Michael G. Maudlin, executive editor of Harper One, says the relatively quiet reception of Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, demonstrates that mainline Protestants have lost the ability to create buzz.
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.
[T]he 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. … 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?
What do you make of Maudlin’s argument?
I think there may be some particular reasons that account for the tepid response among Episcopalians to Brown Taylor’s book. She antagonized many clergy with her last book, but beyond that, many of us are deeply familiar with her work, and the fact that she has a new book out may strike us as less newsworthy than it does first time readers.
In general, however, I think Maudlin makes some good points. The mainline Protestant churches don’t have a channel of communications that commands a wide audience, and we have become captive of the narrative of decline. This diminishes our ability to shape the wider culture.
What do we do about that?