People still mention C. S. Lewis’s 1947 appearance on Time’s cover for The Screwtape Letters as a preeminent sign of his popularity and breadth of appeal. When Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding Love Wins became a Time cover story in 2011, it felt like the crest of a giant wave of media attention surrounding this important debate on hell. And now Barbara Brown Taylor, writer, professor, and Episcopal priest, has been featured on Time’s cover for the publication of her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Plus, like Bell, she was then included in the very next issue as one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People of the Year.”
And then—not much.
Someone tweeted that Taylor was the first female theologian featured on the cover of Time (she is certainly the first mainline Protestant minister featured there in a very, very long time). But considering how unusual this attention was, there have been very few blogs, tweets, interviews, or other media about it. Her book did rise on Amazon’s rankings, staying in the Top 100, and she made the next edition of the New York Times bestseller list at number 16 on the “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” category (right after The End of Dieting and Wheat Belly). Then again, so did her last book, An Altar in the World, but without Time’shelp.
One couldn’t say that the reaction rises to the level of what we call “buzz.” Buzz is the ability to create conversations or be what people are having conversations about. While often dismissed as mere fluff or chaff (e.g., “Taylor Swift just broke up with her latest boyfriend!”), it is one measure of whether something or someone has captured the imagination of the culture, and it can often be about substantial matters (such as the latest events in the Ukraine or Middle East). Obviously, the Internet has provided many new paths for generating buzz outside traditional media attention. And the ability to create buzz is a very real measure of one’s ability to influence culture.
Which does not bode well for the mainline Protestant church. Yes, the lack of buzz generated by the articles could be a sign of Time’s loss of cultural cache (which is certainly the case, as everyone who works there knows), but that does not fully explain the relative silence. Remember, this is a community who has been told for decades that they are in decline, disappearing even, and almost all media coverage has been negative—splits, controversies, failure. And here is one of their own, an ordained clergywoman, getting noticed simply on the strength of writing such a surprising and deeply wise spiritual book. What would one expect as a reaction? Relief, cheers, pride, a desire to trumpet this achievement. But silence?
And that takes us to an even more troubling thought: Let’s say the mainline Protestant community indeed wanted to applaud and trumpet Taylor’s achievement—how would we know? How would we hear of it? What progressive Christian channels of communication are large enough or broad enough for most of us to hear those voices? For decades the main voice for mainline Protestant clergy has been The Christian Century, and, in fact, they beat Time to the punch by featuring an excerpt from the book on their cover just before it was published. But the problem with the Century as a cultural medium is that it is almost totally and eerily disconnected from anyone without a seminary degree and serving in a progressive church. They are a world unto themselves with little to no buzz-generating power outside that world.
So if we leave the Century out, who else has the power to get their message out into the world? What media figures or shows or robust online vehicles come to mind when you think “Mainline Protestant”?
That’s a problem. For those of us wanting to engage the culture and publish from within the mainline Protestant world, we need a community to amplify and get the word out on books, authors, issues. If we have to rely on the fortunate few who get on The Daily Show or Colbert or Fresh Air, we are going to hear from only a very few voices. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have created a separate culture and accompanying distribution system that does not need national media in order to create bestsellers. Then again, they are also less likely to engage the mainstream culture on its own terms and get their leaders on these shows. When was the last time an evangelical minister was featured in Time solely for the freshness and quality of his or her writing? So the progressive community, which is less defined by a tribal us-them mentality, has a much better chance of engaging and shaping the culture and so getting in Time and on Oprah, but there is still a desperate need for another line of support that is engaging the culture on a regular basis and can amplify breakthroughs like Barbara Brown Taylor’s. In the words of a classic passion play, we need voices that can influence the world of “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening.”
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor