May 16, 2007
Can’t See the Forest for the Industry
The problem with editing, for me, is all the reading.
I enjoy casually reading a good book as much as the next person, I suppose, but reading at work is all business. I don’t read, I re/add.
Re/adding is an entirely different exercise from the "reading" all you laypeople do. When I read, I lose myself in the content that I've entered into. While I may engage the material critically, even disagree with it, at the root of things I'm simply receiving what's been produced for me. By contrast, when I re/add I confront the author re: perceived blind spots in his or her writing or apparent ambiguity in what he or she is trying to say. I make suggestions for what he or she should add or subtract or otherwise modify.
My authors, of course, have to decide whether the battles I pick with them as I re/add their manuscripts are worth fighting: after all, the editor is Christian, enlightened, paying the bills; the editor, therefore, is always right. Right?
It takes an act of the will not to bring this editorial hubris with me into my casual reading as well. More often than not, I’m afraid, it refuses to be left behind. So I read a classic book in the evangelical tradition, and I scoff at the obvious modernist biases that pervade the author’s writings. I skim a splashy new release in the Christian book publishing industry and take delight in pointing out the clichés and tricks of the trade that clutter up the simple message that I, the enlightened Christian editor, would edit differently. I note lists of religious bestsellers and declare that “bestselling” does not equal “best-written.” I mock the theological naiveté of the hoi polloi who are buying whatever pablum some nefarious wolf in publisher’s clothing has dumped in their laps.
But every once in a while I read a book with a group of other people—people who aren’t re/add-ing so much as reading. My small group at church, for example, opts to discuss a forty-year-old book on evangelism. I commence re/add-ing, dutifully but skeptically, deconstructing and dismissing as I go. I lean back smugly in my chair in our circle, biding my time until I can bring all conversation to a halt with my enlightened Christian editorial denouncement of our reading assignment. Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors share how meaningful this week’s chapter was, how the author brought up things they’d never thought of, how their understanding and appreciation of Jesus has been transformed by their encounter with this text. And I am left silent.
But wait: now my small group wants to read the latest trendy, manufactured, prefab, one-size-fits-all presentation of the mega-gospel. I commence re/adding the book, systematically mocking the trail of alliteration and acronyms that litter its pages, marvelling at the depth of Christian mystery that has been so effectively sterilized and commodified by this larger-than-life Christian celebrity with a word-processor and a PR department. Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors are reading the book, wide-eyed and mouth agape at this fresh look at the Savior they’ve been singing to half-awake every Sunday of their lives. Some of them wonder why nobody’s ever talked about Jesus this way before. And I am left silent.
I sometimes picture myself in the stories I find in the Bible, and when I’m feeling particularly self-congratulatory, I put myself in the place of someone very special—the father of Jesus, perhaps, or the disciple Jesus loved, or even—dare I say it?—Jesus himself. But sometimes, when I’m seeing more clearly, I find that I, the enlightened Christian editor that I am, look suspiciously like a Pharisee.
In the grand scheme of things, the Pharisees are doing something salutary: immersing themselves in God’s revelation to his people. The trouble comes when they get so close to the truth that they can’t see the Truth in front of them. Jesus contrasts this enlightened myopia with the simple vision of everyday people who have encountered, in flesh and blood, the Truth that the Pharisees have been re/add-ing about. Jesus invites the Pharisees, and the gatekeepers of contemporary Christian industry, and the old guard of every generation of the people of God, to look up and catch a glimpse of what everbody else is witnessing: “I once was blind, but now I see.” We’ll be left silent, perhaps, but our mouths will nonetheless be agape, and our eyes will be wide open.