If you know anything about the world of religious publishing these days, you know that publishers are very, very aware that "spiritual" content is good, and can lead to massive "crossover" sales, while explicit "religion" is bad and can shove good books into narrow niches.
Thus, we live in the age when religious publishers -- the kind of folks who publish doctrinal books -- are trying to start not-so-religious special branches with cool names that try to fly under the media radar, publishing books that reach out to the non-doctrinal masses with faith that would be too foggy for the publisher's normal readers.
Right now, one of the imprints that is making news is called Convergent Books, which is part of the evangelical WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. However, as this report in the conservative World magazine notes, both are operating under the secular corporate umbrella that is Penguin Random House.
This brings me to some questions that GetReligion readers have been asking about that Washington Post feature focusing on blogger Anna "Inch of Gray" Whiston-Donaldson, author of the memoir "Rare Bird" about the death of her young son, Jack. The headline on this Style piece says it all: "She let her son play in the rain. He never came back."
The Post piece includes quite a few references to the writer's faith, starting with this biographical nugget:
The portrait Whiston-Donaldson, 44, draws of her life before the event is one of suburban idyll -- a happy marriage to Tim, a patent lawyer; two healthy children who said their prayers before bed; a fulfilling part-time job at her church bookstore. The day her son died, with the power out from a storm, her children were happily doing their homework by candlelight -- a scene so “Little House on the Prairie” that she felt compelled to share it on Facebook.
OK, ask our readers: What church?
This is especially crucial since two of the major themes in the piece are, logically enough: (1) Where did Whiston-Donaldson turn for spiritual support in this crisis? And (2), how has she dealt with -- "theodicy" alert again -- the agonizing theological issues that inevitably arise during this kind of trauma?
As someone who lives much of his life online, I totally understand that she must have drawn support from her digital networks. That needs to be a big part of this story. I get that. But what about the analog world of pastors, church friends, prayer networks, Bible-study groups, etc.? Why cover one source of support and not the other?
In practice, this is what the Post did with these crucial angles, with the Convergent hook in there (sort of) as well:
After the accident, people began putting together the news reports with the photos and stories on her blog, and Whiston-Donaldson’s two lives -- online and off -- merged. The comments and condolences poured in from around the world; page views on her blog spiked to nearly half a million during the month of the accident. The online community “gave me a lot of support” and connected her with others who had experienced similar losses; some have since come to her seeking empathy and counsel. ...
Whiston-Donaldson was content to limit her writing to the Internet, even when she was approached by book agents and publishers several months after the accident. Before her son’s death, she didn’t imagine herself as a memoirist; if anything, she said, she always thought her first book would be about restoring furniture, a hobby she wrote about on her blog. But about a year after Jack died, the encouragement began to take root. She hired an agent, and without a proposal, got a contract with Convergent, a religion imprint at Crown. The choice of publisher reflects the book’s spiritual content. “I play with the idea that our son’s death is not a random accident, not just the result of free will and bad judgment and freak weather,” she writes, “but somehow part of a larger plan. And a loving God, who holds all the pieces in his hands, can see the plan that we cannot.”
That's actually pretty good, but note again how vague it all is.
The story notes that she has drawn comfort from "her faith and her community -- online and off," but never says anything concrete or specific about that faith or that community.
Why is that? Also, about that publisher, it's crucial to know that Convergent is, among evangelicals, somewhat controversial -- for logical reasons. So what, if anything, does the choice of this publisher say about the content of her book and the impact this trauma has had on her faith? That subject could have been very interesting to pursue, with even a few mouse-clicks of research.
The bottom line: There are "religious" readers out there in the marketplace, as well as "spiritual." Could the Post team write to both?
So in the end, the Style section published what is, I assume, precisely the kind of story that the Convergent PR team wanted to see in a giant, secular publication. The feature was spiritual, but not religious.
That's the ticket. It's all about "crossover."