Why academic theology departments should be subject to government cuts

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There are several reasons for this.

  1. Theologians try to run before they can walk. I have written about this before, but nobody noticed, so I feel OK to write about it again. Before attempting something on The Meaning of Kenosis or The Problem of Evil they should prove their abilities on simpler matters. The Problem of Trapped Wind, for example, or the Problem of Notable Theologians Borrowing Your Study While You Are Out and Picking their Noses and Putting the Pickings on the Underside of Your Desk. Solve these, and you have an audience for life.
  2. Their training is deficient. No-one should be allowed to be in charge of anything or opine on anything unless they have (a) changed nappies and (b) organized and run a toddlers’ birthday party. The most advanced degrees should only be awarded to those who have personally sucked snot from an infant nose.1 We have had enough of academics marking their own homework and being of no practical use.
  3. They hide their work from their intended audience by having it traditionally published. Learned journals and academic textbooks keep your work and your audience well apart from each other. So you have written an insightful monograph on how future hope informs present praxis? Well done for putting it in inaccessible journals or expensive print books. Hardly anyone can reach it in there. The youth worker in Nigeria, the pastor in the Philippines, the church-planter among the Dalits in India won’t be able to study your stuff to nurture thoughtful, rounded, disciples of Christ, even though each has a mobile phone with lots of storage and data. They’ll have to make do with the free stuff from permatanned American 2 preachers instead. By hiding your work in antediluvian print, you ensure that discipleship for most Christian flocks will be reduced to saying some magic words to get rich quick.
  4. Well done!

The game is up for the Christian publishing industry?

I need help.

I have just thought a terrible thought.

The single biggest obstacle to getting books into the hands of eager readers is the Christian publishing industry, an industry that I love, respect and owe much to.

Here’s the problem.

I am preparing a talk on Revelation. I would like to read a book called ‘The Theology of Revelation’ by scholar Richard Bauckham. An internet search tells me it’s on sale at Amazon for £21 or rather less on Kindle. The same search pulls up a pdf copy of the book available for free.

I am queasy about downloading the pdf because I am cheating somehow, but I am also queasy about shelling out £20, even if I did this through my local Christian bookshop. £20 is a lot of money.

What I would really like to do, it occurs to me, is email Richard Bauckham and ask if he minded me reading the free pdf. I do not think he would mind (I don’t know him). But I also think he would say he has a contract with the publishers and they would mind.

I decide to do without the book, so I neither download it nor buy it. The Christian publishing industry made the barriers too high for me.

In the late-medieval days of yore– say 1989–the only way to get material from a fine mind like Richard Bauckham into my lesser head was to have a Christian publishing industry. And it was fantastic. It shaped the Protestant world.  The book cost £20. That was relatively expensive, but we paid it sometimes because we knew that although some money went to the author, most went to maintaining a world-spanning chain that edited, printed, marketed, warehoused, and displayed this and thousands of other wonderful books and made them available everywhere. In an analogue world, this was a modest cost for unimagineably vast benefits.

But everything has changed. Getting Prof Bauckman’s book direct from his head to mine now costs almost nothing, probably less than a penny.

So why can’t the book be available for 99p, most of which would go to Prof Bauckham? Why not? Because the publishers and the booksellers can’t live with that price, and through their contractual arrangements they stand in the way of it being available at that price.  Christian publishers and booksellers, once the friend of Christians who wish to learn, have become their enemy. This is my terrible thought. Committed to an archaic ante-deluvian distribution model, they make books needlessly, ruinously expensive and thus drastically reduce their circulation and usefulness. Bauckham should be read by his tens of thousands; but thanks to the Christian publishing industry, he only has his thousands, or indeed his hundreds. What a terrible waste! 

But, say the industry, it’s not so simple. They will tell me I am underplaying their contribution: talent-spotting, editing, marketing,  gate-keeping; that magical work of taking an MS and making it fluent, coherent, available, and hallmarked as theologically solid and well-written.

I will return and say that may have been true once but is so no longer. Editing? You jest. Developing authors? Dream on. Marketing? Authors have to  do it themselves. Typesetting and cover design? Free or cheap alternatives will do just as well for this kind of book. (See what CUP did with Bauckham’s book, below: this is intern stuff.) Gatekeeping? Proper reader reviews are worth much more than the fluff that goes on the cover. What is left? The prestige of being published by a respected house. This is true. But it ain’t worth £19, not when these very respected names are being taken over by accountants and falling off the perch like the rest of the rust-belt.

Publishing once was a world-changing industry; so was coal-mining.

Please someone help me, save me from my sins!

I edited this blog after first writing it, to try to simplify the arguments. I changed the title from ‘Christian bookshops’ to ‘Christian publishing industry’. I also added the Amazon ref to Prof Bauckham’s book, which I would like to warmly recommend–but of course I  haven’t read it. 

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