Five hundred years ago, a scholar-monk posted ninety-five theses on a door and inadvertently started a revolution. Many books attempt to explain what happened (including one of our own; see the just-released Rebel in the Ranks by top Reformation scholar Brad Gregory), but I would like to step back and consider the significance of the means of this declaration.
Martin Luther wrote down his troubling and exciting thoughts on paper and then posted them on the internet of his medieval day—the church’s door. People read them, debated them, and reacted to them in a way we would describe as “going viral.”
We take for granted the idea that words on paper can stir things up, but in the sixteenth century this was a new phenomenon. Coinciding with Gutenberg’s engineering breakthrough, Luther’s movement quickly spread beyond his door all across Europe via books and pamphlets. This democratization of publishing where common people had access to a new world of ideas made possible a new kind of religious movement, one based on highly nuanced differences about doctrine and scripture.
Compare that to another reform movement three centuries earlier. Francis of Assisi also revolutionized the church, but his movement was not a battle of ideas so much as, through the example of his life, generating a collective admission of “we have gotten off course and need to get back to Jesus’s example and teaching.” If Francis, like Luther, had wanted some doctrines and interpretations changed, how would he let people know? How would he have generated discussion and debate over these things, especially as someone outside traditional power structures? If Luther’s movement depended solely on the inspirational quotient of his life, I doubt there would have been a Reformation.
The Czech reformer Jan Hus predated Luther by a century, but without access to publishing presses to spread and popularize his ideas, his movement stayed local and was able to be brutally suppressed.
Yes, the advent of the book changed the nature of how religions themselves change and evolve—so much so that today when we hear of a new movement or a new idea, we look to books for how we engage with them. In fact, this has been the mission of HarperOne since 1977, when the religion department of Harper & Row came to San Francisco—and for which we are celebrating our fortieth anniversary. As our mission statement declares: “HarperOne is committed to publishing the most important books across the full spectrum of religion, spirituality, health, personal growth, social change, relationships, and creativity, adding to the wealth of the world’s wisdom by stirring the waters of reflection on the primary questions of life and inspiring readers to make change, both inside and out.”
A look at our older titles tells the story of how religion and spirituality have changed during our time:
- Huston Smith’s classic The World’s Religions pioneered the idea that what were “foreign and exotic” faiths could instead be seen as traditions to be admired and learned from.
- Huston paved the way for America to discover a brand-new kind of cultural sage, the international religious leader to whom Americans look for guidance, beginning with the Dalai Lama, whose story is told in his memoir Freedom in Exile; Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (Fear, The Art of Power); and the irrepressible South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Made for Goodness, The Book of Forgiving).
- The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is kept alive through his collections I Have a Dream and A Testament of Hope (and we certainly still need to read these today).
- How many people discovered and deepened their faith through reading C. S. Lewis’s many generative treasures such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, or The Four Loves?
- Melody Beattie (Choices, Journey to the Heart) and Anne Wilson Schaef (Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much) helped add to America’s cultural lexicon such words as recovery and co-dependence.
- No one thought of Bible scholars as media figures until John Dominic Crossan (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography), Marcus Borg (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time), Bishop John Shelby Spong (This Hebrew Lord), and others began appearing on TV news shows and in newspapers popularizing the work of The Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s and revealed a thirst in the public for unfiltered access to academic discoveries about the Gospels.
- N. T. Wright has expanded how a whole generation of Christians have thought about the Bible, heaven, and their faith through his Surprised by Hope, Simply Christian, and a dozen other books.
- Who could have predicted that many people’s first introduction to the mystical wonders of spirituality would come through a novel by a Brazilian writer? Still, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has sold over 10 million copies since its American debut in 1994.
- Rob Bell’s Love Wins got a new generation to rethink what Christians believe about hell.
- The New Thought movement transformed passive faith into active participation through the early efforts of such stalwarts as Emmet Fox (Sermon on the Mount) and Joel Goldsmith (A Parenthesis in Eternity), which paved the way for the pioneering voice of Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love, The Gift of Change).
- The combination of lyrical, literary talent and deep spiritual wisdom has moved, inspired, and elevated generations of preachers through the works of Frederick Buechner (Godric, Wishful Thinking), Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder, The Pastor), Barbara Brown Taylor (Learning to Walk in the Dark, An Altar in the World) and Lauren Winner (Still, Wearing God).
- When Richard Foster first published Celebration of Discipline in 1978—encouraged by his mentor Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy)—he endured strong opposition in evangelical circles from those claiming he was either too friendly to Catholics or too New Age. Two million copies later, the book is used as a spirituality textbook at evangelical colleges.
Many more such stories could be told.
What fascinates me about religious publishing is the alchemy that can occur when spirit and paper come together within our souls. When we read, we open space deep within us to another’s voice, thoughts, and experiences. While the powers that be can sometimes guard what books people have access to, no one can guard what happens once we hold the book in our hands and open it. A secret meeting occurs that can educate, entertain, frustrate, inspire, provoke, and perhaps even spark something that becomes a revolution.
That is why we do what we do. By producing books that reflect the best of each tradition, we elevate the ongoing discussion and debate, spurring growth and advancement, while also providing resources for those soul-to-soul encounters that make possible the hard work of gaining wisdom. That is the promise of religious books. I wish I could say this work has gotten easier over time. It has not. But it is still vital and necessary and why we commit ourselves to another forty years of sparking transformation or perhaps revolution. Thanks for joining with us in our mission. Because of you, we have much to celebrate for these forty years.
PS: As part of our celebration, we’re offering forty of our bestselling classics—including many of the titles listed above—in e-book format for just $1.99 each! CLICK HERE to get your copies before the sale ends on 10/9.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor