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Evangelical Christians Are Disappointed to Discover That Book Publishers Believe in the Free Market, Too

Matthew Vines/Youtube

In a book published Tuesday called God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, openly gay Christian activist Matthew Vines argues that the Bible’s ostensible precepts against homosexuality nonetheless permit same-sex marriage. Vines has had his critics in the evangelical community since his 2012 lecture on this subject went viral, but now his publisher—Convergent Books, part of a publishing group that includes several traditional Christian imprints—is in the crosshairs, too.

“For many years now, publishers have been releasing books that claim that the Bible does not oppose committed homosexual relationships. That is nothing new,” argued The Christian Post’s Michael Brown. “But it is a sad and shameful day when a major Christian publisher releases such a book and claims that it is a solid evangelical publication. This is abhorrent, disgraceful, and terribly misleading.” On Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze, the headline of a similarly critical article reads, “Deception: Christian Publisher Sells Soul For Mammon.” A reference to Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24), the knock would seem to be that Convergent is betraying itself and its faith for the purpose of making a buck.

A closer look at the publishing web in which Convergent exists suggests this may not be true. Either way, it is notable that the chief question stirred by the book is not whether evangelical and other religiously orthodox Christians can reconcile same-sex marriage with their faith, but whether evangelical and other religiously orthodox Christians can reconcile their social conservatism with the free market. 

Convergent shares a staff, a Colorado Springs office, and a boss, Stephen W. Cobb, with two “sister imprints.” These comprise the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, an evangelical division of Penguin Random House whose two eponymous imprints are “committed to creating products that both intensify and satisfy the elemental thirst for a deeper relationship with God,” and Image Books, which publishes an array of Catholic-themed titles. 

To some, Convergent is a sinister means of washing heterodox opinions in orthodox water. In his Blaze essay, Matt Barber reports that the different imprints are for practical purposes the same, and that several staffers there are upset at the publication of Vines’s book. “It’s smoke and mirrors,” Barber wrote. “It’s confusing because it’s designed to be confusing. It’s intentional—a shell game purposefully calculated to obfuscate and hide the ball from the Christian community.”

Cobb, who helped found WaterBrook Press nearly two decades ago, acknowledged several of Barber’s accusations in his defense, while insisting that Convergent was more than just a different name. “God and the Gay Christian is not published by WaterBrook or by Multnomah—nor would it be editorially appropriate for either,” he noted. Rather, he argued, it is in keeping with the Convergent spirit: “We believe,” he said, “it offers a thoughtful examination of Scripture on the topic of same-sex relationships.” He said he granted a few staffers’ requests not to work on it. Cobb was unavailable for comment. 

The book does not appear out of place at Convergent. The imprint was launched in 2012 under Cobb’s auspices expressly to “explore the contemporary faith experience for a broad range of Christians who are drawn to an open, inclusive and culturally engaged exploration.” Previous titles include Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith and Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of a Faith with a Future.

Nor does it seem out of place when you consider that the parent company is Random House Penguin, the largest American publisher and a division of Germany’s Bertelsmann Group. Random House Penguin did not make anyone else at the house available Tuesday. UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, Random House Penguin referred further inquiry to Cobb’s statement.

Barber, the critic, notes that “despite his frequent use of a Christian-like lexicon, Vines surprisingly admits to running an apostate enterprise that he calls The Reformation Project.” (Don’t bother clicking—the website appears defunct.) When an evangelical writer is trashing something called “The Reformation Project,” something ironic is going on. And yet there is a difference between now and a half-century ago. If you attended the Wittenberg church where Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, helping kick off the Protestant Reformation that developed a Western Christianity outside the Catholic Church, you would have been hard-pressed to avoid seeing them. By contrast, today’s anti-gay marriage evangelical Christians could in theory ignore Vines’s book and hope for the modest sales it seems destined to have, which in turn can fund more conservative WaterBrook and Multnomah books.

But I think it is to their credit (their anti-gay views aside, of course) that they choose not to turn the other cheek. The Christian Right is discovering what many on the left have long taken for, well, catechism: Big multinational conglomerates only care about your values insofar as they sell.