A Tale of Two Pities

A Tale of Two PitiesWe've got problems," said my companion at lunch, examining a breast of chicken covered in white gravy. "Too few clergy, too many churches."

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"In some areas, we're desperate. If somebody appeared before the Board of Ministry, had a pulse, and claimed they had so much as heard of Jesus, we'd probably let 'em in."

I was back home, attending an annual conference of clergy and laity assembled on a Winslow Homeresque lakeshore in the Great Smoky Mountains. It's a region whose deep Scotch-Irish roots still bear lush outcroppings of Presbyterians and Methodists. In late spring, I return here as often as possible for comfort-food, rejuvenation of my Piedmont North Carolina patois, to pick up a little of the native politics, and-most important-to catch up with friends from schooldays, if not even farther back.

A confirmed biblioholic, I have always made a beeline to the conference's denominational bookshop. For convenience, let's call it the DBS. Of this particular store I have warm memories, baked over many years. I had practically grown up with it. The first book I can remember buying there-the first piece of serious theology I can recall purchasing, in fact-was a 95-cent copy of Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, its scarlet cover depicting a stylized white dove sailing through black bars. I must have been twelve or thirteen when I took it down from a long wall of books, shelved from floor to ceiling, labeled "Theology." Though knowing that lust was a sin, I lusted for my own library, so abundantly furnished. Bonhoeffer's Letters started mine.

When I walked into the DBS by the lake this year, tall, revolving racks of greeting cards stood sentinel on either side of the double-doorway. Immediately to my right was the sales counter; to my left, two cabinets of books marked "Religious" (prominently featuring Billy Graham: A Tribute by Friends). Beside them was another cabinet of "Devotional" publications, a jumble of everything from The Prayer of Jabez, to Bishop Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Way (which seemed at a loss to know what it was doing there). Beside that, two cabinets of "Spiritual Growth," followed by another of "Fiction" (At Home in Mitford) and two of "Nonfiction" (Charles Colson's Justice That Restores). "Self-Help" occupied the next two cabinets (Get Healthy Now! With Gary Null), even though self-help is hardly a conspicuous topic in the Christian Bible.

So it went, aisle after aisle. "Theology and Church History" (combined) took up four shelves near the front, alongside equal shelving for "Social Concerns." Predictably, for a Protestant store, "Preaching" outnumbered "Worship and Lectionary" two-to-one. "Bible Study" (books about Jesus, mostly) got as many shelves as "Worship and Lectionary," followed immediately by several racks of illustrated books, toys, videos, and other paraphernalia for children (from infants through teenagers). Anthropomorphic celery stalks grinned from neckties, for those who accessorize with their Veggie-Tales. In the shop's back corner were series commentaries for laity and seminarians (including William Barclay's war-horse and the fresher fillies it has sired), corralled by Bibles of various shapes, versions, and thresholds of annotation. Along the back of the DBS were liturgical stoles, pulpit gowns, and choir robes. Perpendicular to that colorful array was another rainbow of curriculum resources, taking up as much space as, opposite them, "Fiction," "Nonfiction," "Self-Help," and Bibles. At the center of the DBS were "Hispanic Studies," "African-American Studies," "Gender Studies" (with parity of shelving for both genders), hymnals, CDs, and other music resources. The longest aisle, directly opposite the tills, held denominational resources. On its flipside were not less than sixty linear feet of shelved "Leadership" (Carpe Mariana; An 8-Track Church in a CD-World).

The biggest departure from the DBS of my youth, however, was its fully stocked gift section. Exactly half of the store's floor area-I calculated roughly 28 feet by 42 feet from a fast count of carpet squares-was furnished not with books but gewgaws: CDs, bookmarks, baseball caps, Beanie Babies, toys, totebags, throw pillows, framed lithographs, crosses, T-shirts, personalized Swingline staples (beats me-I couldn't figure that one, either), coffee cups, pens, jigsaw puzzles, plaques, clocks. Some of the bric-a-brac carried religious themes (mugs emblazoned with John 17:19), others not. Festooning entry to this section was a prominent display with patriotic colors: memorabilia of 9/11, trivets proclaiming "God Bless America," and embroideries ("Tough Times Don't Last, Tough People Do").

Later that day, I drove a few miles south into a pleasant mountain town nearby. Erupting from the hills en route were the familiar pockmarks of homogenized America: McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Pep Boys. I was glad to see vestigial remnants of the region's distinctive character: motels whose signs thanked tourists for traveling; Granny's Chicken Palace, where the Rotary meets every Thursday at 12:30 p.m.; cinderblock churches with ground-level marquees announcing next Sunday's sermons ("Sin Is The Greatest Detective-Be Sure Your Sins Will Find You Out"); Blue Ridge Pawn and Gun, whose own marquee offered tomatoes at 79 cents per pound. Parking the car in town, I spotted The Christian Bible Bookstore (its very name-hereafter abbreviated CBB). Considering this a coincidence too choice, even providential, to ignore, I crossed Main Street and walked to its door. A small stall at the threshold presented slender books of Protestant saints, some of whose names I recognized (Charles Colson, Catherine Marshall), most of whom I did not know.

Entering the CBB, which was somewhat smaller than the DBS, I came first upon the collected works of Billy Graham and Robert Schuller, flanked by a lithographic display, "The Master Pearce Collection: Reclaiming the Arts for Christ." Cheek by jowl with Master Pearce was a "Self-Help" rack (Your Roadmap for Savings; The Prayer of Jabez for Teenagers), shelves of "Christian Fiction" (conspicuously, Tim LaHaye's Left Behind saga), and shelves for "Christian Women" (Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life). Behind the sales counter and flanking it on both sides were Bibles, zippered Bible covers, concordances, and study helps. Strolling from the rear of the CBB, along its opposite side, I noticed a few choir robes, hymnbooks, audiocassettes, and CDs (Great Hymns, Vol. 2, featuring "A Mighty Fortress," "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love," "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Kum Ba Yah"). Reproductions of Thomas Kincaide's oils (an oleaginous religious naturalism) draped a portal to the CBB's knickknack paddy whacks including, among other merchandise, more goofy Veggie-stuff, bumper stickers, plastic frames for license plates inscribed with cautions for motorists ("The Fellow Who Acts As Though There Were No God Had Better be Right"; "Warning: In Case Of The Rapture, This Vehicle Will Become Unattended"), postcards, greeting cards, boxes of greeting cards, candles, and coffee mugs.

A small plaque in one of these stores posed a question: "What Do I Know When I Know What I Know?" I'm still working on that one. I do know better than to judge the postal service from two pieces of mail, higher education from two of its graduates, the condition of America's theological health from two clean, well-lit bookstores in the Mid-Atlantic South. Nevertheless, my visits to the latter were instructive up to a point, even if heavily salted.