Monday, July 18, 2011

What Would Rupert Do?

Did you know that Rupert Murdoch owns Zondervan Publishing?

That's right. The same guy taking all the heat for his News of the World staffers hacking the phones of dead people in England also owns the publisher of the Bible's New International Version.

Wow. Try explaining that relationship to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates! Is Murdoch trying to cover all his bases by owning one of history's tawdriest tabloids as well as one of the most widely-printed copyrights of the world's most popular book?

Actually, although some evangelicals have begun getting their knickers in a twist over the apparently sordid corporate arrangement, isn't it likely that Murdoch has little knowledge of Zondervan's current top-sellers? After all, officially, Zondervan's parent company is Harper Collins Publishers, and when Murdoch purchased Harper Collins over 20 years ago, Zondervan simply came along for the corporate ride. Since then, depending on your perspective, Zondervan has either been profitable enough - or not enough of a drag on profits - for neither Harper Collins nor Murdoch to pay much attention to it.

Making Money on What Somebody Else Has Paid For

Which brings up another ancillary topic, namely, the ethics of a Christian publisher profiteering on God's holy Word. Critics of the contemporary Christian marketing movement - of which I'm sometimes one - look at the consumerism mentality in the evangelical community and wonder if capitalists have finally figured out the market value of free grace.

Part of me believes that people who write a book or edit a translation of the Bible need to be paid for their work in proportion to the value they provide the worldwide community of faith. Since I believe that "workers are worthy of their hire," one of the easiest ways to make sure proper payment is made is to peg the produced work against the free market for that commodity. The fact that most of the market for the commodity of religious literature is in North America means that prices get set based on conventional printing and marketing costs following industry standards. You can argue all day long for the altruistic merits of writing for literature's sake, but at the end of the day, writers can't survive by eating the words they've written.

Believe me, I've tried - and I've had to eat a lot of my words!

Rock the Money Box

But it's that altruistic side of providing the Gospel to people who need it that can make for a somewhat seedy side to the Christian publishing game.

My first exposure to contemporary Christian publishing came in the 1980's, when the church I was attending staged a professional Christian rock concert outreach in Dallas. Several of the bands were sponsored by Thomas Nelson Publishers, another massive player in the Bible-marketing game, and Thomas Nelson would also be using the concert as a book launch for some title I've long since forgotten.

At any rate, our church sent out a request for volunteers, and since I was in college at the time, and it was summer, I took a day off of my part-time job to help out. Even though even back then, I wasn't crazy about contemporary Christian music. And certainly not Christian rock.

I showed up early in the day, and helped set up some things, but since this was a full-fledged major production with a union stage crew, there wasn't as much to do as I thought there would be. I ended up strolling around in the bowels of Dallas' old Reunion Arena, where the Dallas Mavericks used to play basketball, poking my head into rooms that were usually off-limits to the general public.

After lunch, I was walking down a hallway and went past a conference room with its door open. Looking inside, I saw officials from my church and Thomas Nelson, and nobody was smiling. Tension brewing between everyone in the room was wafting into the hallway, and although I don't remember what anybody was saying, I remember that voice tones were sharp and definitely not congenial.

Later I learned - from overhearing a couple of church leaders who were in the meeting - that Thomas Nelson was attempting to re-negotiate some of the terms of the event contract at the 11th hour. I don't know how much of that was true, or how much any naivete on the part of our church staffers might have led to some miscommunication and unrealistic planning. Yet the overall message was clear - this concert wasn't as much an evangelistic event as it was a business enterprise.

Some evangelicals shrug their shoulders in an attitude of "so, what else is new?"  Others so highly esteem capitalism that they assume selling the Gospel can hardly be a bad thing.  But still, even all these years later, after that concert in an arena that has since been torn down, I often wonder: Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice, and Christian publishers charge upwards of $700 for us to read about it?

The problem with unbelievers owning major Christian booksellers - and I'm comfortable assuming that Murdoch is not a born-again evangelical - should be obvious: owners usually control production. Even though Murdoch is probably not in daily - or even quarterly - communication with Zondervan management, he still has the prerogative of administering content and editorial oversight should he choose to.

Granted, I'm not familiar with the reasons Zondervan sold out to Harper-Collins, but they probably had something innocuously pragmatic to do with raising funds for further product development, securing better employee benefits, and even acquiring greater market share with a bigger-name secular imprint. None of those reasons are bad in and of themselves, but the more Zondervan relinquished its autonomy, the weaker their ability to withstand challenges to its Biblical integrity must have become. Shouldn't that have factored into the business decisions its executives were making?

Reading Between the Lines

Looking back at some of the titles Zondervan has published, and knowing what we now know about Murdoch's corporate involvement, I can squint my eyes and see how the dumbing-down of content and the appeal to mass-market touchstones could be correlated. Some of the books by Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, and Rob Bell could fit right into the blather we see on Fox, another Murdoch brand. And none of those authors would probably be household names if the theories they've peddled hadn't benefited from the superb populist marketing Zondervan undoubtedly has enjoyed as part of the Murdoch empire.

For its part, Zondervan insists its business remains entirely independent of influence from News Corporation, Murdoch's conglomerate. And since I have no concrete proof to the contrary, I'll take their word for it. For now.

Meanwhile, if News Corporation continues to hemorrhage senior staffers and Wall Street valuation in the wake of its scathing London scandal, can any of its companies expect their worlds to stay the same for much longer? Will the push for even more revenue in Murdoch's remaining profit centers lead to any compromising in core competencies?

What might somebody like Murdoch do with the realization he owns a company which publishes God's Word?

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