The Christian Bookstore is a Minefield

“What should I read?”

I get this question almost every week.  As someone who typically reads a book a week on average, I appreciate that people value my opinion.  I love to read, I love to learn, and I love to discuss what I’m learning. I like to work through what I’m learning with people much smarter than I, and I enjoy passing on what I’ve learned to those it may help.  In short, I want to study to show myself approved, and to rightly handle the word of truth!

So, here’s how the conversation typically goes:

“I’m looking for a good book (possibly inserting category of book here).  What have you read lately that you like? What do you recommend?”

The problem with the question above is that the three parts don’t often work together.  If you’re looking for a book on a subject I don’t read much about, or have much interest in (like eschatology in my case), then it’s hard for me to make a recommendation.  Secondly, what I’m reading may not be a good fit for you. Maybe I’ve recently had great discussions with a Hindu at work and have decided to spend a couple of months working through vedas, agamas, or puranas in order to interact with them and present the gospel in their context. I certainly wouldn’t recommend any of them if asked.  Or, I might be reading a book on a subject that isn’t applicable or interesting to you at this season in your life. Finally, what do I recommend? That’s tough if I don’t know you well, what you’re struggling with, where you need growth, or what your interest are.  With that, here are some basic recommendations:

1. Know why you’re reading before you decide what to read:

Have a game plan and a goal for your reading.  Most voracious readers I know read intentionally.  Find a subject that interests you and read deeply. Read footnotes, read the source material for those footnotes.  Invariably, you’ll end up down the road having read multiple books.

2. Read primary sources:

If you want to know what Islam believes, the proper source is the Koran, not Fox News, and probably not your favorite evangelical pastor.  Strive for accuracy and truth as you engage subjects, and try to understand various sides of the issue.  There are very few things less effective (or attractive) than someone who believes what they believe because they believe it (and have no ability to see it in the larger context in order to defend or present it).   In this regard, I rarely trust even “big names”.  I’ve seen respected pastors and academics misrepresent and absolutely butcher beliefs which differ from theirs.

3. Categorize:  Finally, I recommend you keep the lines of your categories well-defined and guard against encroachment.   If you want to read something for “spiritual development”, understand what scripture says about your current state (fallen), your problem (sin), the solution (the atoning work of Christ) and the continued work ahead (scriptural study, prayer, and the daily battle of sanctification).  Find books which use these terms and work from these biblical categories.  If you don’t, you’re going to end up with some extra-biblical (and often non-biblical) “solutions” to “problems” which are not really the core problem at all.  THAT is how you end up off mission and far removed from scripture.

As I start to read, I read in several categories:

The Bible:  I know this is the pat answer, but only the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, word of God.  The word used in scripture is theopneustos; literaly “God-breathed”.  If you’ve got something you think is more worth reading, we need to talk. 😉   I would challenge you, if you are an adult who has been a Christian more than a year or two and haven’t read the entire bible, you need to get after it. Seriously.  The “M’Cheyne” bible reading plan takes about 10-15 minutes a day and will work you through the ENTIRE bible once, and the New Testament/Psalms/Proverbs a SECOND time.  You spend more time than that on facebook. You can do this.

I list the bible separately from the categories below.  I’m not a proponent of “solo scriptura” or ONLY reading the Bible, but understand that anything not found in the Bible is not theopnuestos.  It may be good, it may be accurate, but it’s always at risk of leading us away from the gospel, and that default is usually law. Be careful.

1. Pure leisure:  These are good airplane books. Good books to read while sitting and waiting for the kids, on the beach, or well.. in the restroom.  These books are almost never scriptural or academic.  Examples of things like this for me might be Readers Digest (yes, I’m probably the only person under 70 on the planet that loves RD!), comedy books by guys like Bill Bryson, or even an old Calvin and Hobbes book.   I’d say this makes up less than 5% of my typical reading, but I do enjoy it!

2. Classics:  I think there is great value in reading the great classics, both great American authors and great historical authors:  Mark  Twain and Ernest Hemingway are favorites of mine. One of my 3 favorite books of all-time is “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. I’m glad to see schools getting back to some of the classics. If you haven’t read “Lord of the Flies”, you’re missing out.  If you’re interested in how to get started reading some of the classics, let me know. I’ve got shelves of them and would be happy to let you borrow one!

3. Spiritual Development/Self-Improvement:  Yes, I bundled those two together on purpose.  If there is a landmine for the Christian, this is it.  There is more nonsensical garbage (is that direct enough?) in this area than any I’ve seen.  Look, your problem is sin, the solution is Christ, and the ongoing work is sanctification.  If you get the problem wrong, you’re going to get the “solution” wrong.  Go into Walgreens thinking you have athlete’s foot when you really have skin cancer and you’re going to waste your time, and the results could be fatal.

How do we get this wrong?

I feel empty, like I’m not growing. My kids are horrible and I feel “unfulfilled”. So, I go to the local Christian bookstore and see a book that speaks directly to my “need”.  (Which is a subjective/FELT need. Your view of your need may not jive with your need as defined in scripture): “3 Steps to Living Your Best Life Now, and How to Have Better Kids!”  It’s got a nice, smiling pastor on the front of it.  Bingo!   The book then gives me 3 steps, which all boil down to the seemingly comforting and simply  “Just begin to put God first in your life” and “just love on other people”.  Huh.  Sounds familiar.  Wait, I  know!

“And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27 ESV)

So, how’s that working out for you?  I’ll give you a hint; you aren’t doing it. You never have, and never will.  Really? ALL your heart? ALL your soul? ALL your strength?  And you love your neighbor as yourself?  There’s a word for this requirement; LAW.  Guess what? You can’t do it, and Jesus knew that. Paul spoke of this in Galatians; If you attempt to live by the law, you inherit the entire law, and are separated from Christ. Ouch.

So the entire “solution” laid out by smiley-happy guy is guaranteed, in scripture, to lead to your failure and land you in hell.  Nice, huh?

So the solution to the problem of sin is repentance.  Have bad kids? Guess what, your kids are fallen little people being raised by fallen big people.  Your spouse is awful? Well, your marriage is a union of two fallen people sinning against each other… maybe we look to repentance to each other and to God, and show the grace that He has shown to us?  I know that won’t sell many books, but it sure sounds a lot more like the gospel than “Just begin to…” and then a list of law, no?

In short, you’re going to view the problem as sin, and the solution to be EXTERNAL to you  that has been DONE (grace/gospel), or you’re going to view the problem as your felt needs/better life and look for the answer INSIDE yourself through things you need to do (law/works).  In theological terms, the real solution is extra nos (outside of us), in other words, it is an alien righteousness. Read the books on the shelves of your Christian bookstore (or your church bookshelf) and see if they point to the problem as sin with an external solution of the gospel and grace, or if they ID the problem as not living your best life (often hidden as “God’s plan for your life”) and the solution as works, or “to do” steps.

4.  “Christian Fiction”:   There is, apparently, an entire genre of Christian fiction that I’m not much aware of. I’ve read “The Chronicles of Narnia” and nearly everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, but I’m not very current on these areas and must admit I’ve never read an “Amish Christian Romance”.  I’d view these as leisure reading with the possibility of some theology and “Christian” undertones thrown in. I’d be careful of what this message is, and our natural default is law and generic “be nice to people and the good guy wins in the in end” spirituality. I would include in fiction (thought it’s often marketed as “theology”) any book which unveils some new “mystery”.  Seriously, do you actually believe that the pastor at your local seeker-church has been given special revelation to unveil a truth in scripture which the church hasn’t understood in 2 centuries?  You figure the odds are better that he’s reading something into the text that isn’t there? A good example of this is, well, anything written by Mark Batterson. Circle Maker? Good grief.

5. Theological books:  I know, I know. Theology is “boring” it leads to dead, dry Christians.  (None of which is true)  But theology is, literally, the study of God.  I bet you know and read a TON about your favorite sports team, celebrity, band, etc.  Why is it considered so “dead” to learn more of God as he has revealed Himself to us?  I, seriously, can’t think of anything more thrilling.  God has chosen to reveal Himself to His creation through a book.  We are a people of the word, and of words.  Spend time understanding them!

As I close, I’ll just say that I’m really, sincerely, deeply saddened by the what I see in most “Christian book stores”.  The absolute garbage being devoured by people who may not know better is truly a tragedy.  As an example, I’ll look at the current Amazon Top 20 “Christian” Books in part 2… stay tuned!