What Do Christian Writers Owe Their Readers?
Interacting with Brad East on the 4 Tiers of Christian Writing
Brad East recently wrote a fascinating post for his blog, categorizing writing (especially Christian nonfiction) into four tiers. You should read his entire post, but I’ll capture below the essence of the four tiers.
Tier 1 is what Brad labels Universal. These are books specifically written for the broadest possible audience. He writes, “Teenagers, grandmothers, businessmen, stay-home moms, believers, skeptics, heretics, normie laity: you name it, they’re the audience. These books, when popular, sell in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.” These book tend to be the shortest, simplest, most straightforwardly “here’s what to do in your life” type books. They avoid complex arguments or rigorous citations.
Tier 2 is what Brad labels Popular. The difference between Universal and Popular is a difference of degree more than kind. Popular books are aimed at a broad but somewhat selective audience that is prepared to invest in a book for the purpose of thinking about something rather than coming up with a quickly actionable list. But they are still written at a very accessible level and avoid, according to Brad, any academic jargon. “Tier 2 books,” he writes, “are on the shorter side; they don’t shy away from the personal or anecdotal; they lack footnotes (some will have endnotes); they assume faith on the part of the reader; they feel like a gentle conversation between the author (a teacher) and the reader (a learner).”
Tier 1 and Tier 2 books belong on the same side of the accessibility spectrum. Both groups skew toward the largest audience and the most generally understandable language. Tier 3 and Tier 4, however, occupy the other side. Tier 3 is what Brad calls Highbrow. “This level includes authors who write for a wide audience of non-specialists who are otherwise interested in serious intellectual and academic Christian thought,” Brad says. “Think of books in this group as a way of making the insights of academic scholarship available to folks who either are not academics or, being academics, do not belong to the field in question.”
Finally, Tier 4 is Scholarly. This is academic writing that is more about revealing the fruits of research than communicating an idea. The audience is defined as a peer group for the author. This is the least popular, least widely read genre of Christian nonfiction.
I think Brad captures the lay of the land very well here. The difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is softer than the difference between Tier 2 and Tier 4, but if you read C.S. Lewis or Tim Keller you know there’s a difference between those books and, say, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. Tier 2 and Tier 3 are more “know ‘em when I see ‘em” tiers, in that explaining what they are and sorting books into them based on author/description/marketing can be very difficult and imprecise. Rather, the tiers tend to show themselves upon actually reading a book. So even if people might quibble with the examples he gives, in the 6+ years I’ve been in Christian book publishing (and almost 9 years of Christian content publishing), I can recognize most of what I’ve encountered in his taxonomy.
As I’ve sat with Brad’s ideas, I’ve been thinking about a question that has nagged me for a while but needed Brad’s taxonomy to clarify itself: What moral obligation (if any) does a Christian writer have to try to move their writing from the higher tiers to the lower tiers?