A Library Learnings “extra”

Editor Eugene Exman makes God a bestseller

“One of the big questions of our time is: why is religion in such trouble in contemporary America?” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero wonders this out loud in a recent Religion News Service interview. “And why,” he continues, “is spirituality doing so well? Why are there so many spiritual-but-not-religious people?”

Eugene Exman is one answer.

Prothero is the author of this man’s…this unknown’s…biography, which Harper One published on March 14, under the titillating title, God: The Bestseller. It tells of Exman’s “spiritual quest, and knack for finding big ideas [which] helped reshape religious publishing and American spirituality,” as RNS reporter Bob Smietana tells it; it’s he who conducted the interview.

The longtime religion editor for Harper & Row, Exman [1900-1975] “had a real nose for what was going on for the zeitgeist of our culture,” Prothero apprized Smietana. The author describes “the whole environment Exman was swimming in at Harper in his religion books department” by picturing the man and his teamworkers as, “Liberals who think you have to fight to transform the world.”

The books the man brought to publication “traced a history of American religion,” he declares, “from the heyday of mainline Protestantism to the rise of the spiritual but not religious.” We’re talking about the writings of such personages as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Albert Schweitzer, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, jr.

And how, you wonder, did Exman become this hotspur? As a teenager, he had a mystical experience, which Prothero recounts: “One night, he’s riding his horse to Bible study, and the horse all of a sudden stops and rears back in front of a cemetery. Exman looks up and sees this light, and he feels this electricity going through him, and he sees God. Then, he kind of spends his whole life trying to make it happen again. He meets all the people who have had mystical experiences, and they become his friends. Then they become authors, and then their books become bestsellers.”

Prothero ends his interview by observing, “I think Exman provides a genealogy of what I call the religion of experience, which is the most popular form of religion in the United States today. People see religion as a personal matter. They think it’s about feeling and experience more than it is about dogma or doctrine or ritual. They don’t think it takes place inside institutions. They think it takes place in the human heart.

“How does that idea make its way into contemporary American consciousness? I think one big way is through the books that were published by Exman. Even though he was a religious person who went to church every Sunday, he helped set up the society in which we are living. He undermined the religion brand. And he promoted the spiritual brand.”