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You are what you read

"You are what you read" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Only one book is about the church, not counting the Catholic catechism. And that title, The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren (No. 87) is about how the church needs to be changed.

The approach to God that dominates the bestseller list is highly experiential (e.g., Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, No. 69). and highly relational (e.g., The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, No. 35). The Christian life tends to be depicted in terms of what we do, rather than what God has done. Thus, a number of the bestsellers dealing with God are "how-to" books-in the words of the editorial descriptions, "how to find God's will through the power of the Spirit"; "how to know and do God's will"; "how to be constantly transformed by the Holy Spirit."

There is only one book directly about the gospel, that our salvation comes from being forgiven, thanks to God's grace through the work of Christ. From many of these spiritual "how-to" books, one could easily get the opposite impression, that salvation is by works after all.

Certainly, there is a tradition in historic Christianity of personal piety, and this too is reflected in the bestseller list. Nine of the bestsellers are prayer books or books about how to pray. Personal devotions make up over 10 percent of the list, from Mr. Lucado's meditations to classics such as Oswald Chambers's My Utmost for His Highest, still selling after all these years at No. 15. Other classic devotional works are Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowan, first published in 1925 (No. 92) and The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence from the 17th century (No. 85).

Still, the Christianity of the bestseller lists tends to be personal, private, and interior, with little attention to objective theology or to the church.

Ironically, many of these bestselling Christian books-around 20 percent by my reckoning-have almost nothing to do at all with Christianity. Even books classified as "inspirational," in fact, often have no, or very little and generalized, Christian content. They offer practical tips, folk wisdom, business advice, and sentimental anecdotes, but they are wholly secular. Offering platitudes, pop psychology, self-help, and positive thinking-but no law, no gospel--there is little with which a nonbeliever could disagree.

For example, Lists to Live By, with the audacious subtitle "For Everything That Really Matters" (No. 49 on the chart), has chapters on success, contentment, family fun, life's transitions, etc. The chapter on "Success" gives sound-bite, bulleted lists such as 25 traits of entrepreneurs, how to give constructive criticism, what to put on a resumé, why we procrastinate, and the like.

For example, here are the "Three Secrets to Success": "(1) Be willing to learn new things; (2) Be able to assimilate new information quickly; (3) Be able to get along with and work with other people." OK, the secrets are out! This series from Multnomah, like the various Chicken Soup books, has become a franchise of at least eight titles so far, including lists for caring families, simple living, and smart living.

Cultural appeasers

So what can the CBA bestseller list tell us about how Christians today are engaging their culture?

There has always been a range of options that Christians have taken in relating to their cultures. Theologian Richard Niebuhr has usefully set forth the possibilities in his classic treatise Christ and Culture. One option he called "The Christ of Culture." In this view, Christianity is a mere cultural religion, and so must change as the culture changes. In effect, culture rules the church. Those who advocate this approach we might call "appeasers."

For example, A New Christianity for a New World is a religion book that made the secular bestseller lists, but not CBA's. In it, Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong denies the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, the existence of a personal God, and every other tenet of historical Christianity that he can think of. These notions, he says, are not relevant to our culture today. Neither are Christianity's teachings about morality, particularly when it comes to sex. Extramarital sex and homosexuality are culturally acceptable now, so the church, if it is going to continue to exist, had better change its tune.

Bishop Spong proposes "a new Christianity." This new faith, he writes, must be able to "incorporate all of our reality. It must be able to allow God and Satan to come together in each of us.... It must unite Christ with Antichrist, Jesus with Judas, male with female, heterosexual with homosexual." This new Christianity, which amounts to a completely different religion, presumably will still need to employ bishops.

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