The Christian book minefield

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.

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11 thoughts on “The Christian book minefield

  1. Jeffrey Allen Davis says:

    As I was growing up, my best friend was Catholic. He still is my best friend and we still hang out when we can. As a Pentecostal (I luv da band), I must admit that I don’t always understand the Catholic denomination, but I’ve never really doubted that they were Christians.

    I enjoy reading Christian literature, particularly fiction, but I do agree that someone must be grounded in Scripture before listening to anything that an author has to say-or anything else. That’s why I appreciate the pastor of my church so much. He recently did a message on End Times Prophecy. He told us that we shouldn’t just assume that, since he was our pastor, that he was 100% accurate. He said that he wanted us to study those Scriptures, too.

  2. Darryl Sloan says:

    I’ve read a little bit of Christian fiction, some Frank Peretti, Stephen Lawhead and C.S. Lewis. Something of a mixed experience. I’m not sure I like the label “Christian fiction”. I once had a moment of clarity after reading some really insightful fiction by a non-Christian author (Orson Scott Card): all truth is God’s truth, whether spoken by a believer or unbeliever. It’s possible to be inspired by Christians and non-Christians alike.

    Your pastor has a good attitude. Our paster was like that, too, but he retired. I’m a bit of a lost sheep at the moment, as far as church is concerned.

  3. samurijim says:

    I agree that it can become overwhelming. It does seem better to read them as one who is an already understanding Christian, where as new believers can just get confused. People often chose denominations based on their first understandings, and then they hold on as if it was the only true Church.

    The thing about theology is that there is room for different biblical interpretations, not ones that should bring about separations and disputes, but rather a sharing of perspectives and ideas that help broaden our understandings.

    Like you said, Read the Bible. That’s the most important thing. Our increased understanding of God resides in the study of His Word, and it is from that Word interpretations can be refined (not redefined) by the sharing of findings and discoveries amongst believers. By this of course I don’t mean organizations/cults who twist the Word way out of context to fit their own schemes. As in all things of life there should be a structure by which things are done and followed. Here is a really good article on “The Eight Rules of Bible Interpretation” (http://ecclesia.org/truth/8-rules.html) which is a good guide to follow when digging deeper into the Word.

    As an imperfect person I cannot rely on my flawed emotions, feelings, opinions, experiences or surrounding environment to correctly interpret scripture. Like all things in life rules must be followed for true understanding, and it is the same with the Bible.

    It first helps to understand the proper methodology; such as the history of the time, who it was written to, the literary genre of the specific book (Historical, Poetic, Law, Prophetic, Letters to Churches, etc), etc. Finding the full definition of the Biblical words can play a large part in better understanding the author’s intended meaning. It does no good for me to come up with my own conclusions, it’s all about finding out what the author was saying. This begins to be achieved by following through with the right methodology. It’s true that only God knows the full meaning behind the text, which is why it is also important to read it with the guidance of the Holy Spirit who gives us insights into the meaning and application of Scripture.

    The beauty of the Bible is that the deeper you dig the better; I call this “Microscoping”, unlike most things in life the closer you look the more flaws stand out, with the Bible the closer you look the more renown it becomes.

    I think Christian books are sometimes more for sensationalism than anything else, such as “The Prayer of Jabez” and “The Purpose Driven Life”. But I also believe they can sometimes share another perspective which is helpful. But As Paul said, “Test everything with Scripture”.

  4. Darryl Sloan says:

    Thanks for the detailed reply, Samurai Jim. Something else I’ve discovered with Bible reading:

    It can sometimes be monotonous, and you wonder if you’re learning anything at all. You read reams of history and wonder what spiritual nourishment is to be gained. But then, at some future date, your life throws something at you, and a piece of Bible history that was gathering dust in your memory suddenly jumps to the front of your mind, filled with wisdom that’s relevant to exactly what you’re going through.

    For example, I got very little out of the Book of Judges until I started looking at it in the context of atheism. Judges is a picture of society without the imposition of divine law – a wake-up call to the kind of world we’d end up with if the athiests had their way in ridding the world of Christianity.

  5. James says:

    Good point, I have often found this true. In life when talking to people my mind often goes right to a Bible quote or story. There really is, “Nothing new under the sun”.

    – James (AKA: SamuriJim)

  6. Will Hadcroft says:

    Hi Darryl,

    I have finally bought out some time to respond to your comments, as I said I would. It might surprise those out there who already know me (not you Darryl, because we’ve exchanged views on this since your reading my book) that I am in fact one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It may also surprise you to know (because people often assume that the JW organisation is a narrow-minded cult or sect) that as a Witness I agree with pretty much everything that has been said here, by you Darryl and by your fellow commentators.

    Read the Bible on its own first. Easier said than done, but it’s a must. As I’m sure all Christians know, 2 Timothy 3:16 says all scripture is inspired of God and beneficial. It also says that scripture equips us completely, so there is nothing lacking in God’s Word, nor is it incomplete (though our understanding of it might well be).

    Personally, as a relatively slow reader, I have found the Bible difficult to get through. Genesis and Exodus are a good read, but then all the laws kick in and it’s like reading a legal document – probably because that part IS a legal document, it’s the Law of Israel. Same goes for the chronological stuff, it is so full of detail. But again that’s the whole point of it. Without that detailed history we cannot see where the genealogy that produced Christ came from.

    The prophetic books are very meaty too, full of doom and judgments (I actually don’t have a problem with this as it’s good to know what God approves and disapproves, for while as Christians we must be balanced and leave the judging to God, there are standards that we are expected to maintain). My favourite prophetic book is Daniel. It’s rich in meaning. The succession of world empires can be traced from Babylon right down to modern times, and the calculation pointing to Christ’s arrival in 29AD is spot on.

    The so-called New Testament (I say so-called because it does not make the “old” testament obsolete. I prefer to call the testaments the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures) is by and large very easy to read. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, so if you’ve never had a run at the Bible, you could start with that. While Matthew and John are eyewitness accounts, I find it fascinating that Luke’s account takes the conventional approach of interviewing individuals and compiling the evidence, as does his consideration of the first century church (check out how he opens Luke chapter one and Acts chapter one!).

    Of course the Hebrew scriptures were written mostly in Hebrew, and the Christian scriptures were written in a very specific kind of Greek. In the first century the Hebrew part was translated into Greek, then following the deaths of the apostles the whole lot was translated into Latin, and finally into English. As the English language has developed over the centuries, the need has arisen for fresher translations.

    Interestingly there is a difference between a “translation” and a “version”. The latter is biased because it’s a version made to fit the beliefs of the translator or sponsor of the work. There are many ancient copies that have to be compared and there is a master text from the 19th century (I think) by two gentlemen called Wescott & Hort which most modern translators use as the backbone.

    When Jehovah’s Witnesses got their start in 1879, they used the “King James Version”, the “American Standard Version”, and several others. Then in the 1940s they commissioned a team of original language scholars to produce a translation as close as possible to the ancient texts. This became the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”, published through the Watchtower Society (the Witnesses’ non-profit publishing arm) in 1960. While having “their own Bible” (as some like to put it), the Witnesses still consult a plethora of translations to get as good an understanding as possible.

    It’s not balanced to use just one translation and insist that it is THE Bible.

    I agree with everything you say about Bible commentaries. Knowing the background of scripture is essential. Who is talking to whom? Where is the scene set? What are the customs? What did people believe in those days? What were their prejudices?

    The correct understanding of original language words is also essential. Rows and argument have erupted many a time because an individual has insisted on a particular English word (thus colouring his understanding of a certain verse). Commentaries explaining the meaning behind Hebrew and Greek words are invaluable.

    And, of course, reading verses in context with the rest of the chapter, the rest of the book, and indeed the rest of the Bible as a whole is crucial.

    On the subject of biographies and autobiographies, seeing how a person’s religion affects his life is often more interesting than listening to his views directly (though there’s nothing wrong with the latter if the person has a balanced view or is at least willing to consider your own views).

    And reading other literature is okay provided you remember that the book/magazine does not replace or substitute God’s Word.

    Thank you for reading this.

    Will Hadcroft.

  7. Darryl Sloan says:

    Thanks for the post, Will. I feel a real sense of kinship with you, despite us sitting at fairly different branches of Christianity. We could probably argue the Holy Trinity, and about blood transfusions, etc., but I think we’re the same kind of person underneath all the issues.

  8. Will Hadcroft says:

    I too feel we are both quite similar as people. And we are similar in the way we approach religious thinking.

    We are concerned with establishing truth rather than clinging to cherished beliefs because they are comfortable. Like you, I have grappled quite seriously with doubt more than once (the trigger usually being the suffering of innocent human beings – children in particular), and like you I keep coming back to where I started: God.

    Incidentally, for anyone reading this who does not know already, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the prohibition on eating and drinking blood (animal or human) found in the Law to Israel at Leviticus 17: 10-12, and in the admonition to Christians at Acts 15: 28, 29 includes injesting blood through blood transfusions. Rather than go against their consciences, the Witnesses have transfusions of man-made compounds instead. They also make use of the blood salvage machine, which minimises blood loss during the op. Contrary to what is depicted in tabloid newspaper reports and television hospital dramas, non-blood treatment has a high success rate and is free of disease.

    Regarding the Trinity doctrine, the Witnesses take the view that study of original Bible languages and the context of the Bible as a whole (and indeed the context of the verses quoted to support the Trinity) reveal that while Jesus had a pre-human existence and was the first born spirit son of God, he was not a human incarnation of God himself.

    They believe that Jehovah is God Almighty and that Jesus is his Son. Since his resurrection and ascension to heaven, Jesus has been at Jehovah’s right hand and will soon be used to restore the Divine Purpose for humankind and the earth.

    Thanks, Darryl, for giving me the opportunity to clarify these much misunderstood doctrines.

    Will H.

  9. Stacey says:

    Darryl,

    I guess your reasons for avoiding Christian literature are gone now, yes? Unless you aren’t open minded enough to consider the truths that may be offered there the same as you’ve considered Icke… So are you going to read the books I recommended? I’m currently reading Problem of Pain again.

  10. Darryl Sloan says:

    Stacey,

    Ha. You ensnared me well there. To be fair, the post about avoiding Christian literature is really about the dangers of what can happens when you become a Christian, then get stuck into a load of Christian literature without first grounding yourself in an extensive knowledge of what the Bible says.

    Yeah, I find C.S. Lewis quite interesting and have read some of his works over the years. I have Mere Christianity here in the house, which you’ve put me in mind to read. I don’t think I ever read it all.

  11. Stacey says:

    Darryl,

    I do see your point about being prepared for the many perspectives of Christianity, especially being raised by evangelical Protestants.

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