2016-06-30
Reprinted by permission of Faithworks Magazine.

It is arguable that, after the local church, the Christian bookstore is the most influential force in shaping the Christian mind. And there is a disturbing lack of substance in most books sold to Christians today.

It may be a stretch to call them bookstores anymore. Some sell all too few books. They are now simply "stores," offering bracelets, necklaces, T-shirts, Veggie Tales videos, Thomas Kinkade pictures, greeting cards, mugs, breath mints with Bible verses on them, Bibleman videos, stuffed animals, posters, doo dads, baubles and trinkets. But you have to look awhile to find the books.

The books themselves reflect a limited range of interests. Church educators can find curriculum and materials. A large section of books on marriage, family life, and divorce is a must. Separate sections on men's issues and women's issues highlight developmental challenges facing men and women.

Biographies and autobiographies make an appearance, with special attention to Christian athletes. Fiction is popular; Janette Oke remains a staple. Bible studies, reference tools, and numerous Bible translations can be located. And the bestseller section contains well-established evangelical figures, such as Josh McDowell, James Kennedy, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, T.D. Jakes, Tony Evans, Bill Bright, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur.

It's clear that the typical Christian store is geared to the average Christian struggling to remain sane and faithful amid life's challenges. This is not an insignificant contribution. Nonetheless, the typical Christian store offers a narrow and unimpressive range of Christian literature. Here are the problems:

Lack of breadth and depth
The Christian faith is a living and diverse tradition. Its arduous intellectual mountaintops have been scaled by brilliant men and women in a variety of settings, eras and denominational traditions. These thinkers are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox. Early church, medieval, Reformation, modern, contemporary. North American, European, Third World. Many addressed precisely the kinds of issues Christians wrestle with today. Many wrote for a popular audience and their work is still quite readable.

In the Christian store today, only a handful of heavily marketed, top-selling, mainly white, mostly male, always conservative evangelical Protestant North Americans are likely to be found on these shelves. A small minority of works offering sustained intellectual argument are offered. Perspectives outside the evangelical consensus are ignored.

Readers are affected not just by what they read but what they don't read. What we read is like what we eat--an unbalanced diet is bad for our health. Millions of contemporary Christians read mainly cotton candy. And even the substance that is offered generally lacks balance. It is overly individualistic, lacking serious attention to social and global concerns. A narrow moral vision often accompanies a narrow theological vision to produce a misleading Christian vision.

Why does it matter? Here is what's at stake:

The understanding of Christian faith
The meaning of the Christian faith is always a contested matter. The work of the church in every generation is to read Scripture wisely and well, and to articulate its meaning faithfully and relevantly in the current context. This means using the best methods of scriptural exegesis and interpretation. It also is greatly enhanced by an awareness of the heritage of Christian thought, which corrects our misinterpretations and remind us of errors made by previous generations of Christian thinkers and church people.

How the Christian faith is understood by millions will hinge on what version is offered at the grass roots. Will it be solid in its exegetical foundation? Will it be informed by an awareness of the heritage of Christian theology and ethics? Will it offer a global and social vision? If not, it is quite likely that the understanding of Christian faith held by millions of American Christians will be deeply distorted--as it actually is.

The living out of Christian faith
As we think, so shall we live. If we think that "everything is just going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back," we will live accordingly, hunkering down in our Christian ghettos and relating complacently to the evils in the world around us. That's pop dispensational theology, and it's alive and well.

If we think that "God orchestrates all events to bring himself glory," then we will likely interpret injustice and suffering as part of God's perfect plan and again respond without lifting a voice or a finger for the powerless and the oppressed. That's pop Calvinism, quite prevalent today.

If we think that "the poor suffer because they are lazy," we will likely oppose government social-welfare spending or church social ministries and thus contribute nothing to the effort to mitigate the plight of the poor. That's pop suburban middle-class ethics, and it is also alive and well.

If we think that the United Nations is (or might be) part of an international conspiracy to form a one-world government under the Antichrist, we will very likely oppose U.S. support for that flawed but indispensable organization. That's pop eschatology, and it never goes out of fashion.

The Christian faith is not just thought but lived. The battle for the Christian's mind is also the battle for the Christian's money, the Christian's vote, the Christian's prayers, the Christian's priorities, and the use of all of our Christian hands and feet. What we think matters. Here's why:

The struggle with non-Christian perspectives Many have noted that outside of the comfortable Christian subculture there's a struggle going on for the mind and soul of our nation. Secularism, postmodernism and various non-Christian religious perspectives compete with the Christian faith for influence in American society.

Most of these alternatives have sophisticated advocates. They are deeply rooted in the public universities and the media. Christians nourished on intellectual cotton candy will have no ability to engage such people successfully. Not everyone is called to be a scholar on the ideological front lines, but we all need to be well prepared "to give an answer for the hope that we have." Pop Christian materials generally address these worldview challenges with shrill attacks on caricatured positions. That's not enough. Substance must be met with substance.

Moreover, what we believe deeply shapes the public policies of our nation. Those policies mean life and death for all of us, but especially for the least fortunate among us, those who are most affected by the ebbs and flows of policies directed to "the least of these."

In the most powerful nation on earth, what is at stake in the shaping of the Christian mind is nothing less than the stance of the U.S. in the world. How much money do we give to what kinds of economic relief and development efforts? How do we relate to international conflict? What vision do we carry into international economic relations? What is our level of involvement in situations of genocide or human-rights violations. To what extent do values, rather than the dollar, shape our involvement in the world?

Christians can and do play a key role in shaping the answers to such questions by what we say and do, and at least as much by what we fail to say and do.

What can we do differently?

If you run a Christian bookstore, consider broadening and deepening your collection
Any business has to make a profit. But I wonder if many Christian bookstore owners have explored the possibility of breaking the current mold. You might find a reading public hungry for more than cotton candy. (Click here for a list of some suggestions.)

If you don't buy books, try it
To the Christian who doesn't read much, let me challenge you to change that habit. Reading and thinking deeply about the Christian faith is a matter of obedience. It's about taking our faith seriously enough to study and reflect upon it. Turn off the television and start reading. If you do, you'll never go back.

If you do buy books, look for quality
A book doesn't have to be impenetrable or dense with footnotes to be rich and profound. Start with tools to improve your Bible study. Read some solid theology. Go right to Luther and Calvin and Wesley and even Augustine. You don't have to read their interpreters, you can read them yourself! Get exposed to Catholic thought. Read some of Pope John Paul II's encyclicals or the Catholic catechism. See what is happening in Christianity in the Two-Thirds World, which is where much of the action is anyway.

Read about prayer with the great mystics of the Christian tradition. Dip your toe into Eastern Orthodox thought and see what that neglected tradition has to offer. Read about important new issues in bioethics or important trends affecting the family. The list is endless.

The heart of the Christian mind, or any high-functioning mind, is insatiable intellectual curiosity. There's always another book to read, a new current of Christian thought to explore, a new issue to consider. If you can't find adequate sustenance at the local Christian store, drive to the university library or bookstore or the local chain store. Look up key authors online. Do not assume that the current pop version of Christian faith exhausts its meaning. That would be a grievous mistake. Instead, join the intellectual pilgrimage of thoughtful Christians through the ages.

Join me at the feast. After a good meal, we'll go get some cotton candy for dessert.