The Challenge for American Christian Authors

The majority of Christian books published every year are written in English by authors in the United States. U.S. Christian publishers in a billion dollar industry publish many thousands of new titles every year.

Still, I am not sure all American authors who desire to have their books spread across the globe and translated into various languages have the credentials nor the global insight to be telling the rest of the world how to live and grow in their faith.

How’s that for a cheery perspective?

An American perspective on the Bible is not always a universal one, applicable to every people group, language and country. This is why relatively few Christian books published in the United States find their way into translated editions or exported around the world.

Even the Bible has portions, which need to be seen through the eyes of a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean culture before it can be truly understood.

Here are a variety of anecdotal pieces of information, which I believe create barriers to American Christian authors when they attempt to speak to the world:

During World War II, from 1939-1945, over 3% of the population of the world died either directly or indirectly as a result of the war. The United States lost 1/10th of this percentage or around one third of one percent. If the US followed the average of the rest of the world, we would have had over four million people killed. Certainly the 400,000 who died were far too many, but maybe we should have a little more understanding for the permanent damage to culture for countries like Russia who lost between 10-15% of their entire population, or the Philippines, who lost over 500,000 of their 16 million citizens and Ukraine who lost close to seven million people, a sixth of their population at the time.

Life has been difficult everywhere. Comparatively speaking it has been far less difficult in the United States. Treat other peoples with respect and understanding.

Middle class America is not something experienced by the vast majority of the world’s Christians. Since most Christian authors in the US come from this group, this fact alone should build in a great deal of humility and caution for Christian writers.

When you write globally, consider yourself less important and entitled than you might be accustomed. More Scripture, less you.

American Christians experience a level and variety of religious freedom largely unknown in the rest of the world. We have more Christian books, Bibles and Christian media than the rest of the world combined. The total number of Christian books published in a month in America outnumbers the total number of Christian books ever published in some languages and countries. American access to the Bible and places of worship is unparalleled.

American Christians have comparatively little to complain about. Be careful when addressing issues of Christian persecution and difficulties.

So, what is the point of this counter-perspective today?

When writing from their experience alone, American Christian authors have very little to say to the rest of the world’s Christians. If an American Christian author desires to write for believers in other languages and countries, they need to see their faith on a deeper level, writing from great humility and a Scripture-focused perspective.

Still, the American Christian perspective is not always a universal one.

Authors can write about anything they want in this country. You don’t need to apologize for your life or experience. But if your desire is to write to help believers in other languages or countries, you need to see your work and message from their perspective.

If you use examples to illustrate your points about the stress of driving your SUV five miles to the Home Depot to pick up building materials for the pergola over your backyard patio, your spiritual point and credibility will be lost among the shaking heads.

The writing of Christian books to people culturally similar to you is a great privilege and responsibility. Writing to encourage people not like you is an even more daunting task.  Walk carefully and with great spiritual humility.

 

35 Responses to The Challenge for American Christian Authors

  1. Brennan S. McPherson September 26, 2017 at 3:29 am #

    Great post, Dan!

  2. Christine September 26, 2017 at 4:04 am #

    yes, very much so.
    In non-fiction please attempt to include stories/testimonies/illustrations from other places than the US.
    In fiction I am puzzled by the huge number of military, K9 stories. Also the fantisization of Amish, pioneer … there is such an amazing world out there to write about. Please avoid writing about the British nobility – almost always get it wrong. Another fantasy.

  3. Diana Harkness September 26, 2017 at 5:40 am #

    So true. I was at dinner the other night with close friends and long-time Christians. One wondered what the people may have been shouting at the wall of Jericho. I suggested the Shema. They all looked at me blankly, until one asked what that was. I explained that they were Hebrews honoring God and they might have exclaimed “Shema Israel. Adoni elohenu. Adoni echad.” And then I translated it into english for them. If long-time Christians do not know even the most used phrase by Jewish speakers, how are they going to relate to a culture that is not in the Bible? Every writer should not only learn about but internalize other cultures, so that writer will be culturally adept and significant. One way to begin doing this is to learn other languages such as Hebrew, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin, etc. (These are some of the languages that I have studied). Another is to read books by authors from other cultures.

  4. Mark Carpenter September 26, 2017 at 6:30 am #

    Thanks for this, Dan. Due to many of the reasons you discuss, in Brazil we have found that the market for books by American Christians is evaporating. We are successfully publishing more Brazilian authors who speak directly to our readers. But there is still a market here for authors from the US (and other countries) who are culturally sensitive and able to focus on universal truth.

  5. Carol Ashby September 26, 2017 at 6:56 am #

    Great advice, Dan. Even in novels, we shouldn’t assume the American experience is universal. I’m writing about ancient Roman times, so I’m somewhat protected from Americanizing the novels too much. (I would NOT want to live in that culture myself!)

    But many things will resonate across the world. One of my favorite Christian authors for deep, faith feeding books is Andrew Murray. He was a minister who was born in 1928, served as a minister and wrote many books, and died in 1917…all in South Africa. Very different in time and space from me, but God can take anyone’s best and feed the world with it. That’s always my prayer for my own work, but I don’t expect what I do to become a top seller every place it’s read.

    • Carol September 26, 2017 at 8:36 am #

      That was 1828, not 1928. People never die before they were born, except in time-travel scifi.

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 26, 2017 at 7:09 am #

    Great essay, Dan, and your truth is spot-on.

    I’ve seen what happens in other cultures; I’ve stood in a mass grave that contained folks who were killed to make a political point, looking for the forensics that would confirm the identity of the perpetrators so that we might go out and chastise them harshly. (It’s interesting that different terrorist cells leave distinct forensic calling cards, but I’m not really allowed to go into that, nor, I suspect, would a breakfast audience appreciate it.)

    What’s interesting is that this kind of experience has caused some pushback among certain Christians who are close to me. My life now is a fatiguing daily walk through pain-filled thickets, my footing undermined by small and nasty humiliations; terminal illness does that to you.

    But it could be a lot worse; I have a wonderful wife, dry place to sleep, enough to eat (when I can keep it down), entertainment and human contact (largely via Internet), and a purpose in life (our stray-dog sanctuary, and my writing). And did I mention indoor plumbing, and the fact that no one is likely to try to kill me today? These are blessings most of the world can only imagine.

    And yet, when I SAY that I’m doing OK, that things could be a lot worse, some find it annoying. And that’s a puzzlement.

    It occurs to me that perhaps I, myself, am a different culture, and one that illuminates the things they fear.

    The lives of the persecuted and the suffering are not unremitting pain and unalloyed fear; they contain bright sparkles of joy that are enough to make life worthwhile, but we the comfortable can’t see these, because we have not been given the eyes which come only with experience.

    So we word-paint them, most often, as cardboard figures of a uniform dun colour, shuffling, obedient to our authorship, to their grim fates lit only by ultimate Salvation.

    Grim their fate may be, but we can’t hear the jokes they share along the way, nor see their smiles of comradeship, and in our deafness and in our blindness we do them the ultimate disservice of denying these our persecuted characters the humanity we ourselves enjoy.

  7. Damon J. Gray September 26, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    I have long held (and stated) that the Bible was not written to us. It was written to “them,” long, long ago, and half a world away. Until we understand what it meant to them, in their culture and in their time, we will never be able to understand what it means for us in our culture and our time.

    There is a not-so-adorable arrogance in the U.S. mentality that allows us to barge into situations about which we know little to nothing, and to do so as though we are the only ones in the room who know what’s going on, when the reality is we are the only ones in the room who do NOT know what’s going on.

    We discussed this extensively in my seminary foreign missions classes. Those were humbling, eye-opening classes.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 26, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      Good point about American arrogance, Damon. It’s gotten many a good man killed in ways best not described.

      There are times, though, when you don’t need to understand what’s going on. You need to find out who’s doing it, then FIND who’s doing it, and convince them to stop.

    • rochellino September 26, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      I have to strongly disagree that the bible was written exclusively to “them”. Conversely, I believe that the bible was written directly to each one of us intended for our time. No filters, exceptions, conditions, interpreters, clergy or anything else should attempt to stand between each one of us and the direct word of God as HE has given it to US.

      The bible holds great meaning for each one of us directly no matter what culture, time, country or form we happen to be in. No conversion from “back then” to “now” is necessary to receive the direct word of God as HE has given it directly to each of us individually as well as to “them”, back when.

      It is the word of the great I AM, not I was or used to be back when.

      Reinterpreting the word to conform to todays world from “then” to “now” goes directly against scripture and can allow many abominations, blasphemies and other sins now seen as political correctness to be accepted. Unfortunately this is already happening among some “Christians”.

      Romans 12:2
      And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God

      Hebrews 13:8New King James Version (NKJV)
      Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

      HIS word is constant and IMMUTABLE.

  8. Rebekah Love Dorris September 26, 2017 at 7:35 am #

    Thank you for writing this.

    One postscript: I think it also applies to other cultures within the United States. If we’ve never walked in another’s skin, we should tread lightly attempting to tell them how to feel. How delectable is sweet silence when we’re clueless.

    • Dan Balow September 26, 2017 at 7:43 am #

      I agree wholeheartedly. This is why there are so few cross-cultural churches. It is far too easy to stay with what we know than learn something outside our experience.

      This is also why if an author writes a book for “everyone,” they will miss everyone. No book is for everyone.

  9. Joey Rudder September 26, 2017 at 7:57 am #

    Amen.

    This reminded me of Operation Christmas Child (Samaritan’s Purse) and the shoeboxes they send to children all over the world. There are so many stories, but the one that sticks in my mind is about a little boy who received a cup in his shoebox.

    A cup to a child in the United States may be dismissed as a trivial thing. But to a child in another part of the world who receives his scalding (liquid) food from a truck and was catching it in his hands, dropping most on the ground and trying to lap it up, a cup is a precious and life-altering gift.

    As those who fill the shoeboxes pray for wisdom to know what to include, we as writers can also pray for wisdom to know what to include in our writings. God knows who will be reading it and what they need to draw closer to Him. We can also pray that God will give us eyes to see and ears to hear those suffering in ways we can’t even imagine so we may offer compassion and kindness through His Word.

    God was there when that little boy got his cup. And He is there with the readers when they open the gifts He has for them…all the glory belongs to Him.

    Thank you for this post, Dan. God bless you.

    • Carol Ashby September 26, 2017 at 8:30 am #

      Spot on, Joey! I always put in hair pick instead of combs because combs are useless with very curly hair like my African American son has. I never would have thought about that until I had to deal with Paul’s hair.

  10. Beverly Brooks September 26, 2017 at 8:22 am #

    Sobering.

  11. Cindy Fowell September 26, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    Thank you Dan for your insight and wisdom.
    And the remarks and added insights that follow.
    Andrew, thank you for the reminder of living on foreign soil and how it changed my world view forever. Eleven months in Egypt in ’79, will forever be precious to me, learning the joys and sorrows of my Arab friends. I learned so much about life and about how another culture lives and thinks. And I too found and still find that people don’t always understand me. But it is okay, I still watch for places to share and hope one day they will.

  12. Nicola September 26, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    Nail, meet Hammer.

    Thank you Dan, and all the commentators for your insight.
    I am not an American. I am not even North American by birth. I rejoice on both sides of the divide when the divide is a little thinner than before.
    God’s intended splendor for human being is variety and not being afraid of ‘Other’.
    When we write about ourselves the world is interested. When we write about how to be ourselves, as if that were the only way to be, that is where the crime lies.

    • Carol Ashby September 26, 2017 at 11:07 am #

      Love your post, Nicola! We’re all “the other” to someone, but believing in Jesus turns us into a family with infinite variety.

      • Nicola September 26, 2017 at 11:52 am #

        Thanks Carol. I appreciate the family I have in this writerly community.

  13. Susan Wingate September 26, 2017 at 9:04 am #

    Freaking great post. A breath of fresh air. Perhaps another way to understand another culture’s walk with Christ is to visit or serve in that other culture. I’m thinking Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, this sort of service, Church seminary as well.
    Great post.

  14. Judi Clarke September 26, 2017 at 9:31 am #

    Excellent points, Dan. Thank you for this dose of reality in a very thought-provoking post. I think it reveals something we don’t often sense here in our culture, but should: it is Scripture that has the power to transform us.

  15. Grace Fox September 26, 2017 at 9:49 am #

    Thank for this, Dan. In 2007, my husband and I launched the Canadian office for a US-based ministry called International Messengers. We have 200 career missionaries working in 25 countries. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to teach missionaries-in-training in Egypt and to train church leaders and pastors in Nepal. I’ve also taught women’s conferences throughout Eastern Europe. Every time I travel overseas (3-4 times a year), I become more painfully aware of my faulty North American Christian ways of thinking. Some of the people I’ve met have endured hardships that I can’t begin to imagine and yet their joy bucket overflows. I’ve learned that I dare not think I’m the North American teacher with great wisdom to share. Rather, I’m a learner who needs to serve and sit at their feet, hear their stories, and get to know God as intimately as they do.

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield September 26, 2017 at 10:26 am #

      Grace,
      Your last two sentences are a book in themselves. Ministering in a South American country for several years had the same effect on me, except now, back in the States, I often feel that I haven’t processed the experience and growth opportunity as well as I should have. I hesitate to even “put anything out there” because I feel so privileged, sheltered, and unworthy of giving someone else insight. I think that’s one reason I’m much more comfortable writing historical fiction books than writing contemporary truth-telling on my website or my other media outreaches–a fact that has greatly hindered building a platform. Your last two posts on “Connecting the Dots” and now this post, have definitely moved me forward again. Thanks!

      • Grace Fox September 26, 2017 at 6:27 pm #

        Thank you for your kind words, Linda. May the Spirit breathe fresh wind into your sails.

  16. Cathy Krafve September 26, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    Humility and modesty of spirit are such beautiful qualities. I hope they come back in style in the United States. Thank you, Dan, for a lovely reminder.

  17. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D September 26, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    Dan, your words are so true. I remember a translation of the Bible that said “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as the meat of a coconut.” It made a lot of sense to those in the tropics, since they had never seen snow.

  18. Marcia Laycock September 26, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

    So very true. I had a taste of this while writing short radio scripts for Wycliffe Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea. I worked with a national pastor who coached me through making the stories applicable to the cultures of the South Pacific. A challenging and valuable experience indeed. May we learn humility in body mind and soul!

  19. David Rawlings September 26, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    Great post Bob. I’m coming about it from the opposite direction – I’m an Australian writing for an American audience.

    I wanted to let you know that your advice rings true the other way as well.

    When you’re outside US culture, you really do have to understand not just what a US audience reads, but why it wants to read it. To go beyond stereotypes foisted on you by the media and pop culture. To dive deeper not just into the story, but into the mind of the reader and their view of the world.

    It means you absolutely have to put more energy into researching your audience than you normally would. (For a start, that meant I had to learn new spelling and grammar, and I’ve been a corporate and freelance writer in Australia for 25 years. Our Queen’s English doesn’t cut in the USA.) Then it meant understanding more about the US than the pointed cliches we see in global media of you’re either “I’m with Her” or “a Trump voter.” The more I’ve spoken to people and made connections with my potential audience in the USA, the more it’s become apparent that readers are real, and they’re individuals who are more than a clumsy grouping done for a 30-second breathless media grab.

    The extra research is a challenge, and prayer for understanding means exercising patience and a willingness to learn, but anything that produces better writing is worth it.

  20. CL Rueter September 26, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    Thank you Dan and many others who have posted comments. So true. This brings to mind some of the cruel comments, by Americans, that have been made to my family because of our mixed heritage. Many Americans just don’t “get” that they cannot know how they themselves would react in dire circumstances so they should not point fingers of “how could they?” at others. I am just happy that my in-laws – people who had every right not to like me due to their past history with Americans, much less one who was marrying their son took the opportunity to not only love me but to try to learn something about me and my culture so they could understand their grandchildren better.
    If we can but learn and write as Christians who are sharing with a wide range of family and friends, instead of talking down to “others” we might be able to lessen this divide.

  21. Preslaysa Williams September 27, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    So true. As a half-Black, half-Filipina writer who grew up in the inner city and came to the Christian faith at a young age, my spiritual perspective differs vastly from the majority of American Christian authors. We are one faith, but there are many, many different faces to our faith.

  22. Richard Mabry September 28, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    Sorry to be late to the party, Dan. Excellent points–we tend to be provincial in our faith, and have to tread softly–especially those who wish to evangelize the world with their books. We sow, water, fertilize the seeds–the harvest isn’t necessarily our responsibility.,

  23. James Judd January 19, 2018 at 10:37 pm #

    Very, very, true. I lived in Asia for 7 years. I always cringed when one of my local believing friends said they were reading a book translated from English. On the other side, I’ve also recommended a few books which had great impact on me to them, only to find them marginally impacted. I found the most effective thing was not to have them read the book, but rather just talk with them about what I was learning. I could leave out all the examples, or just share what was applicable to them.

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