How a Bradley University Professor Totally Kicked My Butt...But...In A Most Ungentlemanly Way
As academics go, I ain't nothin'. I'm little more than a zit on the arse of academia. I had the good fortune of leaving Minnesota after high school to attend the US Air Force Academy. After the leaving the Academy, I got accepted to an Ivy League school, but ended up going back to Minnesota, where I attended both Gustavus and Augsburg Colleges, later going to Lutheran seminary in California and a couple of years at Catholic seminary in the Midwest, after which I served for years as a Lutheran pastor, while writing and building my counseling practice. So, I've never been anything more than a minnow in the academic world.
But, I'm a good Midwestern kid, whose parents both went to school in Rock Island, Illinois -- mom for college and dad for seminary to be a Lutheran pastor. In fact 3 of my 4 pastor uncles went to the old Augustana Seminary in Rock Island. And, for years, I traveled across the country, particularly through the Midwest/North working for an insurance drug plan provider. I've been through Peoria more times than I could possibly count.
Well, one of those times was way back in 1999. I had been doing quite a bit of driving, at that time, for business and personal reasons, and was using that opportunity to post fliers on college campuses advertising the first book I had written. I had started writing the book about 4 years prior, but finished it that year. And, because I was such an academic lightweight who had no connections, no platform, and no publishing company willing to back a completely unknown writer (long before the days of the internet transforming unknown works of any sort into mass phenomena), I published the book in the then-nascent world of print-on-demand. Again, I was a complete nobody. And I was advertising my book, which was going to be coming out a short time later in 2000, the old-fashioned way: word of mouth and good old Xeroxed paper copies, which I taped up in hall after hall across the collegiate Midwest in my spare time on these trips.
Well, the book came out in 2000....and no one bought it. Ever. It's not that the book sucked. In fact, a reviewer or two in more than one publication said that it was a 'must read' for all professors, clergy, bishops and anyone looking at religion and spirituality in the future. But no one bought it. Well, my mother bought it, but that was more just to assuage my otherwise frail writer's ego. (Thanks, mom!)
See, because I was a nobody in the world of religious studies, American sociology of religion, spirituality, and the like, no one even knew the book existed. No sales. No money. No notoriety. Nuthin'. And over the next year or three, I had to come to terms with the fact that I had spent nearly five years of my life conceptualizing, hammering out, editing (poorly), and promoting a book and concept that ultimately led to a whole big bag of zip, for me.
My lone consolation in all of that pathetic crying in my beer (after beer....after beer) was that I knew I had the tiger by the tail. I knew that even if I never made a dollar at it, I was on to something.
I knew that even if my book never sold, never made me a dollar or famous, or even if the book totally blew.....I knew that I was the first to put that name -- 'spiritual but not religious' -- in print and to delineate its history, theology, and impact. There it was, right on the cover: Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call To Religious Revolution in America; and there it was, inside jacket: the copyright of July, 2000. It was forever now in ink -- indisputable proof that my hard work had paid off. At the very least, I was first. And lemme tell you, when you got nothin' else, you'll take it. You find at least mild consolation, mild reward in knowing you did a good thing and really nailed a great concept FIRST. Amid my tears and beers, I told myself that I was basically the de facto father of what was becoming the largest spiritual/religious movement in American history. (Yes, a bit grandiose, but c'mon I'd had a few beers! Okay, several beers.)
Well, that consolation only lasted about a year. I had moved out to Los Angeles with my girlfriend and got wind that a professor at one of those colleges where I had taped fliers back had just been published by OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS with a book entitled....wait for it....Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America!
Copyright??? December, 2001.
A year and a half after mine had come out and a full two years after I had gone on my completely fruitless, though respectably prodigious, flier campaign. Two years!
And c'mon, Oxford University Press? This very respectable professor had landed a very big fish in the academic publishing world, really as big as they get. 'Oxford' on anything in academia all but guarantees success. And what's worse, it was actually a really good book! He had gone down a very different tangent with his book, where mine had chosen to cover and delineate the full breadth of the phenomenon. And it it was good stuff. Solid research, good writing....and far better edited than mine (It's Oxford; of course it's going to be better edited than mine!).
Well, being young and naive, I sat down with a lawyer in Los Angeles. Surely there was something that could be done. Surely this notable professor of consummate pedigree couldn't just pilfer my title. Surely I had some ownership rights.
Well, um, no. He informed me that because the title describes a phenomenon, the title can be used by anyone, whether I coined it or not. Now, if that same professor had gone on to steal my structure or make similar points, then I would have a case. But because the professor, Dr. Robert C. Fuller, had taken a smaller piece of the movement, he could use the title all he liked, just as there are likely 100 books in the library entitled 'Tennis' or 'Plumbing'.
Heartbroken and humiliated, I went on to watch the sales of the good Dr.'s book grow. I even got a call from my sister in Dallas, who said she had heard the fellow give an interview on NPR. Tough nut that she is, she called in to defend her kid brother being first, but was brushed aside amid the hype of his well-publicized book. (Gotta love big sisters! Though, she's always been more of a brother -- tough, mean when necessary, and willing to smoke a cigar when the brothers are playing poker! What's not to love about that? :D )
I even reached out and had a very brief email exchange with the good Dr, congratulating him and citing how we had gone different directions with book.
Anyway, basically, I got my butt handed to me over the next decade by the success of Professor's book, as well as the countless subsequent books on the topic by various other authors. To this day, a great portion of Americans self-describes as 'spiritual but not religious' and that phrase can even be found on dating websites, such as Match.com. The phrase has now become all but ubiquitous.
And I've had to let it go. All those years in sports, playing D1 football, and being an NCAA Strength Coach, as well as counseling countless clients, taught me that hard lesson,
You win some,
You lose some.
I long ago had to let go of and move on from that loss. To allow the creative juices to flow again and get back on task to the work I do, I had to accept that the small victory of being first was my consolation prize for a half-decade of hard work on that book (and recovering from it).
I long ago came to terms with the simple fact that Professor Bob Fuller had kicked my ass up and kicked my ass down. He had won, fair and square, and handily, I might add.
And then came Wikipedia and later the 'spiritual but not religious' page on it. Someone had alerted me to it and that my name was on it. Granted, I wasn't cited for being first, but for a guy who had gotten a whole lotta nothin' even a tiny shout-out on Wiki was a grand thing, even years and years after the fact, long after my book had gone out of print and I had gotten effectively kicked out of ministry (both for my radical theology and for standing up for gay rights....three times).
For years, I delighted in the fact that someone had remembered. And in the last year, it had even been noted on Wiki that my book had been the first. Such delight. True recognition.
And then it happened.
I had been writing an article, recently, and was going to cite the Wiki page, when I'll be damned if the darn thing hadn't been wiped clean of any mention of me! And, to salt it a bit more, there were roughly 10 different references to Dr. Fuller's book and one very large shout-out to him.
This guy was kickin' my ass, even 15 years later. Now, his book getting more popularity than mine was fine enough and old news, to be sure. But that he had someone so utterly committed to his one book that they would keep tabs on Wikipedia and ensure his prominence by citing his fine book more than any other author mentioned, while simultaneously erasing the original author on the subject....now THAT is a dedicated disciple! How come I didn't get any disciples like that?
So, I called him. Internet being what it is, it took me about two minutes to get his phone number on White Pages and I asked him if I was interrupting his dinner and that I would certainly call back if there were a better time. He said, no, this would be fine.
And we talked.
He swore, up and down, he had never heard of me. He even insisted he didn't know what it was. "Wikipedia," I asked. No, he said, he didn't know there was a 'spiritual but not religious' site on Wikipedia and that he surely hadn't written anything on Wikipedia because he didn't know how. I found it slightly odd that he would claim to not know how to write something on Wikipedia, implying that he knew it was not an easy process, even for a writer. How would he know that....unless he had been on Wikipedia? And what is the likelihood of him being on Wikipedia and not looking up the extremely popular topic of one of his books? So, okay, he hadn't likely written the nearly ten mini odes to himself, but someone had; someone who cared very much that the page become basically an homage to #2.
I mean, the page is a total drubbing. I'm gone. Totally written out of the history book of Wikipedia. Poof!
And, if I'm totally honest, at that point I was kinda offended. I asked him to simply do the gentlemanly thing and write me in for a half-sentence saying that I was the first author to both name and delineate the spiritual but not religious movement. I told him I didn't want some long protracted back and forth; all I wanted was my fair due. That's it. I told him I didn't care if my book was quoted or even utterly condemned, but just give me what I earned. Give me that one thing and I can walk away happy.
I knew darn well that if I cared enough to have someone insert that sentence on my behalf that his faithful disciple would wipe it clean again. And back and forth. And meanwhile, time and energy is wasted on the past.
He stated in no uncertain terms that he would NOT do anything to help me, certainly not cite my book on the Wiki page. And I pleaded again to just do the gentlemanly thing. In his most aloof, above-it-all, academic voice he refused to do anything of the sort, refused to even acknowledge that he knew about the page, and, most conspicuously, claimed that he had no idea who I even am (of course also completely forgetting about our email exchange, 15 years prior).
So, I made a solemn promise to him, with my chest fully puffed up....over the phone....that when he dies after a long and wonderful life of 90 years (he's only in his early-60s now), I would, in a grand display of pettiness, pull down all of his citations on the page and insert my own little half-sentence.
I don't think he was intimidated, in the least. But I felt better saying it. Because,
Sometimes the simple words,
"Oh yeah!" to a bully, or at least to a victor,
are enough to assuage the sting of getting your butt thoroughly kicked.
He beat me, fair and square. And, as with any conqueror, he made sure I knew that he had won. I was taught, "When you lose, say little. When you win, say even less." But there are a whole lot of winners out there who understand that to keep winning, sometimes you need to make sure the vanquished know you beat them.
And he did, fair and square. Am I pissed, at times? Sure, of course, but more that he couldn't be a gentleman about it. But life goes on. As I regularly tell clients: You win some, you lose some. But keep moving forward, always with an eye out for the next task that needs to be endeavored, always open to the creative flow, always ready to get to work.
And so, now, I have to do the one thing all therapists, politicians, and preachers alike most hate to do: take their own advice.
-- Sven Erlandson, MDiv, Is The Author Of Five Books, Including 'Badass Jesus: The Serious Athlete And A Life Of Noble Purpose' And 'I Steal Wives: A Serial Adulterer Reveals The REAL Reasons More And More Happily Married Women Are Cheating.' He Has Been Called The Father Of The Spiritual But Not Religious Movement (by his mother). He Is Former Military, Clergy, And NCAA Head Coach For Strength And Conditioning; And Has A Counseling/Consulting Practice with offices In NYC, NJ, And Stamford, CT: BadassCounseling.Com