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.