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Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

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Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

Blessing (2)

DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

Deep calls to Deep

DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

George Muller

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

good shepherd

HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

Hilda of Whitby

JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

Jesus without Borders

POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

Pope Francis

THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

978-1-4964-0531-9

THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

TTTEM lion

WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

Where is God

Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

10 to Note 40 days 40 bites10 to Note Footsteps of Jesus

In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

10 to Note In Gods hands10 to Note Love so amazing

Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

10 to Note Miracles10 to Note New Rules

On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

10 to Note On rock or sand10 to Note Presence encounter

When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

10 to Note When God breals in10 to Note Wisdom House

This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Autumn 2014

September 28, 2014 2 comments

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

EAGER TO LOVE

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love10 to Watch - Gatecrashing

GATECRASHING

A remarkable book and a content-rich ministry title from one of the UK’s newest publishers. Gatecrashing is the account of the ‘24-7 Prayer Ministry’ as it has developed on the non-stop party island of Ibiza. This book deserves to do very well and is well worth stocking in some depth.

10 to Watch - Growing up socialHeartLioness_cover

GROWING UP SOCIAL

OK, so how long do you spend on a screen these days? For children, the statistics relating to screen time are astonishing. Gary Chapman (of 5 Love Languages fame) and Arlene Pellicane look at ways in which families can ‘remain relational’ despite the continuing impact of technology. A timely title.

HEART OF A LIONESS

A moving testimony of a life lived with ‘sacrifice, courage and relentless love’ among the children of Uganda. Irene Gleeson or ‘Mama Irene’ describes an incredible journey of faith which led eventually to Africa and to her work for justice and child advocacy. A strong cover; this should do very well.

10 to Watch - Journalling the Bible10 to Watch - Killing Lions

JOURNALLING THE BIBLE

Spiritual Journalling is becoming increasingly popular. Corin Child, a Norfolk vicar and the vice-chair of ACW, demonstrates some creative ways to help engage with this spiritual discipline. It’s practical, easy-to-use and includes 40 ‘road-tested’ writing exercises. This surely is the type of book that cries out for effective hand-selling!

KILLING LIONS

There are not many books out there that appeal to younger men. Bestselling author, John Eldredge has teamed up with son, Samuel to explore what it means to be young and male in a western culture. Here is a series of meaningful conversations between a father and son. A fascinating topic.

10 to Watch - Play through the Bible10 to Watch - Running into No Man's Land

PLAY THROUGH THE BIBLE

Hurrah – it’s the sequel to Bake through the Bible which I just loved! Here are stories and activities for 20 weeks of games, crafts and play with young children which explore the Gospel of Luke. Described as fun and messy, obviously just right for a grandparent to buy for a grandchild, I think!

RUNNING INTO NO MAN’S LAND

The well known World War 1 poet, Woodbine Willie was not a soldier, but an Anglican chaplain who won the Military Cross for bravery. This account of his life is beautifully written, each chapter is engaging and it deserves to reach out to a very wide audience. Thought-provoking and well timed.

10 to Watch - Surprised by Scripture10 to Watch - Vanishing Grace

SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE

Not another Tom Wright, I hear you say! Described as ‘thoughtful and provocative’, here is a collection of sermons and talks that seek to show how Bible principles can be applied to pressing contemporary issues. It’s sure to sell well, so you’ll need to extend your shelf space yet again for Professor Wright!

VANISHING GRACE – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD NEWS?

Journalist and popular writer, Philip Yancey asks why the church tends to so often stir up negative vibes in our society. Here he poses the question, ‘How is Christianity still relevant in a post-Christian culture’? Yancey is one of the best writers of our time, with his books already regarded as classics.

Killing Lions John & Sam Eldridge Thomas Nelson 9781400206704
Eager to Love Richard Rohr Hodder Faith 9781473604018
Journalling the Bible Corin Child BRF 9781841017365
Surprised by Scripture Tom Wright SPCK 9780281069859
Running into No Man’s Land Jonathan Brant CWR 9781782592655
Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey Hodder Faith 9781444789027
Heart of a Lioness Irene Gleeson Authentic 9781780780474
Growing up Social Gary Chapman Moody Publishers 9780802411235
Gatecrashing Brian Heasley Muddy Pearl 9781910012093
Play through the Bible Alice Buckley Good Book Co. 9781909559196

This article was written in August for publication in Together Magazine (September to October 2014).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Reflection – Iraq, ISIS, Islam and Saint Francis

September 27, 2014 3 comments

Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.

10 to Watch - Eager to Love

Hodder Faith recently sent a reading copy of Richard Rohr’s latest book, Eager to Love. In fact, I selected it as one of my ’10 to Watch’ titles in the September/October issue of Together magazine.

Eager to Love is not a difficult book, but it’s far from an easy read. Words tend to pop up and shout, and phrases seem to have specific resonance for a given situation.

I read this during the massacres and genocide of Christian and other religious minorities across the Middle East and was stopped in my tracks by one very short 4-page chapter, ‘Entering the world of another’, a timely cameo of St Francis of Assisi and his two-week visit to the Muslim Saladin in Egypt.

The record of this extraordinary encounter in 1219 between the apparently powerless Christian monk and the all-powerful Islamic ruler sends a clear echo down through the centuries of just how costly it is to ‘love your enemies’.

Parallels between the nine Crusades and now in our own day, ISIS, are plain.

Reading Rohr’s words, it seems a case of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. He writes of how Saint Francis spoke at great personal cost against the Crusades, telling the Christian soldiers that ‘this was not of God’. Rohr comments on how the Sultan honoured Francis for his courage, sending him away with his protection and a gift of a prayer horn, which to this day is kept in Assisi.

St Francis’s view of how the Christian Church, in supporting the Crusades, actually caused the greater sin of damage to the wider principles of the Kingdom of God is one for us to ponder again for ourselves.

Today, in returning violence with violence, do we once again negate the values of the Kingdom? Good writing has the ability to challenge our assumptions and make us more thoughtful people.

Hodder and Stoughton – 9781473604018  – Published 14-Aug-2014 

Reflection: All shall be well and all shall be well …

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I am, by nature, an optimist. I tend to approach life and spirituality through the lens of hopefulness, which is why I am very fond of these faith-filled words written by someone known to history as Julian of Norwich, probably not her actual name which may have been unknown. These words have the ability to change the atmosphere of faith. They are a reminder of just how important words are in dealing with life’s challenges and circumstances.

 ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Revelations of Divine Love, recorded by Julian, Anchoress of Norwich.

Revelations of Divine Love - Hodder Faith

The Lady Julian, an English mystic from the 14th Century, was an anchoress, a type of nun, living in East Anglia. An anchoress (or recluse) was someone who had withdrawn from the world into the life of prayer, often spending that time in solitude. Born c. 1343, Julian lived possibly into her 70’s, a good age for that time. She spent much of her life in a timber or stone cell nearby to the church at Conisford near Norwich, and was a source of spiritual counsel and advice for local people. The Lady Julian was clearly an educated woman with a good understanding of languages and theology. From what we read, she was well regarded in the Norfolk area, but little else is known of her life, except from her own writings which have passed down through the years, and which are still read and widely appreciated today.

The turning point in her life came on 13th May 1373. Whilst seriously ill and very possibly dying, she received sixteen ‘shewings’ or visions over two days, which she attributed to God. She recovered and was restored to full health. These showings became the basis of her own contemplative life. Twenty years later she set down her account of the event. Her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is delightful; full of spiritual truth, hope and thoughtful reflection. There are shades here of Thomas a Kempis and his ‘Imitation of Christ.’

Incredibly, Lady Julian’s book has the distinction of being the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman. The earlier book – or the ‘short text’ – was later expanded by Lady Julian into a much longer volume, consisting of some 86 chapters and known as the ‘Long Text’. The short text exists in only one 15th century manuscript, copied from an original written in 1413 and now held in the British Library. The first printed version of the long text was made in 1670, and this is the volume that most of us have access to in the updated English editions.

In ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, The Lady Julian tells of how God, ‘our courteous Lord’ showed her,

a little thing, and the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand’. God tells her that, ‘it is all that is made’.

From this, Julian realises that, just as this small object exists because God loves it, so each individual is created and loved by God himself.  She was clearly troubled, as we all are at times, by the mystery of how such a loving God could have allowed sin and evil to enter the world. She came to see that sin is known in our lives through the pain that it causes us. God uses this pain to move us towards him for mercy and to receive his love. In this He assures us that,

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

When bad ‘stuff’ happens, it will often (not always, I realise) push us closer to God himself. This is surely the essence of Christianity, as summed up by another writer in the final chapter of the Revelation of St John: at the end of time, God will bring all things together under Christ the son; there will be a new reality. All shall be well …

Lady Julian died c. 1420 and was contemporary with another English mystic and eccentric, Margery Kempe, herself the author of the first known autobiography written in English. This was quite an extraordinary period for English literature and for written spiritual meditation.

Hopefulness or a confident expectation is an empowering quality and a Christian virtue. God loves and God forgives. He knows the end from the beginning. No matter what is happening to us, no matter the magnitude or the origin of the disasters around us, ultimately all shall be well. I sometimes think the great sin of our age is the need to know everything, to be like God himself.

Lady Julian reminds us that some things will only be known to us in heaven. It’s a matter of our trust; it’s also a matter of divine love.

Julian of Norwich again;

We hope that God has forgiven our sins, and that is true. Then our courteous Lord shows himself to the soulmost merrily and with a glad expression’.

Book Trade – Stock, stock and yet more stock

January 26, 2014 8 comments

Working on Together magazine and through my involvement with CLC Wholesale, I see a huge variety of product. In fact, far too much product in my opinion. Publishers and distributors are continuing to push out new titles into a fundamentally changed sales environment and a shrinking physical market. This cannot continue. The economics don’t add up. Internet retail copes poorly with new product as recent debates over ‘Discoverability’ show. In my view, the jury remains undecided on whether the Internet will ever fully replace the ‘lost’ B&M sales from the many, many shops that have closed in recent years.

Stock, stock and yet more stock!

And yet still the titles keep coming. Suppliers have yet to react intelligently to such a radically changed marketplace. I doubt anyone can continue to keep publishing at current levels into an already saturated market. I fear further fallouts. Mergers could follow. Self-publishing is already making inroads into the traditional model and publishing is feeling the cold draught of reality. I applaud publishing start-ups, like Edinburgh’s Muddy Pearl, that are probably nimble enough to make it, but they too face an uncertain future.

Muddy Pearl at CRE

There is way too much mediocre product, much of it destined to remain unread – a major challenge for authors as well as for publishers. Put simply, way too much is being published and a market correction is surely due. Publically quoted Lion Hudson PLC has taken a large stock write-down for two years running; £924,000 in 2013 and £550,000 in 2012 (Source: annual company accounts). Many other publishers have similar challenges providing for high levels of dead or slow-moving stock. Quite whether all are as strong as a PLC to cope financially with such savage action is a moot point. Over the longer term, publishers will profit from the shift to digital as they will benefit significantly from higher sales but with far lower stock management costs.

This summer, we caught a glimpse of what happens when a tectonic shift takes place. The Kingsway–DC Cook distribution upheaval has left a drastically altered landscape, especially for many USA houses. The reality has dawned that the UK no longer has the distribution capacity required to handle the vast amount of Christian product looking for a home. Not all of those suppliers originally with KW/DCC will be racked here again. Some are still looking; others have withdrawn from the UK. Distribution is not for the faint-hearted. It costs. Lots. Especially if you are intent on the deep stocking of all lines listed. Something has to give as the financials are becoming harder and harder to get right. New product is replaced by even newer product in an ongoing frenetic cycle – and then promptly forgotten. Ask yourself, how many of the recent titles you have been shown have ‘made it’ and are still earning their keep? In my view, the only way for retail to survive is to become ever more selective – to the severe frustration of publishers (and authors) who nurse the fervent belief that every one of their titles is both ‘key’ and ‘core’ to your business.

Where does this leave the Christian retailer? Those who survive will be those shops that choose stock wisely, prudently and are selective in the extreme. The game has completely changed.  For publishers to succeed, the key issue is ‘discoverability’ whereas for the retailer the absolute priority is ‘selectivity’. On what are you spending your money? No longer can it be about stocking anything and everything. To do so is impossible given such a huge product range and the relative size of most UK stores; insane given the investment needed in stock that could be here today and gone tomorrow; and unnecessary in a digital world which demands physical retail to be distinctive and unique if it is ever to make it through to the end of this decade.

I contend that selectivity and discoverability really do lie at the heart of this debate. You and I have the power to move the market if we truly believe in a product. The art is finding the book that really moves you to want to handsell it to as many friends, family, colleagues and customers as is humanly possible. When did a title last grab you like that? What was it? How good did it make you feel when it started to move off the shelves? My colleague, Chris Magee did just this with ‘The Circle Maker‘ (Zondervan). Its message touched him deeply, so he sent one copy to many of the retailers that CLC works with – and it remains one of their top sellers. Without such action, many books will sink without trace.

Most of us came into this trade to make a difference to people’s lives. Recommending – suggesting – handselling a title that has absolutely got to you is just the most fulfilling aspect of what we do. Hype and PR have no place in this trade and yet seemingly it’s all around us. Do we truly believe all the claims that we make for much of the product that we promote? Is it not high time we looked again at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the sale as well as our need to shift stock? In a few short years, we seem to have gone full-circle. There was a time when our shops were expected to stock in both width and depth. No longer; the new trading reality allows us to be ourselves and stock what we wish to sell, what we believe in and not those titles which have no place in our shops, as their claims are often far too spurious and their content questionable. It’s time for a rethink right across the trade on this matter.

Moving from the negative to the positive, I’d like to highlight a couple of areas that certainly warrant our attention – Children’s books and Bibles. I’ve written previously about the continuing growth in the sale of children’s titles, especially for the younger age group (pre-school and picture books are up 5.5% in five years according to new Nielsen figures). However, the one area that merits serious profile is Bibles. Sales continue to rise year-on-year. The appetite for Bibles seems to grow and grow. The range of styles and colours has never been as wide. Pink Bibles sell! This is the area that we do know about. It’s our specialism and no one can compete with us in our knowledge of the Bible market. Even the reinvigorated Waterstones doesn’t really cover this section that well.

Christian retailers know Bibles better than anyone (or at least I hope we do). Translations, bindings and fonts are what we do. It’s truly a skill to manage a good Bible department – and it pays off. This is the one area on which we must concentrate effort – through high stock investment, in-depth staff training and knowledgeable customer engagement. I’ve always enjoyed selling Bibles; that passion has never gone away. This is the one genre that makes this trade special – very special – distributing the very word of God is not given to everyone but you and I get to do it as part of our day job – wow!

Bibles and more Bibles ...

Here are four stand-out Bibles that have impressed me this autumn. This is a personal selection (no publisher was involved in this choice!) but I would be proud to promote and handsell all of these Bibles to any customer (or friend) I might come across!

1. The NLT Wayfinding Bible (Tyndale House)

This is quite superb and is probably my favourite newcomer this year – a very clever use of colour and graphics enabling the reader to find their way through the complexity of the Bible by navigating via three clear ‘routes’. Love it.

2. The NIV Journalling Bible (Hodder Faith)

Of the various covers available, the black cloth hardback is my favourite. Journals sell well in all shops and spiritual journalling is increasingly popular. This Bible has a lot of journalling space. It feels great and is a welcome addition to the range – but I’d use a soft pencil rather than ink when writing in it.

3. The NIV Every Day with Jesus Bible (CWR)

I loved the imaginative marketing campaign on www.onebible.co.uk Check it out. Selwyn Hughes’s hugely popular notes, allied to the Anglicised NIV 2011 text and presented in a chronological one year reading edition make this a ‘must-have’ stock item.

4. The ERV Youth Bible (Authentic)

At last – the text and notes in this perennial youth market best-seller have been completely reworked. It’s good – very good – and for a while at least, the price looks unbeatable. Impressive, and it’s good to add such a fine looking Bible to the shop youth section.

This article was written in late October for Together Magazine (December 2013 to January 2014)

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