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Gospels gone wild 

Durham author Michele Andrea Bowen is the bad girl of black Christian fiction

click to enlarge Michele Andrea Bowen's fiction explores the not-always-pious happenings of church life. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Forty-something Theresa Hopson owns a Christian-oriented boutique on Fayetteville Street, selling panties that say "Only the Lord can see" and hats as big as showboats to the Triangle's church ladies. She's dating the Rev. Purvell Sykes, a roughneck in a pastor's robes and a schemer who's trying to redevelop the abandoned black neighborhood where Theresa came of age. But Theresa is also attracted to Lamont Green, who's competing for the same property and hopes to bring life back into an area that resembles Durham's Hayti neighborhood of yesteryear. Lamont, however, has a clinging ex-wife, and he's more intent on using the church for business contacts than for worship.

If all this sounds like an unusually intimate dispatch from a Durham church newsletter, credit the imagination of Durham author Michele Andrea Bowen, one of the nation's most successful writers of African-American, oriented religiously themed fiction. The story line is from Bowen's latest, Holy Ghost Corner, her third novel and the first she has set in Durham. If the somewhat less than pristine protagonists are based on real people, Bowen isn't saying.

Bowen doesn't mind being called one of the "bad girls of Christian fiction" because she coined the term herself when she, Raleigh resident Jacquelin Thomas and Californian Victoria Christopher Murray brought their books to the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) convention in summer 2001. Their books, including Bowen's debut Church Folk, were not what some members of the conservative CBA envisioned as Christian literature.

"I gave us the name as a joke," she says. "When we got there, our books were raising a little controversy because they were a little steamy, a little spicy. They were talking about the love scenes." Thomas says some of the convention-goers "gawked" at them—three black women selling distinctly earthy Christian books geared to the African-American market.

"They criticized me because my character wore thong panties, and that I dared to write about it," Thomas says.

Their books are not staid, demure fare. In Church Folk, set in 1960s Mississippi and Tennessee, the characters don't always fit the model of proper behavior for the "saved": A pastor has an old flame who's done the circuit (and more than her share of preachers on it); a circle of Scripture-spouting church members runs a crime ring; and there are back-biting ministers determined to make trouble for the new "rev" on the block.

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Bowen's mix of humor, moralizing and a whiff of scandal has elevated her to the status of "first lady"—an honorific for the pastor's wife in some black church traditions—of black Christian fiction, a rapidly growing part of the religious literature market.

More than 280,000 copies of Church Folk have been sold since it came out in June 2001, according to Warner Books, which has a distribution arrangement with Bowen's publisher, Walk Worthy Press. The book topped the bestseller list of Essence, the premier black women's magazine, for months. Her sophomore effort, Second Sunday, was less successful but still sold a more-than-respectable 90,000 copies.

It's too early to tell if Holy Ghost Corner will enjoy the same popularity. But it may make a splash in Durham. Bowen, who once worked as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble in Durham's New Hope Commons shopping center, will read from the book on Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Southpoint mall Barnes & Noble.

Durham was the right setting for Holy Ghost Corner, says Bowen, 49 and a mother of three.

"Durham is so integrated, it has a large black population—more than 40 percent—and it has a large number of well-educated black folks," she says. "People can imagine [someone like Theresa and Lamont] exist here. If you come from here, the inside, you might not see it. But there's this undercurrent here that you can make it, an undercurrent of entrepreneurship and education. There's a strong church base here. And if people think they can move here and avoid [black people], you just go outside to take out the trash and 'Tay Tay' is like 'Heeeyyy,'" she says, drawing out the words like Martin Lawrence's famous ghettofabulous character, Sheneneh.

These are people that Bowen feels she knows. She grew up in St. Louis, the niece of an Apostolic bishop, and now attends St. Joseph's AME Church in Durham, where she sings in the choir. "Church Folk came from three sources," Bowen says. "I grew up such a part of the church. I didn't miss anything. Even things that I thought were stupid were hilarious.

"Then, I worked at Lincoln [Community Health Center in Durham], and I wanted to do this program with the church and training volunteers. I had a lot of contact with ministers, and they felt I had this sense of humor about the church that was balanced and it wasn't all good and all bad. Then, when I went to UNC, my thesis in history was on Rev. [Reverdy] Ransom of Chicago, one of the first black ministers who adopted the social gospel," a combination of religious philosophy and political or humanitarian action. "He took the traditional white social gospel and transformed it for black people."

Transformation came for Bowen when she was writing that thesis and realized she needed something other than the writing-with-footnotes academic style. When she got sick of the research, she'd write a few pages here and there. Eventually, she showed her early efforts to North Carolina and Montana author G.C. "Pete" Hendricks. She wondered what this white man in snakeskin cowboy boots would think of her fiction's black vernacular, "churchiness" and larger-than-life villains and heroes.

"He got the four roughest pages. And he said, 'I don't care if you are in a Ph.D. program, you have to write this story.'" She left her degree program, eventually studying under Marita Golden and attending the Hurston-Wright Writers' Week, one of the nation's leading workshops for black authors.

click to enlarge 11.8.cover.secondsunday2cov.gif

While Bowen's success has come from her hilarious slice-of-life observations of church life, it's also come from a publishing industry that, in the last decade, has shown more willingness to publish black and Christians authors—both previously considered niche markets.

Buoyed by successes such as the Left Behind series and The Purpose Driven Life and The Da Vinci Code brouhaha, Christian literature is a booming billion-dollar enterprise. According to the American Association of Publishers, sales of religious books—a category that includes literature from various faiths—jumped 50 percent between 2002 and 2005. Christian books are marching closer to the mainstream; something's definitely afoot when actress and rapper Queen Latifah says, as she did in a recent issue of Lifetime magazine, that she's "feeling" a book by Christian author Joyce Meyer.

Some of the surge has come from black Christian works by authors such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of the nondenominational Potter's House megachurch in Dallas. Jakes has catapulted from the pulpit to The New York Times bestseller list—a place where black authors are few and far between—with books such as Woman, Thou Art Loosed (also a major motion picture).

The 1990s and the early years of this decade seemed to be the light-bulb moment for the publishing industry. Major houses established a bounty of imprints for African-American readers: Ballantine created One World, Kensington Publishing started the Dafina line, Random House unveiled Harlem Moon, Simon & Schuster launched Atria Books, and Villard came up with subimprint Strivers Row. And in 1997, Michigan resident Denise Stinson founded Bowen's publisher, Walk Worthy Press, for black women "who love to read and love the Lord."

As publishers were creating black-oriented imprints or acquiring black presses (as Harlequin did with BET Books in 2005), most of the religious publishing houses in the United States were also acquired by the New York publishing houses.

The convergence of those events—new venues for black authors and Christian publishing going into mainstream hands—may be one reason why black Christian publishing is becoming the flavor of the month. For black authors, getting signed by major publishing companies or their imprints—which have the marketing muscle and distribution networks to promote books nationwide—goes a long way to commercial success.

"The rise in black fiction can be attributed to the critical mass of the entrepreneurial efforts of independent publishers like Urban Books and Triple Crown, more people of color in all areas of publishing, and to the growing interest of readers—of all colors—in the African-American experience," says Selena James, editorial director of Kensington.

But what is Christian fiction? That's up for debate. Some factions argue "no profanity, no graphic sex or sex outside marriage." Biblical literalists challenge anything that's not taken straight from the Good Book; when asked why her books aren't strictly about Jesus, Thomas says, "I'm not trying to rewrite the Bible. Maybe we should say we're writing parables." In turn, she uses as her guide this thought: "If Jesus were here today, he could sit down and read and I'd not be embarrassed about what I say."

Nancy Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Christian Booksellers Association, says only that CBA president-CEO Bill Anderson encourages its suppliers to publish books that are "culturally relevant and Biblically accurate."

Conversations with Bowen's fans reveal that her books are enjoyed as much for their secular qualities, if not more. Raleigh IT project manager Audra McFadden, 33, co-organizes a Tuesday book club that often reads African-American fiction and will discuss Bowen's Holy Ghost Corner at the Borders bookstore on Six Forks Road in Raleigh on Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. McFadden had read Church Folk years ago for another book club, but it was news to her that it was considered Christian fiction.

"The biggest word I'd use to describe it is entertaining. ... But it didn't hit me as a Christian novel. It hit me as a fiction novel that talked about church and where the people talked about God. Until I heard that it was considered Christian fiction, I thought it was the same as books [by black secular writers such as Eric Jerome Dickey]: normal people with lots of drama."

Raleigh's Jacquelin Thomas says she began writing Christian fiction because she yearned to see normal, flawed people riding life's rollercoaster.

click to enlarge 11.8.cover.churchfolkcover.gif

"I grew up reading historical and romance novels, with Scandinavian heroes," she says. "I read Christian books, but the people were perfect. None of them were black. They didn't look like me, and that was OK. And, of course, they were all going to heaven because they didn't ever do anything wrong. But for me, I was always a person who loved God, but I couldn't get it right."

That sounds like the sometimes crazy-acting characters in the works by Bowen, who says boring people don't belong in books. They are imperfect, but in the end, the crazy people do the right thing. Which, in this particular and prescriptive vision of Christianity, can mean committing themselves to God and self-improvement, embracing monogamy and heterosexual marriage, and doing good works in the community. God comes first, a priority that's seen in Church Folk, when the protagonist offers a homeless woman (named Babydoll) a part-time job if she agrees to attend church.

"The author has to be coming from the perspective of the Word," says Bowen. "There should be someone who knows the Lord, someone who's redeemed. And there should be a clear understanding of good and evil and spiritual battles. And there needs to be sensitivity and restraint about romance, sexuality and language. You can't have a character who just cusses everybody out, and they don't see it. You can have a character with a cussing problem, but they have to say, 'Lord, help me with my cursing.'"

While black Christian fiction often focuses on cultivating relationships with God and family, the topics can touch on a variety of social issues. The most recent book by Atlanta's Kendra Norman-Bellamy, lead author of the new Urban Christian press in New York, deals with family alcoholism and abuse. Victoria Christopher Murray, one of the three "bad girls," penned Grown Folks Business, a novel about what happens when a husband tells his wife he's gay.

As Bowen's books started with the church, that's where many of them end up. In addition to making the rounds at bookstores, Bowen reads her work at church women's days, reading groups and other religious functions. Her publisher makes sure her books are stocked in Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers, secular booksellers and Christian bookstores.

People who put money in collection plates on Sunday spend money on books as well. Walk Worthy publisher Denise Stinson said in a 2003 interview in Publisher's Weekly that the publisher does "extensive outreach into churches, first ladies, pastors, singles groups, youth ministers—I'm talking to thousands, and we do direct mailings and callings to them." Christian reading groups are courted, and Stinson may hire publicists to plug books on Christian and gospel radio for up to a year after the book is released.

The marketing is about reaching potential readers where they are—in their spiritual lives and in the church. But it's also about seeing the trends and converting them into dollars. Surveys from the Ventura, Calif.-based Christian marketing research firm The Barna Group have consistently shown that U.S. blacks lead all ethnic groups in how often they pray, go to church and read the Bible, though that may be changing. Such statistics may not translate into book-buying habits, but for many blacks, like Bowen and Thomas, Christianity is the scaffolding that holds up everything else in their lives.

But Norman-Bellamy of Atlanta believes "there are more African-American readers than there were in the past. A lot of doors came open. Right now, there's a surge in Christian literature. But before that, there was a surge in urban literature or street lit, and that brought in new readers who have now moved to other things. There used to be a saying that if you wanted to hide something from a black man, put it in a book. This explosion quiets the stigma that we are not a reading people."

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