The first time I walked into my local Christian bookstore, as a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old convert, I was amazed. The shelves were crammed with literature on all aspects of life; many intriguing titles leapt out at me, and I found myself wishing I could learn everything at once. Nowadays, in stark contrast to what I felt then, I can hardly walk through that shop without becoming depressed.
What has changed? Nothing except the sharpness of my mind. You see, it takes years as a Christian to learn that our religion is littered with divided opinions on all sorts of things, from whether God made the world in six days to whether we’re now living in the Last Days. There are Christian authors who deny the existence of hell; the Baptists are never going to agree with the Presbyterians on infant baptism; then you have the Reformed Presbyterians who shun the use of musical instruments in worship while the Pentecostals prefer a full band. Authors from all these camps and more are lining the shelves of your local Christian bookstore.
The Christian publishing industry can curse me for saying this, but my advice to young Christians is this: avoid! Unless you want to become confused and opinionated in all the wrong ways, stay away from Christian literature. Well, maybe that’s too strong, because I’m not entirely taking my own advice to heart. I recently read a book called Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I read it because of a friend’s recommendation and because the theme of the book was masculinity – something I’ve never heard talked about in Christianity before. And, you know, it was a good book. I learned some important things about what it means to be a man. But I read it with my “BS detector” on full power, and some elements in the book just didn’t ring true. If I were reading it as a young Christian, I think the book would have helped me in some ways and harmed me in others. This is the curse of Christian literature.
Here’s a few pointers to help you step through the minefield and come out unscathed:
1. Read your Bible. It’s what God gave us, and it’s there for the taking. We can’t very well go wrong with that, can we? But it’s hard to read. And that, I suspect, is why so many readers buy Christian books – as an alternative to reading their Bible. That’s a dangerous place to be: your head full of other people’s interpretations of the Bible before you’ve filled it with the Bible itself.
2. Read commentaries. Commentaries are designed to help you interpret difficult passages in the Bible. There are good ones and bad ones; the good ones help you explain the meaning of a text by clarifying the translation from the original language and explaining the history and culture of Bible times. The not-so-useful ones are sermons-in-print.
3. Read biographies. Reading about the exploits of another Christian can be encouraging, and is fairly safe because we’re dealing in the facts of a person’s life rather than his wobbly Bible interpretations.
4. Read other Christian literature if you must, but only when you’ve already grounded yourself in a solid knowledge of the Bible.
Growing in knowledge as a Christian is unfortunately a matter of unlearning as well as learning. Right now, I’m in the middle of unlearning some things. A few years ago, a friend of mine became a Roman Catholic. After we got past the initial heated discussions, I started coming round to the idea that maybe the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity is legitimate. One of the breakthroughs was in reading a Catholic book called An Exorcist Tells His Story by Gabriele Amorth; I was amazed by the centrality of Christ in the author’s writing. Some fellow Protestants may be reading this with horror, but it takes you to read something by a Catholic to help you see through the propaganda you’ve imbibed over the years.