Christians have always supplemented their reading of Scripture with helpful books. The earliest believers, for example, read Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp; authors who wrote about the importance of the gospel, the value of piety, and the danger of heresy. They presented, according to one historian, the “great saving truths of the Faith . . . as vital realities, urgent in their relevance to life, and not as an academic exercise.”1 However imperfect, their writings provide a window into the values of a young Church. If the Church fathers could read contemporary Christian literature, what would they learn? An examination of Christian bestsellers2 leads one to several, disturbing, conclusions.
Theology has nothing to teach us.
Looking, for example, at the fifty top bestsellers in June of 2005, it is easy to infer that Christianity is a mile wide but only an inch deep. Christians are interested in marriage, depression, politics, and pornography but are not inclined to read about the character of God or explore the contours of theology. Simply put, believers do not buy works that plumb the depths of doctrine. Only Randy Alcorn’s Heaven is a purely theological work. As it stands, the evangelical world is anxious to read The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. His book introduces Christians to the most basic elements of the faith: worship, discipleship, fellowship, etc. These elements are more than important, they are essential. But they are only a start. The Christian should seek more than to understand the Christian life; he ought to pursue the Christian God! Unfortunately, millions of believers are content to drink spiritual milk—unaware of the feasts that will probably never make the bestseller lists.
Self-denial has nothing to teach us.
Ignatius wrote, “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”3 How foreign this statement is in today’s Church. The bestseller lists promote self-reference not self-denial. In Approval Addiction, Joyce Meyer wants to help readers accept their faults. In Come Thirsty, Max Lucado writes to believers feeling ineffective. In Your Best Life Now, Osteen teaches the masses how to have daily satisfaction and victory.4 “It’s all about ‘me’” is the unspoken mantra of evangelicalism. Personal growth is a worthy goal; every believer ought to strive for sanctification. Still, these bestsellers (and their readers) are missing the main point. Jesus called His disciples to deny themselves, carry their cross, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24). Where is self-denial today? Absent without leave.
The past has nothing to teach us.
One looks in vain for a word from Christian history on the bestseller list. There is more interest in a fictionalized future like The Rising by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins than knowing how the Spirit has grown the Church in the past. The only biography (a great way to learn history) on the bestseller list is Broken on the Back Row, Sandi Patty’s account of her divorce. There is no virtue in romanticizing the past. Still, there is no wisdom in ignoring it either. A Church that forgets the past runs the risk of forgetting the Lord (Judges 3:7).
Much more could be said.5 Thankfully, the bestseller list is not without its bright spots. Three apologetics works, for example, made the list, proving that readers are anxious to defend the faith.6 Nonetheless, overall, the books Christians read indicate that they believe the Bible is there to teach us how to live well-ordered, peaceful, meaningful lives. This is a shallow half-truth. The pious mind knows that every Christian ought to have a higher priority: “to observe His authority in all things, reverence His majesty, take care to advance His glory, and obey His commandments.”7 Books that carry these weighty themes and promote these worthy goals are out there, but one has to walk to the back of the bookstore to find them.
1 Maxwell Staniforth, trans. Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1968), 11.
2 The following analysis is based upon the top fifty books of June 2005, in retail sales, as compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association and found on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Website, http://www.ecpa.org/ECPA/bestsell.html (accessed October 5, 2005). The number in parentheses following each title indicates its place on the June 2005 bestseller list.
3 Ignatius, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 75, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.v.iv.html (accessed July 1, 2005).
4 Other works that may fit into the “self-help” category include: Your Best Life Now Journal (49), Joel Osteen, Warner Faith; Beyond Jabez (19), Bruce Wilkinson & Brian Smith, Multnomah; Battlefield of the Mind (39), Joyce Meyer, Warner Faith; Waking the Dead (50), John Eldredge, Nelson Books; God Is Closer than You Think (33), John Ortberg, Zondervan.
5 For example, a look at any Christian bestseller list would easily lead one to conclude that Christians are obsessed with issues of manhood, womanhood, marriage, and parenting. Manhood: Wild at Heart (6), John Eldredge, Nelson Books; Every Man’s Battle (30), Stephen Arterburn & Fred Stoeker, WaterBrook. Womanhood: Captivating (3), John & Stasi Eldredge, Nelson Books; For Women Only (12), Shaunti Feldhahn, Multnomah; The Power of a Praying Wife (15), Stormie Omartian, Harvest House; Every Young Woman’s Battle (16), Shannon Ethridge & Stephen Arterburn, WaterBrook; Pathway to Purpose for Women (28), Katie Brazelton, Zondervan; Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World (42-tie), Joanna Weaver, WaterBrook; Believing God (45), Beth Moore, Broadman & Holman. Marriage: The Five Love Languages (8), Gary Chapman, Northfield (Moody); Love and Respect (37), Emerson Eggerichs, Integrity Publishers; What Every Man Wants in a Woman, What Every Woman Wants in a Man (40), John & Diana Hagee, Charisma (Strang). Parenthood: Bringing Up Boys (46), James Dobson, Tyndale; The Power of a Praying Parent (32), Stormie Omartian, Harvest House; Jesus Wants All of Me (22), Phil A. Smouse, Barbour Publishing. It seems as if believers are looking for a sanctified version of Vogue or O, The Oprah Magazine. Indeed, the vast majority of individuals purchasing the bestsellers are women. In June, 2005, twenty-two percent of the bestsellers are targeted directly to women, compared with 4 percent written directly for men. In addition to the womanhood and parenthood books, most likely being purchased by women, four Christian romance titles appeared on the bestseller list: Moonlight on the Millpond (7), Lori Wick, Harvest House; A Thousand Tomorrows (21), Karen Kingsbury, Center Street (Warner Faith); Whence Came a Prince (24), Liz Curtis Higgs, WaterBrook; and Beyond Tuesday Morning (47), Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan.
6 This is evidenced by Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (35), The Case for a Creator (41), Zondervan, and Hank Hanegraaffs’ The Bible Answer Book (38), J. Countryman. Another encouraging aspect is the popularity of devotional literature. There is a hunger for spirituality which is why Oswald Chambers continues to be popular: My Utmost for His Highest (updated) (17), Oswald Chambers & Jim Reimann, ed.; Discovery House (Barbour); My Utmost for His Highest (26), Oswald Chambers, Barbour; and The Bible Promise Book (NIV) (34), Toni Sortor, ed.; Barbour.
7 John Calvin, Writings on Pastoral Piety, ed. Elsie Anne Mckee (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 72. Calvin continued, “Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law. And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all people have a vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence Him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed.” Ibid., 72-73.