Unconventional Author Takes Bible Beyond Christian Club

June 30th, 2011
Stephen M. Miller

I've been a Stephen Miller fan since the late 90's. He writes Bible reference books that are unlike any you've ever seen, and his latest title, The Complete Visual Bible, is in my opinion his best so far. I recently interviewed Stephen about his writing and his unique style.

You're known for Bible reference books that take a different approach from most titles in that genre. What is your mission as a writer? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Just one thing. Get people into the Bible to read it for themselves.

I want them to make up their own minds about what it says, instead of trusting other people to do their thinking for them. That’s one reason I don’t preach at readers in my books. The other is that I’m not a preacher. Never wanted to be. Ever. In a million years.

You wrote in the introduction to The Complete Visual Bible that your books take you a year to complete. Walk me through the process of a Stephen Miller book from your first idea through publication.

Looking over my shoulder at where I’ve been makes me tired. Looking ahead is what’s energizing. But let me see if I can backtrack a bit on The Complete Visual Bible.

The idea. I’ve worked with Barbour Publishing long enough now that they don’t ask me to write the 40-page book proposals I used to write, complete with samples of what goes in the book. Instead, I give them a list of book ideas that interest me. They pick the one that most interests them. And we’re off to the races—in a one-year marathon.

The writing. I wrote my way through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. I was at my desk each weekday by around 8 a.m. Thirty-minute lunch break at noon, with the Kansas City Star newspaper and a national TV news station running in the background. Back at it until around 4 p.m., though much later on some days. And there’s occasional work on weekends.

I researched and then wrote each one-page or two-page feature in the book—a bit like you’d write magazine articles. So this particular book is one heaping helping of magazine-style articles.

After writing each article, I’d do the art research and most of the acquisition for that piece. I avoided the normal stock photo companies because their images show up so often in other Bible reference books. It’s a lot more trouble getting unique art from individual photographers and artists all over the world. (I had to wait on one photo of a camel race until the photographer in Pakistan got back from the Himalayas. He said he’d send me the photo when he got back. I asked him not to fall off the mountain. Jinxed myself. I went mountain biking a few weeks later with my son: Whistler Mountain, where the 2010 Olympic skiing events were held. I found Canadian medical care accommodating. I recommend their self-service morphine.) I think the extra effort in searching out good art is worth it. I end up with lots of images that have never been published before. I also make most my own maps, with the help of NASA data and some super geeky cartography software, which is a royal pain.

Reviewing the work of others. I’m always nervous when I get back the edited pages and then the designed pages. The copy editing focuses mainly on matters of style and fact-checking. I don’t need to worry much anymore about editors making the writing sound starch formal, dirt dry, and ugly as all get out. Used to be a problem with other publishers. Especially denominational publishers. More than anything those editors want to keep the Boss happy. And I’m not talking about God. Here’s the way to keep bureaucratic bosses happy: don’t draw attention. And here’s the way to keep from drawing attention: be boring.

Design is always a problem. We always end up having to cut my guts out: words and pictures and maps. That’s okay with me. Each two-page canvas needs to look gorgeous. And sometimes we simply have too many words or too many images to pull that off. So we have to pull something out. My guts. It’s time-consuming, and a tad painful if we’re killing a map I spent 2 days creating.

The give and take at this stage can get a bit testy at times, especially on my end. I have to work on phrasing myself less bluntly. Take it from me, “Gag me green,” is not a good thing to say to a designer.

Fortunately for everyone, Barbour has some excellent designers working on these complex projects. And they are complex, perhaps the most time-intensive books Barbour does at the moment.

You've said that your target audience includes the unchurched, those who aren't familiar with the Bible, atheists, and agnostics. How do these books make it into the hands of your intended audience?

Most of those folks wouldn’t be caught carcass dead in a Christian bookstore. Lucky for me Barbour Publishing has some excellent resources for getting my books out to where the people are: drugstores, rest stops, restaurant gift shops, and discount stores like Wal-Mart. They’re also available online at sites like Amazon.

Tell me about some of the challenges of presenting the Bible in fresh ways to a new audience.

I probably shouldn’t tell you too much. It could get me in trouble.

I get pressure from just about everyone in the Christian book publishing world to make my books more acceptable to the traditional Christian market. I have to fight that battle from time to time. When you target people outside the Christian Club—and that’s what Christianity is to many outsiders—you approach the Bible stories and teachings differently than if you’re writing for insiders. You start by asking the tough questions they ask, and by making the seemingly irreverent observations they do.

Example. The Song of Songs is a book about sex. You’ve got two youngsters juiced up on hormones talking the talk. The gent essentially says, “Hey babe, I’m going to climb you like a tree. And you know what I’m going to do to those dates hanging there!”

Let me tell you, that gets the attention of readers outside the Christian Club. Some of them will actually crack open a Bible to see if that’s really in there. But tell me, how on earth am I going to write that in a way that gets the attention of those readers, without offending some longtime Christians? Beats me.

So I’ve stopped worrying about offending them. I put them out of my mind when I’m writing. Instead, I think about non-Christians and newbies when I write—people like my neighbors. After all, when Jesus gave his commission to the disciples he didn’t say, “Hey guys, go talk among yourselves.”

There are plenty of people writing for the traditional Christian crowd. They don’t need me doing it, too.

One thing I’ve discovered though is that if you can write a Bible reference book that’s interesting enough to engage non-Christians, you’re going to pick up a lot of Christians who have been bored out of their gourd by traditional Bible study books.

How do you deal with writer's block?

I don’t get writer’s block. That’s for fiction writers.

I was reading your books back in the "black and white days" before they looked like slick, colorful magazines. Besides the obvious visual component, what has changed about your books in the past 10 or 15 years?

Yeah, some of those black and white books are still out there. If I were the editor, I’d retire them. It’s not a black and white world anymore.

In recent years I’ve been allowed to add my personality to the writing. Barbour lets me write like I talk. Most other publishers I’ve worked with have wanted the writing more formal. Even Reader’s Digest Books, known for its easy-reading style, wanted nothing to do with humor, wise cracks, and the kind of attitude you might expect in a magazine article. At least they didn’t want them in their Bible reference books.

Even Barbour had an internal discussion about that when I submitted my first book to them: Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible. Thankfully, the editor backed me up. The sales of that book pretty much gave us all the green light for more of the same. That book won the Christian Retailing award as the non-fiction book of the year. Actually, it tied for first with a book about Billy Graham, who’s no pushover.

You leave a lot of questions and controversies unanswered-- or you present multiple views and let the readers decide. Why do you use this approach?

Personally, I’ve had it up to here with preachers telling me what to think—in their sermons, and in their sermons repackaged as books.

My own pastor is a rare exception to the rule—rare at least in the history of my pastors. My distaste for this all started when I was in grade school—first grade as I recall. My pastor wrote a note for me, excusing me from square dancing in gym class—on religious grounds. I still can’t dance. I went to a wedding over the weekend, and it bums me out that I don’t have any idea how to get my groove on. Heck, even one of my former pastors was shaking it up with his Mrs. and their kids. He’s another exception to the rule. Obviously.

Many of the controversies I skip don’t have any clear-cut direction in the Bible. Abortion, for example. The Bible doesn’t talk about it, though people were practicing it at the time.

It really irritates some Christians when I say that. In fact, I lost a book deal because I refused to take a position on that topic—and I had already written the book on contract. (They lost their advance, too. Ain’t no way I was going to give it back when they knew from the beginning that my position was not to take a position.)

The editor and a sales guy tried to convince me that the Bible talks about abortion because it forbids murder. But every murder I know about in the Bible is of a breathing person. And there’s that controversial passage about a man purposely injuring a pregnant woman and having to pay only a fine if the baby dies. But if the woman dies, he pays with his life.

There are Christians on both sides of most tough issues. I prefer to let readers hear from both sides so they can make up their own minds. 

Do you ever hear from your critics? If so, what are their biggest issues with your books?

Surprisingly, I get very little criticism thrown at me. When it comes, it’s often unpredictable. And sometimes weird. Like the fellow who said the Holocaust never happened, and that Jesus had blue eyes.

I always write people back—once. Not twice or more. I told him that my dad fought in General George Patton’s army during World War II, and that he knew otherwise about the Holocaust.

Some folks catch mistakes I’ve made, or they tell me about phrasing that confused them. I love those kinds of emails. We get the mistakes corrected before the next printing.

You've mentioned that you teach the Bible in your church. How does your research as an author contribute to your teaching? How does your ministry at church help your writing?

Question 1. Well, it helped last Sunday when the discussion leader couldn’t pronounce Zerubbabel. It’s (zuh ROO bub bull). But, sadly, I wasn’t able to help another Sunday School teacher several years ago when he pronounced Yahweh YAH-whoo. Once that came out of his mouth, he was beyond help. He’s one reason I often include phonetic pronunciations in my books. For the record, it’s YAH way.

In my writing, I try to pull out interesting background facts. I do that in my teaching, too.

I’ll even take a stab at paraphrasing the Bible for the class. Proverbs is especially fun. I still remember the class’s reaction when I gave them the handout that read: “If you build a fire in your pants, what makes you think you won’t get burned?” (Proverbs 6:27, my paraphrase). One lady couldn’t believe it was in the Bible, so she cracked it open to see for herself. That’s exactly what I’m hoping readers will do.

Question 2. As for the flip side of your question, leading Bible study classes helps me stay focused on the kinds of questions people are asking about the Bible and Christianity. Even longtime Christians seem pretty doggone unfamiliar with Bible stories I’ve heard all my life. So when I write, I don’t take for granted that my readers know much of anything I’m writing about. A journalism prof of mine once told me to write news that way: “Pretend your readers are from Mars.” Good advice, I think, though probably more than half of my readers are from Venus.

How do you decide which photos and images to use in your books? How time-consuming is it to acquire these images?

I have one phrase I repeat over and over to myself when I’m looking for images: “Artfully informative.” I want the image to be visually strong enough to vacuum the reader’s eyeballs into the page. And I want the image to say something about the topic.

The art research and acquisition part of my job is incredibly time consuming. Some images can take hours to find, days to track down, and months to get. It’s my fault. I want the best images available. I don’t want to get outdone by some other hardworking grunt illustrating a competing book. I want the readers to find their best stuff in my books. If that’s pride, I’ll take a little of the Lord’s grace right about now.

You've carved out quite a niche for yourself in Christian publishing. Who would you say is your "competition"?

I’m not sure there’s anyone out there just yet with my combo of lavishly illustrated, light-hearted Bible reference books. They’ll come in time. But I hope I’ll always be my own snowflake.

In the meantime, I feel a lot of pressure from myself to make each book better than the one before. The Complete Visual Bible is a tough book to follow. But I’m doing the best I can.

Every day when I’m working on something, I remind myself that it’s important to do it well. There’s always a temptation to rush forward—to become an Early Settler, a writer who settles too early on something less than excellent. Deadlines can do that to you. So can procrastination.

What are your goals and strategies for expanding your ministry and the reach of your books?

I guess I should probably develop some strategies, huh. It’s just that I love writing. The other stuff is a chore. Still, I’m toying with doing some freebie videos related to ideas in my book. And I should probably get out and speak more. But that’s the flip side of the coin from the monk-like work of writing.

I do have a nice web site, though, thanks to my son. He co-owns an online marketing company. I’m glad we put that kid through college. That was a good strategy.

Your books have sold a lot of copies, but you've done it under the radar, so to speak. How did you manage to pull that off?

Yeah, well I’m forwarding this question to Barbour’s marketing department.

In fairness to them, they’re trying. But there’s only so much you can do with a writer who looks like a hound dog.

Have you ever considered moving beyond print into multimedia?

Barbour is working on turning The Complete Guide to the Bible into a iPad format. And we’ve talked about multimedia, which is something you need to plan for from the get-go. That’ll be even more complex than the complex print books I’m doing now. You add video of Bible lands. Audio of words tough to pronounce. Instructional clips for Bible study teachers. Maybe pictures of my kids.

Or not.

The market seems headed into multimedia. But at the moment I don’t think anyone knows the best way to get from here to there. It’ll come. I’d like to be there when it does.

Tell me about your next project.

I have two books in the pipeline at the moment.

Coming out in the spring of 2012 is Bible Snapshots. It’s like a bunch of books in one. It has “Bible: Fast Pass,” which is an overview of the entire Bible along with articles about how we got the Bible, how to shop for a Bible, and how to study the Bible. There’s a “Christianity: Fast Pass,” which has articles about the Christian faith. There’s even a section for atheists: “10 Tough Questions Atheists Ask.” I don’t preach there. Somebody else can do that. I just give some of the answers Bible experts give to questions atheists raise. They’re legit questions that deserve honest answers, even if the answer is “Dogged if I know. But in God I trust.”

There are a bunch of other sections, too, like the “Bible Survival Guide.” The subtitle pretty much explains that section: “When life gets dicey and faith runs thin: Bible advice, encouragement, and hope.”

That book is already at the design studio.

The book I’m writing at the moment is an illustrated Bible dictionary.

So one of my first thoughts each morning is about which entry I’ll be writing as I sip my after-breakfast coffee, since I’m writing from A to Z.

“Delilah” is a good reason to get up.

“Demon,” not so much. But there’s the coffee.


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