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You are what you read

Sales of Christian books are so strong, secular sellers are looking to grab a slice of the lucrative market.

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Christians are reading, even while other Americans are just watching TV. Book sales overall are stagnant, but even The New York Times took note that sales of Christian books are growing. Last year, for the first time, Christian titles from evangelical publishers topped the bestseller lists in both fiction (the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, from Tyndale House) and nonfiction (The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, from Multnomah).

The book industry as a whole last year brought in $11 billion worth of sales. Evangelical publishers earned a whopping $1.77 billion of that total-16 percent of all books sold. In response, secular publishers are adding religious, even evangelical, lines. Christian titles can now be found in mainstream bookstores, from the Barnes & Noble megastores to airport news stands.

By economic standards, Christian books have certainly penetrated the culture. The question remains: What are they saying about that culture? Are the books-and, more importantly, the Christians who read them-appeasing or transforming the culture? Or ignoring it altogether?

On the principle "you are what you read," the books that are most popular among Christians provide a snapshot of American Christianity. The issues that most concern them, the nature of their theology, and their engagement in the culture around them are all evident from the Christian bestseller lists (see p. 28.)

The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) posts on its website ( the topselling titles in the evangelical book industry. The CBA list is based on sales from its member stores. As a result, what it tracks is the buying habits of those who shop in Christian bookstores, as opposed to general sales that would include, Barnes & Noble, and other secular retailers. The CBA's top 100 sellers of 2001 thus represent what evangelical Christians bought from stores catering to evangelical Christians.

The No. 1 bestseller was The Prayer of Jabez. Left Behind novels took up six of the top 10 slots. The prolific Church of Christ pastor Max Lucado had a remarkable six different titles in the top 100.

One fourth of all the CBA bestsellers had to do with family. Books on building a strong marriage and raising children were the dominant category by far. "Family values" is not just a code word for cultural conservatives. Judging from their reading habits, Christians really are preoccupied with their families. They study how to be good spouses and parents.

Complementary to the family books were six titles directed to the special needs of men and 21 titles to the special needs of women. This latter category, which ranges from Hugs for Mom to Bad Girls of the Bible, reflects the fact that most buyers of CBA books are women. If the titles for men and women are added to the books about family, they account for nearly 40 percent of all CBA bestsellers.

Theology does not fare nearly as well. Of the top 100 books, only four could be described as even popular theology. One of them, coming in as the 26th bestselling volume, is The Catechism of the Catholic Church. That evangelical bookstores would even carry a Roman Catholic book, much less its primary teaching text, is remarkable and a sign of how things have changed. Either evangelicals are learning about Catholicism, or, far more likely, Catholics have started shopping in evangelical bookstores.

There are three books of apologetics, dealing with evidences for the faith and how to answer its critics. Those seem to be the only books that are focused on evangelism.

Of the top 100 books, only six are about the Bible. (This does not count an additional eight books on "God's Promises" or "Bible Promises," two series consisting of scriptural texts arranged topically and addressed to various issues and stations in life.)

One of the bestsellers (No. 78) purports to be an extrabiblical revelation based on a vision, something else unusual for Protestants, who, historically, have stressed that God's revelation is to be found exclusively in His Word. Mary Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell tells about a tour of that foul place given her by Jesus Himself, not as a work of symbolism, as in Dante, but as plain geographical fact, going into detail about what the place is like and how the damned are tormented. Ms. Baxter has also written about her vision of heaven, but it is not nearly as popular and did not make the bestseller list.

Of these 100 most popular Christian books, only four are about Christ. The Holy Spirit rates two. Billy Graham's book about angels still made the list, though barely, coming in at No. 99.

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.

To the great credit of CBA, there is nothing that goes this far in its top 100 bestseller list. Evangelical publishers, however, are indeed putting out theological books that call for accommodations to the postmodern mind. The raft of "open theism" books that are all the rage in many evangelical seminaries question traditional doctrines about the almighty God Himself. Many evangelical thinkers are calling for Christians to change their doctrines and practices, to follow the current culture when it comes to feminism, gay rights, and other politically correct shibboleths.

So far, the overt cultural appeasers appeal mainly to theologians, academics, and intellectuals, not to the average churchgoer in the pews and in the Christian bookstores, most of whom would be scandalized if they knew such things were taught in the seminaries they support. And yet seminaries produce the next generation of pastors, so there is reason to worry. The one book about church that did make the bestseller list is one of a plethora of "how-to" books on church growth, and the essence of their message is that the church needs to change its ways to appeal to-or appease-the dominant culture.

In a broader sense, the CBA bestseller list illustrates how far Christians, even those who think of themselves as conservative theologically and culturally, are already aping the unbelieving culture. While modernists tended to oppose all religion in the name of scientific rationalism, postmodernists in their relativism and anti-rationalism are quite open to any kind of "spirituality." That is to say, they are fine with spirituality as long as it remains inside the believer's head and makes no claim to be objectively true and valid for everyone.

The Christianity of the bestseller lists, with its subjectivity and pragmatism ("this is what works for me"), its overall indifference to theological truth, in favor of interior, psychological experiences, fits seamlessly with contemporary culture.

Cultural separatists

Niebuhr's second option for how Christians historically have related to their cultures is "Christ Against Culture." This view sees society as being hopelessly sinful and corrupt. The church and the world are completely incompatible. Christians are to separate themselves from this sinful world. The church is to become a culture unto itself, a community of holiness set against the Godless unbelievers, who, despite any apparent achievements, are merely awaiting the judgment of God.

Some people accuse the very existence of the CBA market as exemplifying cultural separatism. Christians set up parallel institutions-schools, colleges, publishing companies, even businesses-as a way to keep themselves "pure" from the secular marketplace of goods and ideas.

This may have been true at one time, though, as has been seen, the similarity of the Christian subculture to its secular counterparts makes this less valid today.

Separatism at least has its integrity, from the anti-technological Amish to modern fundamentalism. The problem is that Christ calls Christians to be "in the world," though not "of the world" (John 17:15-18). This requires a delicate balancing act that is easy to tip to one side or the other. Christians do have vocations in the secular arena, and they are called to love and serve their neighbors where God has placed them. They are also to be salt and light to a sinful world, bearing witness to their faith among unbelievers and influencing their societies for the good.

Another problem is that if the church becomes a culture unto itself, the same old cultural problems manifest themselves-conformity, oppression, conflict, worldliness-only this time within the church.

Political activism? Pro-life demonstrations? Compassionate conservatism? A waste of time, if the separatists are right.

Movies? Music? Books? Only if they are Christian.

Cultural separatism can be found in six of the top 10 bestsellers: The Left Behind series. In these apocalyptic soap operas, there is no question of Christians organizing to vote the Antichrist out of office. The Devil has his way, and Christians must simply ride out the time they have on earth, until Jesus comes back to put everything right.

Wheaton English professor Wayne Martindale, in an essay in Christ and Culture in Dialogue, proposed a variation to Mr. Niebuhr's options. Speaking about the persecution of Chinese Christians, he observed that the issue is not always "Christ against culture." Sometimes, it is "culture against Christ.

For all of our unprecedented religious freedom, Christians need to realize that the culture is growing more and more hostile to any kind of biblical worldview. The separatists have a point when they excoriate the sinfulness of the world. Indeed, in many parts of the world-and perhaps the time will come in the United States-Christians may not have a choice to engage or not engage their culture. The culture will have nothing to do with them and, indeed, wants to stamp out their very existence.

In the meantime, the question is what Christians should do when faced with a hostile culture. Give in? Withdraw? Or try to change the culture?

Cultural rulers

Another of Niebuhr's models is "Christ above Culture." Instead of letting the culture rule the church, the church should rule the culture. In this view, God's Word offers the template for earthly government and for all of life. Christians need to take over and exert their rule in society. While separatists tend to be premillennialists, as in the Left Behind books, believing that things will inevitably go from bad to worse until Jesus comes back, the cultural rulers tend to be postmillennialists, believing that Christians will first establish the kingdom of God on earth, whereupon Christ will then return.

The cultural rulers also have their integrity, though they can be accused of forgetting that Christ's kingdom is "not of this world" (John 18:36), substituting an earthly, even a political agenda, for the eternal life offered in the gospel. But not to worry. The top 100 bestsellers show no trace of this position.

Cultural engagers

Niebuhr's "Christ and culture in Paradox" view sees the church and the society as two different spheres. Under the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, God rules both. He brings people into His spiritual kingdom through the gospel of Christ, giving Christians eternal life and leading them by His Word. God also reigns in the world, even among sinners and those who reject Him. By virtue of His creation and His providential workings, He already rules. Christians are citizens of both kingdoms, called by faith into His church, and called in their earthly vocations-as members of families, as citizens, and as workers with diverse gifts-to love and serve their neighbors in the world.

There is tension between these two kingdoms, to be sure. But those who think in these terms often see value in the contributions of secular culture, seeing God at work in civil government (Romans 13), the work of human beings exercising the gifts He has given them, and social institutions, from the family to civilizations, that He has made possible.

To be sure, there are often conflicts in and between these spheres, with the devil throwing a monkeywrench into God's designs. But God cannot be thwarted for long. His moral law is not just for Christians-who are made such not by the law but by the gospel-but for His earthly kingdom as well. In this model, Christians are to be fully engaged in their cultures.

Perhaps a trace of Two Kingdoms theology can be found in the openness of CBA readers to the secular wisdom of those "Lists to Live By." It is certainly found in those Christians who might find something of value both in a Christian bookstore and in a secular bookstore. Nevertheless, the top 100, as a whole, show little cultural engagement at all.

Cultural transformers

Niebuhr's final model, which he offers as something of a solution and synthesis of the best of the other models, is "Christ, Transformer of Culture." This model acknowledges that Christianity and culture are not the same, that sin distorts society. Christians nevertheless are to be engaged in the world, living out their faith so that they are salt and light in a bland and dark world. Christians, under this model, should indeed apply God's higher law to change the culture, when it needs to be changed, doing what they can, in small as well as large ways, to exert a positive Christian influence throughout the society.

Transformers change the culture not so much by exerting power, nor even by enforcing the moral law (as if nonbelievers could ever be truly moral). Rather, change is a result of the gospel. Christ changes lives, which results in changed institutions and changed societies. Those who have come to faith in Christ live differently and make their worlds a better place, both as they evangelize others and as they live out their vocations in response to Christ's forgiveness.

Transformers do recognize the sin in the world, and they combat it. They may be engaged in political action, but their main weapon is the gospel, bringing it to prisoners, drug addicts, alcoholics, broken families, and others whose lives seem ruined. Sometimes transformers work in subtler ways-changing the atmosphere of the workplace, standing up for what is right in school or the office, applying God's Word to build strong families, and doing what they can to see that God's will is done "on earth as it is in heaven."

So did any cultural transformers make the bestseller chart? Of all 100 books, only one faced directly the fact that our culture is in trouble. Only one was about the need to engage cultural issues in a Christian way. Only one was explicitly about the culture's desperate need for God's transforming power. The one book of all the bestsellers that had much of anything to say about the culture, the only one that raised specific issues our nation is facing, the one transformer, was Pray for Our Nation.

Subtitled "Scriptural Prayers To Revive Our Country," this 96-page book published by Harrison House is nothing more than a collection of prayers for national problems, for our leaders, for the military, for problems such as racism, violence in schools, and national disasters. The book first came out in 1999, but it apparently struck a new chord after Sept. 11, 2001. To the credit of CBA and its customers, it became the No. 5 bestseller.

Family values

The masses of American Christians may not be much concerned for their culture, but they are concerned for their families. This is an important start.

Although the implication has been that the bestseller list shows little interest in culture on the part of American Christians, an exception must be made for the family books. These show how culture actually affects ordinary Christians, from the influences of pop culture on their children to the bad ideas being taught in the schools.

The family books do tend to show an awareness that it is a dangerous world out there, full of temptations, falsehoods, and overt sin. Christian parents want to protect their children from the bad cultural influences. They also want to make them strong, disciplined, well-equipped, and well-educated Christians, able to resist peer pressure (that is, cultural pressure) and to do what is right (transform the culture).

The family books also show a great concern to build strong marriages. In an age of divorce, when Christians seem to have as many broken marriages as non-Christians, the books for husbands and wives about how to better live out their marital vocations by loving and serving their spouse are a healthy sign.

And how is this done? Most of the books attempt to apply biblical teachings to the family, showing how God's Word-the law, but also the gospel and the spirit of forgiveness it creates-can transfigure the relationship between husband and wife, parents and children.

Some bring the insights of secular psychology, folk wisdom, or common sense to family problems (e.g., how to communicate more effectively). But most of these do not use secular thinking to trump the Bible. Rather, they use them together, in a Two Kingdom kind of way, to help solve concrete problems in family life.

The family is the basic building block of every culture. If Christians can get their families right-and raise their kids in the right way-they may become cultural transformers after all.

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.


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