Born Again

Talk, Banter and Buzz

TEACHING RELIGION to middle-school students—a group better known for testing patience than Providence—can be a trying task. So when Kristofer Skrade, an editor at Minneapolis-based Augsburg Fortress, the official publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), was charged with redesigning the company’s confirmation curriculum, he knew he couldn’t take a straightforward approach. Skrade, who spent 10 years as a pastor before joining Augsburg in 2004, understands teens. “Their crap detectors are sophisticated,” he says.

It was time for a different strategy.

Skrade knew the current curriculum wasn’t engaging young people: after confirmation, four out of every five youth members drift from the ELCA. He assembled a team of writers “who could handle a little irreverence” and got to work.

The result is The Lutheran Handbook, a how-to field guide packed with information both serious (a chart depicting the seasons of the church year) and facetious (advice on staying alert in church: “If all else fails, consider pinching yourself”). Conceived as a confirmation “survival guide,” the book features artwork by Worst-Case Scenario illustrator Brenda Brown, whose technical style appropriately underscores the content’s dry humor.

The 240-page handbook has caught on with confirmands, who often flip first to “The Five Grossest Bible Stories.” Pastors and other religious educators have started buying the books in bulk, using them for high-school discussion groups, college religion courses, and even adult education classes. Since its release a year ago, The Lutheran Handbook has undergone seven printings and sold more than 111,000 copies (a typical book sells about 12,000 copies).

Skrade, who, at 39, looks youthful with his goatee and Old Navy–style layered T-shirts, believes the handbook helps pastors feel relevant—not to mention cool—to kids, while passing on substantial material, too. He’s quick to point out that while the book pokes fun at church culture (“What to Bring to a Church Potluck”), it still respects religion. “It’s the human constructs that people layer over faith that we’re making fun of,” he explains.

This playful approach—revolutionary for a religious publisher—raised a few eyebrows at Augsburg, however, and caused a little rustling in the pews at some churches. The website of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod warns of the book’s “dangers,” including depictions of women pastors and jokes about Scripture. What would Skrade say to protesters? “Get therapy,” he deadpans. But seriously, he adds, Augsburg has received few objections to the book. “That’s saying something, coming from this market,” he notes, laughing. “Lutherans love to criticize.”

Augsburg quickly extended the Handbook brand by publishing the more ecumenical Christian Handbook, which sold 36,000 copies even before it was released last November. Much of the content has been lifted from the Lutheran version. The rest is tailored for a more Evangelical audience, or, as Skrade says, “adapted for the red states.”

Not every idea that emerged during brainstorming sessions for The Lutheran Handbook made it into the guide. The paragraphs on “How to Perform an Exorcism,” for example, might have been titillating to teens, but the inclusion of the passage likely would have caused more controversy than the introduction of the “green” hymnal back in 1978—still a sore subject among some of the faithful. Another rejected concept involved an illustration depicting Jesus stripped and flogged: the publisher ran the picture, but ultimately decided against placing a black “censorship” bar over Christ’s bare butt. “You can’t make fun of Jesus,” Skrade explains.

Parents and pastors, though, are fair game. This month, Augsburg will release a Handbook on Marriage and a Handbook for Pastors, both similarly humorous. Couples can learn “How to Respond to an In-Law’s Nosy Question” and “How to Share the TV Remote Control.” For pastors, chapters include “How to Accept Cookies and Other Goodies without Gaining Weight,” and curiously, “How to Get Out of a Traffic Ticket.” Is Godspeed over the limit?