The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a fascinating group and highly successful in growing their membership. For those who don’t know much about them, I recommend Rodney Stark’s and Laurence Iannaccone’s article “Why the Jehovah’s Witnesses Grow So Rapidly: A Theoretical Application.” The article contains a concise history of the Witnesses, and then attempts to explain their success using a model that is applicable to all new sects, faiths, or religions. Jehovah’s Witnesses must be doing something right, because their membership grows at an average rate of 4% per year, and they currently have approximately 8 million followers. Based on historical and current growth rates, there could be 200 million Witnesses by the year 2090.
One of the things Witnesses appear to be doing right — or at least doing diligently — is publishing and distributing mountains of literature. In the New York Review of Magazines, Joel Meares recently took note of this in his story “The Most Widely Read Magazine in the World,” which is about the monthly magazine (“The Watchtower”) written and published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As Meares observes, the numbers are astonishing:
Every month, nearly 40 million copies of The Watchtower are printed in more than 180 languages and sent to 236 countries. There are no subscriptions and you won’t find it on newsstands, but it’s still hard to miss. Thanks to the efforts of Witnesses [members, who in church parlance are aptly called “publishers”], The Watchtower is the most widely distributed magazine in the world, with a circulation of more than 25 million. Last year, the world’s 7.3 million-strong Jehovah’s Witnesses spent 1.5 billion hours knocking on doors and “street Witnessing” — stopping folks in parks and on streets — to preach the “good news” with a copy of The Watchtower. Its closest competitors are AARP The Magazine (circulation 24.3 million) and Better Homes and Gardens (7.6 million). It doesn’t hurt that The Watchtower has been free since 1990, with the option of a small donation.
A question that remains unanswered — and which is probably unknowable — is how many of those 40 million copies are actually read each month. My guess is that many end up in the trash or recycling bins. Regardless, enough are read to fuel the remarkable growth of this Christian sect and sustain its current membership.
Religious publishing is of course big business, a fact well known to early evangelists such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and more recent mega-church CEO’s such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Their books, however, tend to read like a mashup of Dale Carnegie and the legions of self-help books with titular phrases like “effective habits, soup for the soul, and one-minute guide” wrapped around words such as “rich, poor, prosperity, millionaire, manager, success, and finance.” It seems like the same book is being written again and again, with the only difference being where God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit of Prosperity and Happiness is inserted into the text.
In contrast to these eye-glazing titles and mind-numbing books, it appears that someone has finally realized that religious writing need not be recycled pabulum and there is a vast market for spiritual literature of a different sort. Over at Slate, Nathan Heller reports on a novel that has sold 10 million copies with no end in sight. In “Why We Love The Shack: How a Self-Published Novel that Envisions God as a Zaftig African-American Woman Has Sold Millions of Copies,” Heller provides this context:
The Shack’s success is puzzling in part because it is a book of puzzling intent. The novel’s subject is faith in God, but it is written as if to a reader who has little interest in religion. And although it is a Christian book, its author does not seem to follow any church. [William] Young was “born a Canadian,” as his back-flap copy puts it, and grew up the child of missionaries in New Guinea.
He got through college and a seminary and then worked a string of clerical and service jobs. He went bankrupt in 2003 and lost his house. Two years later, at 50, he started The Shack. When every publisher turned down the book in its current form, Young and some friends founded their own firm, Windblown Media, to fill what they considered “a big hole” in publishing: Although there were “religious” books and “secular” books, they thought, there were no titles in the middle ground, no “spiritual” novels that cast God as a path to happiness without serving up dogma.
The Shack is just that book, and its success proves not how much this country loves religion but how far from mainstream faith the nation’s aspirations have shifted.
I haven’t read The Shack yet, so cannot comment on it. I will say, however, that this cannot be welcome news to neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. It also reinforces Rodney Stark’s argument that the secularization thesis is dead. God is not, at least in the minds of millions of believers who may dislike church, doctrine, and dogma, but have a neurobiological predilection for supernaturalism.
Because The Shack does not appear to directly challenge doctrine, dogma, or tradition — or to re-imagine these byzantine rigidities, it has not suffered the banned-book fate of Nikos Kazantzakis’ must-read classic, The Last Temptation of Christ, which troubles or enrages Christians because it takes seriously the idea that Jesus was (part) human, and as such experienced both the good and bad of human existence. It is not, in other words, a sanitized Gospels account of what Jesus might have experienced as a human who was also a god. Though I am not a Christian, I found Kazantzakis’ rendering of Jesus to be quite moving. Ecce homo.