a bridge to the gospel” (pg. 27) from which to share rational and historical evidences for the Christian faith. Using that template, Gould diagnoses contemporary culture and its lens to the world.

“How does our culture perceive the world? In a word, we are disenchanted. The view of the world presented to us in the Bible is sacred and beautiful, yet our culture treats it as mundane, ordinary, and familiar. As a culture, we are ‘under a spell’ of materialism. We assume concepts like beauty, goodness, and holiness, but they are disassociated from the wonder of receiving them as a gift from our Creator. Belief in God, faith, and religion are an embarrassment. Yet there is universal longing for transcendence, a nostalgia for an enchanted cosmos, something beyond the ordinary and mundane, that will not leave us. Moden culture is obsessed with ‘contraband transcendence” — a kind of spirituality and occultism that is antitheistic and antihumanistic. Moderns insist that everything is matter. At the same time, through their actions, they reveal a deep longing to connect to something beyond the material world.” (pg. 27 italics in original).

Disenchantment is the result of maintaining a commitment to rationalistic materialism while still experiencing a deep instinctual desire for the transcendent.

Knowing this helps the church better craft her approach to culture.

“The missionary work of the church, then, is conceived as a return to enchantment — a reenchantment of reality through the awakening of desires…” (pg. 45)

So how do we “reawaken the desires” of spiritual seekers?

Using disenchantment as the pervasive sentiment shaping cultural expressions, Gould distills “three universal longings” that can serve as the aforementioned “starting points for building bridges to the gospel.” Those three universal longings are:

  • Truth
  • Goodness
  • Beauty

In this way, the goal of the Christian apologist is not simply to make Christianity appear reasonable, but desirable; to address both rational and transcendental longings. By appealing to, by emulating, by sowing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty we seek to re-enchant the dis-enchanted.

“These three universal longings, for truth, for goodness, and beauty, can serve as fitting starting points for a cultural apologetic… These universal human longings cannot be eradicated. Unfortunately, they can be and often are muted and repressed. It’s possible to settle for cheap counterfeits too. This is why God has provided guides within the human soul to help us on our journey. Reason guides us on our quest for truth. The conscience leads us to goodness. And the imagination transports us to beauty” (pg. 29).

Here, Gould introduces us to three “bridges” the evangelist can use to engage the disenchanted — reason, conscience, and imagination.

  • The intellectually and existentially disenchanted long for Truth, and Reason is the bridge to re-enchantment.
  • The morally disillusioned long for Goodness, and Conscience is the bridge to re-enchantment.
  • The emotionally and sensually disillusioned long for Beauty, and Imagination is the bridge to re-enchantment

Cultural aplogetics is holistic in the sense that it engages culture at multiple junctures. Disenchantment is not the result of one thing. Neither should the call to re-enchantment be. Modern man has been shaped by numerous elements and ideas. Science, Philosophy, Political Theory, Art, Fashion, Film, Music… all these things speak, in one form, to our innate desires for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Disenchantment is the confluence of many streams. Because of this, the Church’s missional work to re-enchant the spiritually disillusioned should encompass a broad swath of institutions, mediums, and platforms — the academy, the arts, literature, technology, politics. Such institutions are tributaries to the larger cultural river.

Which brings me to one of the reasons why Gould’s “Cultural Apologetics” so fascinated me. Most apologetic approaches fail to integrate Arts and the Imagination as tools for evangelism. Like Holly Ordway’s “Apologetics and the Christian Imagination,” Gould acknowledges the powerful role that the arts play in engaging and shaping culture. Here, he quotes philosopher Roger Scruton:

“Art, as we have known it, stands on the threshold of the transcendental. It points beyond this world of accidental and disconnected things to another realm, in which human life is endowed with an emotional logic that makes suffering noble and love worthwhile. Nobody who is alert to beauty, therefore, is without the concept of redemption–of a final transcendence of moral disorder into a ‘kingdom of ends.'” (pg. 104).

As someone who is both interested in engaging secular culture and using my art to do so, the balance between the two has been tenuous. While some approach story as an opportunity to “preach to the choir,” others abandon all pretense and simply seek to entertain. So it’s refreshing to see Gould put forth a more holistic approach:

“Many, if not all, good stories are good precisely because they point to the one true story of the world: the gospel. In the gospel, as in the very best fairy stories, we find what we long for: a magical world, life eternal, love unbounded, the defeat of evil, and a happy ending. And all good stories point us to Jesus, even if they do so indirectly. We are drawn to some stories over others because we intuit that they reflect reality, that they are somehow connected to another, ongoing story. Fictional stories prepare us to recognize the true story when we see it. They are windows to another world, beckoning for us to look through for the One who offers us joy unending.” (pg. 113)

Knowing how to answer everyone (Col. 4:2) means acknowledging that everyone is different. While some seekers require rigorous intellectual engagement, others might need a kind word or a timely story. Being a good apologist means learning to discern who needs what. However, one factor that binds all of us together is disenchantment. We desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty but too often settle for empty substitutes. Not only must Christians be re-enchanted by the wonder of God’s creation and grace, we must make it our mission to challenge our disenchanted age at every front. Paul Gould’s Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World is helpful tool to that end.

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