This is a series using quotes and perspectives from Cokesbury insiders as to why the official bookstore of one of the largest Protestant denominations that for decades contributed its profits to the Pension fund…chose to shut down and close its brick-and-mortar stores (including seminary stores) by May 2013.
The Lego Heavy Weapons Fiasco
This past weekend was an embarrassing weekend for Cokesbury. It started on social media: someone noticed that Cokesbury had as part of its stock the Lego Heavy Weapons Book that showed how to make four assault rifles out of Legos. Harmless but tasteless especially in the months after Newtown.
So social media did what it does best and got up in arms and even the Tennessean newspaper posted an article about it entitled “LEGO assault rifle manual dumped from Methodist online bookstore.”
It has obviously finally been taken down after being live on the Cokesbury website for at least 48 hours.
How did this happen? As embarrassing and misunderstood as that item was, it exposed a problem with Cokesbury’s business model: a substantial portion of their catalog is automated, as per Neil Alexander. A friend on Facebook expounds on what the Ingram database is:
When you go to Cokesbury.com and it says a book is “In-Stock”, that doesn’t mean its actually in the Cokesbury Warehouse. Most likely, it is in an Ingram warehouse, Cokesbury’s primary book vendor. In fact, the vast majority of books on the website are coming from Ingram, not the Cokesbury warehouse.
So, Cokesbury’s computers automatically port over any titles in the Ingram database that are marked religious. That’s why you can find some really non-Methodist stuff. Occasionally, Ingram codes a book wrong and it slips through the filter. Cokesbury also filters the Ingram database to try and prevent offensive stuff from getting through. Occasionally it fails. Like this weekend.
To be clear, there is plenty more stuff that has slipped through the filter. One enterprising person on Facebook found the following books that violate the social principles: The Beer Guide, 101 Whiskies to try before you die, No Limit Texas Hold-Em instructions, and likely more.
Problems of an Automated Catalogue
In Neil Alexander’s statement (and my friends explanation) one could surmise that a substantial portion of Cokesbury’s online catalog is automated: whatever is marked as “Religious” (with some extra filters) will show up as “For Sale” at Cokesbury (and even the 101 Whiskies got the usual 20% off).
This decision finally makes clear the problem that clergy have increasingly had regarding church curriculum and Sunday School study books: We can no longer trust that Cokesbury only offers solid Wesleyan products that are acceptable to most United Methodist clergy.
When I moved back to Oklahoma, the common refrain from other mainline/progressive pastors was “you have to preview what people buy at Cokesbury now.” I didn’t think that was true, surely our own Denominational bookstore would police its products, right? I mean, Lifeway Christian Bookstores keep out uppity women’s books and faces from their catalog, surely Cokesbury can take a cue and keep out some Calvinist or Neo-Calvinist products, right?
Wrong. Instead, Cokesbury had displays of Beth Moore, David C. Cook curriculum, Francis Chan and other Calvinist products that if I encouraged study of in my church, the core Wesleyan theology that I preached and teached would be argued with daily by those authors.
I’ve already written substantially about the problem of Beth Moore, who is invited into many church houses and ends up setting fire to core Wesleyan values. Read the full article here (and especially the 100+ comments if you have a thick skin). But more recently I wrote about the problem of churches that choose to allow in popular studies so that they can get in the crowds that give the resources to do other parts of the church.
So the problem that clergy have with their congregations is exacerbated by Cokesbury’s willingness to outsource their watchdog and chase after the dollars.
I mean, I get it. It is a business and you go where the business is. But as we have seen this weekend, an automated catalog that is not seriously reviewed by theologically-inclined people but rather by marketers not only has “oops” moments, but also contributes to the overall mess that theological education is in the churches. And when we want a doctrinal source, one so close to our heart as the Book of Discipline, when we want it to be free (as a petition from Oklahoma sent to General Conference 2012), it is amended to still cost money as “that money goes to our pension fund” which has not been the case for at least the last few years.
I also get that that same business mindset hurt the local stores. I admit I would go to the store and peruse a book or two that parishioners had asked to study as a class, so that I could preview the chapter headings and conclusions. Then we would order the products through our official rep…not the local store. Little wonder the leadership decided to close the local stores if more people were doing this than I was. Now, I changed my habits after the first year as I wanted to support the local store. But going forward…without a local store to examine products (and conceivably these traveling Cokesbury Reps wouldn’t have a trunk full of the entire Ingram catalog), it’s difficult to believe we will have any way to preview materials easily and faithfully.
But it is my belief that the business model of a substantially automated catalog does not empower churches with more options, it constricts pastoral authority over what is taught in their churches in harmful ways by allowing in anti-Wesleyan theologies in the back door of the Sunday School rooms. And that’s a two-front conflict that few clergy can properly handle. thanks to Cokesbury.
This is the first in a series of posts including comments by Cokesbury insiders, employees at the local stores and at the mothership. My goal is not the denigrate the past decisions but to help laity understand the importance of Cokesbury and what role it has played in our history.
I welcome other comments if you want to remain anonymous. Send comments to my twitter handle at gmail.com and I will respect confidentiality.[Photo credit: “Vintage Postcard: Cokesbury” by Coltera on Flickr, shared via Creative Commons license]