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The Alchemy of Spirit and Paper

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:

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 classicsincluding many of the titles listed abovein 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

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