Mission Context: Borders

This is Ben Sheppard taking a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. 

I can’t remember ever feeling this way about a store closing. It might be because books are the only thing I ever go “shopping” for; it’s also probably because Athens is the only place where I’ve spent enough time to get attached to a particular store. In any case, I’m really disappointed that Borders – specifically, our Borders, in the Beechwood shopping center – is closing its doors forever. So while I introduce a new series here at the Mission Athens blog, I’ll farewell to one of my favorite places in Athens.  


I want to use this space to examine elements of our culture and to reflect on how they fit into our missionary context. I believe that humans create culture because we are made in the image of a Creator, and that taking the time to observe and understand the culture we live in is a worthy goal in and of itself. Understanding and enjoying more of the world means coming closer to God, to each other, and to the people that we’re called to serve. The point is not to draw lines in the sand between “their culture” and “our culture,” but to comprehend how the gospel engages not just every aspect of a human being, but every aspect of the cultural universe humanity has created.


In Andy Crouch’s brilliant book Culture Making, he sets out five questions for analyzing cultural objects. I’m only going to shamelessly copy two of them here, but you can see all five and how they apply to specific cultural objects at the Culture Making blog. The first question I want to ask is, what does Borders – or any large bookstore – make possible? The second is, what does a bookstore make impossible (or at least difficult)? I’ll answer from my own experience, so chances are the way I answer these questions won’t be the same way you would. I don’t have all the possible answers.


What does having a large, chain bookstore make possible? For me, Borders was a great place to go and hang out, alone or with friends. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent killing time in the Religion section there, or leafing through the new arrivals at the front of the store. I love going to bookstores with friends. Not only can you talk about specific books that you like (or don’t like), but a bookstore the size of Borders or Barnes and Noble provides jumping off points for conversation about anything and everything. Even if you don’t like to read, just perusing the titles in the Sports or Politics sections gives you the opportunity for actual conversations with your friends about stuff that matters to you. 


Here’s another thing Borders and other big bookstores have made possible for me: finding books I never would have found in a smaller store or from an online vendor. Searching on Amazon gets me a single, specific work, while finding a book in a bookstore means passing by hundreds and hundreds of other titles. I would never have read some of my favorite books if I hadn’t found them while browsing through a bookshelf. I would have missed out on Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights if I hadn’t passed it in a Barnes and Noble; likewise, I would never have discovered Bob Ekblad’s fantastic Reading the Bible With the Damned if the title hadn’t caught my eye on a store shelf. 


But here’s the thing: as the writer of Ecclesiastes pointed out, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). According to all-knowing Google, there are 129,864,880 books in the world – and counting. Even if we were just counting works in English, there are too many books out there to fit into a single store. Even the biggest chain stores can only present a fraction of books from any given genre or on any given subject; their inventory is skewed toward the popular and the general. Although I try to read a variety of books, I read a ton of books on Christian theology, and your average chain store just doesn’t have room for something like G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission.


Another thing that is impossible (or at least difficult) in a chain bookstore is getting second opinions on books before you buy them. Publishers will always be able to find someone whose good review they can slap on the inside flap of their latest hardcover. Where are you going to get a second opinion? If the book is popular enough you might be able to ask one of the employees, but even the whole staff combined won’t have read every single book in the store. Pulling a book off a shelf is a risky proposition, and this is where online vendors like Amazon have a leg up. Their review system, while flawed, at least gives you a second (or third, or three-hundredth) take on, say, whether Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is worth your time and money (it’s not; just watch the movie).


That’s my take. What do you think? What do bookstores make possible for you? What do they make impossible (or difficult)?

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