John Bunyan's Reformation
The 17th-century Puritan minister gets a nipple ring, a tattoo, and a new book deal. Sort of.
By John D. Spalding and Tamara Jaffe-Notier
Dick Dollar: Hellllloooo. Is this John Bunyan?
John Bunyan: Uh, yes…
Dollar: Hi! This is Dick Dollar, publisher of the Evangelical Publishing Group here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How are you all doing?
Bunyan: Um, not too well. I face another trial today for preaching the Gospel in....
Dollar: Ohhh, so sorry to hear that! Listen, I’ve got you on speaker phone, and here with me in the office are our executive editor, marketing director, and art director. And we were just spitballing ideas for our spring list when a couple of folks from sales walked by, and I called ’em in and said, “Tell me, ye mighty Sales Gods. What’s missing from our list? I beseech ye!” And Marty, our head of sales, said, “Three words, Dick: ‘Blue…Like…Jazz…’”
Now, J.B.—may I call you J.B.? Do you know “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller?
Bunyan: [After a pause] Who? What?
Dollar: Donald Miller. He’s a Christian writer—hip, arty, young. Writes about his own spiritual seeking. The kids love him. Guess how many copies “Blue Like Jazz” has sold? Just guess…
Bunyan: What is this call regarding?
Dollar: Brace yourself, Reverend—400,000 copies! And that’s largely word of mouth. And now he’s got a new book out entitled, “Through Painted Deserts,” about a cross-country road trip in which he and a friend ponder deep questions in their VW bus. It’s the first book Miller published, and it didn’t sell well. But now that he’s a Name, the folks at Nelson have retitled it and are publishing it again. It’s gonna be huuuuge, Reverend!
Bunyan: I think you have the wrong number, sir…
Dollar: No, no. I got the right guy. The 17th-century Puritan minister who wrote a spiritual autobiography called “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.” In fact, that’s why I’m calling you. Spiritual memoirs are still hot. Have you read Anne Lamott’s latest book, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith”? She describes how, on her 49th birthday, she realized that all of life is hopeless and decided to eat herself to death on desserts. It’s fabulous.
Any-hoooo. We’re looking for some new spiritual memoir product, but agents haven’t sent us much good new stuff lately. Then a little light bulb went on over my head: How about reprinting some good old stuff, like your spiritual autobiography?
Bunyan: Well, I’m flattered, I guess…
Dollar: Of course, we’d have to make some changes and totally repackage it.
Dollar: First, tone. We’re going for the hip, twentysomething Christian market, and you wrote your autobiography when you were, what, in your mid- to late-30s—and almost 350 years ago, no less. We’d like to hire a writer from, say, Campus Life magazine to reword your prose so you sound more like a contemporary 20-year-old who’s struggling with God at an expensive Christian college.
Bunyan: Ah, well…my book is full of struggles! For example, there’s my religious crisis of 1648…
Dollar: Yeah, riiiiight. Listen, Reverend, I’m glad you mentioned that. I haven’t read your book, personally, but I believe I speak for Larry, our executive editor here, when I say that we do like that your book centers totally on the development of your inner religious feelings. That’s so 21st-century American Christianity! Our problem is that your book is a little too, well, dark.
Bunyan: Too dark?
Dollar: There’s an awful lot of gloomy stuff about torment, doubt, and despair. The good news is, you got saved. If you could just emphasize the happiness you’ve found in Jesus a bit more, I’m sure we could reach a wider audience. Less anxiety and more peace of mind and heart. Know what I mean?
Bunyan: Are you serious? I’ve been in and out of prison my whole life. My wife and I had four children in seven years, and then she died, leaving me a single father. My oldest child, Mary, is blind. Then I remarried and my second wife’s first child died at birth—which was brought on prematurely because I’d been arrested again…
Dollar: Speaking of which, we really need to minimize the prison stuff. Christian readers don’t buy a lot of books by ex-cons, unless they’re the Chuck Colson-conversion type…
Bunyan: Christian readers? I write for sinners. For everyone.
Dollar: Now Reverend, you just can’t go around calling Christians sinners and expect….
Bunyan: I’m a sinner—the chief of sinners. You weren’t kidding when you said you hadn’t read my book.
Dollar: Mr. Bunyan, Christians won’t read a book by “a chief of sinners.”
Bunyan: So they won’t read Romans?
Dollar: Listen, J.B., I’m sorry we’re not making more progress here, so I’ll cut to the chase. We will rework and republish your spiritual autobiography. I called legal and they say we can do it, though we may need to call it an alternate version, the way they do with all the old hymns.
Bunyan: I’m feeling a bit ill.
Dollar: Well this will make you feel better! Suzie here, our art director, has the perfect idea the cover. Picture this: A young skateboard dude for Jesus, complete with nipple piercings and tattoos. And he’s lying on the ground, with his hands behind his head, staring up at the sky, thinking about the Almighty. That’s the cover image that always sells the heck out of hip, young seeker books, like Lauren Winner’s “Girl Meets God” and Patton Dodd’s “My Faith So Far.” The cover of Rodney Clapp’s “Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels” even shows three kids lying on the ground, gazing heavenward.
Mr. Bunyan?... Mr. Bunyan? Did you just throw up in my ear?
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. Tamara Jaffe-Notier is a contributing editor to The Wittenburg Door.
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