A colleague of mine was perplexed: “The annual Christian Booksellers Convention is a gigantic affair, where score of books are ordered by Christian bookstores who, in turn, sell them in droves.” And yet, the professor lamented, these books are having “so little effect.” Researchers often report that evangelicals on average live no better morally than nonevangelicals.
I can add statistics to fuel my colleague’s concern. George Barna writes that 43 percent of “born again Christians” agree with the statement, “It does not matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons about life.” Such syncretism and indifference are to be expected in our permissive and relativistic culture, but they are an abomination and scandal among those who claim to have been brought from death to life by the One who proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6;see also Acts 4:12; 1Tim. 2:5). Could anyone regenerated by the Holy Spirit persist in such mockery of their Lord?
In days of plummeting moral standards—marked by promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion on demand, rampant divorce, senseless violence—and the forfeiture of character in all strata of society, this is nauseating news indeed. Has the salt of the earth lost its savor (Matt 5:13)?
It is not commonly recognized that the spiritual, moral, and social failings of the body of Christ today are often rooted in a lack of intellectual discipleship—a neglect or disparagement of the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism is an insidious acid eating away at the core of Christian faith, reducing it to emotionalism, apathy, and mindless activism. If we don’t love God with all our minds (Matt. 22:7) by taking every thought captive to Christ’s obedience (2 Cor. 10:5), we will be shaped by the spirit and structure of the world rather than by God’s Spirit (Rom. 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17). In other words, sanctification has a nonnegotiable intellectual component. Anti-intellectualism can take many forms in modern Christianity; below I will address its effect on our view of the written word.
Christians publishers often follow secular trends instead of biblical imperatives, and Christian consumers snatch up the titles by the millions. The result is a spate of sensationalist fiction (imitations of Stephen King) or sentimentalist fiction (little church on the prairie), self-help guides with a Christian veneer, endless diet books, and unbridled prophetic speculations. Remember the rash of opportunistic books correlating the Gulf War with the Final War? Despite the initial financial success of some of these titles, most are now selling for only a few dollars or dimes in the used book section of thrift stores—and are still overpriced.
What is often neglected in modern Christian publishing is careful Christian analysis of intellectual and social issues based on a thorough understanding of the biblical revelation and sound reasoning. Many Christian bookstores do not even have sections on social issues, or apologetics, or theology—or if they do, they are threadbare. Many Christians, if they read at all, are hooked on intellectual junk food, and this starvation diet provides little nourishment to understand and respond to the moral challenges pressing upon them.
Second, the joy of reading the Good Book and books of enduring value is lost on too many Christians today. Endless diversions distract us from the challenge of deciphering and pondering the printed page. As Neil Postman convincingly argues, television “amuses us to death” through its ever-changing, pulsating images and superficial image-deep perspectives that masquerade as profound. We must all learn to read and make the text come alive through our disciplined involvement. But no one need learn to watch television; it is just there, enticing and seducing us to refrain from nobler pursuits. Television is literally sensational for entertainment, but it usually fails to instruct or edify. The medium does not lend itself easily to rational discourse.
Reading thoughtful books provides an occasion to reflect on the depth of our faith and how it can engage our decaying society. In a day of alluring surrogates for spirituality, Christians must know what they believe, why they believe it, and the difference it makes. How can we grow in this area?
First, record the hours spent each week watching television, and ask yourself (and God), “Was it worth it?” Second, consult well-read friends about good books, browse through a bookstore well-stocked in thoughtful books, or look through the catalogues of solid Christian publishers such as Baker, Zondervan, Moody, and InterVarsity for mind-expanding material. Third, challenge yourself with Christian classics by Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Pascal, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. Your interaction with the greatest minds of the ages will chiefly come through reading. Fourth, organize or attend a Sunday school class or reading group on apologetics, doctrine, or social issues. Fifth, challenge your pastor to recommend thoughtful books from the pulpit.
The recovery of robust reading habits won’t solve all of our culture’s crises. But it may bring some savory salt into your soul, your church, and your world.
Douglas Groothuis is assistant professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Denver Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Christianity That Counts (Baker Book House).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith