Bring the Books 3
I do not remember when I have last been more burdened about a particular blog post. This one, or at least the idea behind it, has lain heavy on my heart for months. It does not help that I fully expect it to be widely misunderstood at best. The previous sentence is not sad to me because of me; it is sad to me because misunderstanding or refusing to apply the truth I present here is bringing and will bring widespread damage to the cause of Christ. No, I am not exaggerating here either. So as much as lieth in me, I implore you to give me a hearing.
Let us assume, for the moment, that you are the kind of minister who understands the importance of reading and study. You would not be counted amongst those whose ministries are vapid, shallow, gasping things, dressed in the finery of activity while existing on a subsistence level spiritually. You have your limitations and you know them, yet you strive to be diligent about preparing your mind to serve the Lord and feed your people – and because of this you read. Hence arises the following question:
Who are you reading?
I did not say what. You do not read a what; you read a whom. You do not pore over a book; you partake of the mind and heart of an author. The words you peruse were carefully chosen by the writer to transfer his thoughts into your mind. Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Reading invites more than just knowledge into your mind; it brings in the thoughts of another "I am". So who are you reading? Who have you read? Who will read next?
Stop. Before you answer me with a name or a list of names I have a follow-up question, one that is more important than the first one. Why? Why have you chosen to read after those men?
Let me suggest there are some bad answers to this second question. For example, if I ask you why you read a certain author and you do not have an answer – well, that is a bad answer. It means you have not thought through the implications of the fact you are reading a whom rather than a what. It means you have exercised zero discernment about whom you allow to influence you. In this sense, it is no different than choosing a church completely at random. You have a critically high percentage change of ingesting some seriously bad philosophy, doctrine, or practice if you do not stop to answer the why question.
That is not the only bad answer, of course. Others would include reading a particular author because your local family/Christian/Bible bookstore carries a lot of books by him. After all, if he is popular his stuff must be good. You do realize, don't you, that the average doctrinal discernment in a "Christian" bookstore is near zero? You do realize, don't you, that they are for-profit business? That does not make them evil but it does mean they will stock books that appeal to the widest possible sector of the "Christian" public. By definition, to appeal to that wide sector you have to avoid alienating people like the plague. You have to be simplistic, emotional, and uncontroversial. You have to talk about all the things people like about God but none of the things they do not. All of which means the books you will find widely available in the average Christian bookstore are poor books at best.
Unfortunately, we are not done yet. Remember, this is a blog series primarily aimed at ministers, and ministers do not generally give the first two bad answers I listed to the why question. That does not necessarily mean they give a good answer though. Instead, often they simply give a different yet equally bad answer. The why behind the men they read is simple – they read the men everybody else is reading. They read the same books their friends in the ministry are reading, that their friends are discussing, that everyone in their peer group is reading.
In a sense, I get that. I will often see or hear a friend of mine recommend a particular book. That brings the book to my attention, which is the first step to getting it on my reading list. Not only do I get it, as an author I profit from it. I am an average guy pastoring an average size church. The only hope I have to sell books is word-of-mouth recommendation.
Why is that a problem, especially since it helps me as an author? It is a problem because you are not reading a book, rather you are being influenced by an author. I shudder to think, even in relation to my own books, how few men bother to research an author before they read him. Many do not, and that is a problem because it means they are opening up their mind to an influence without first establishing carefully whether it will be a good influence or not.
See, here's the thing – as a listener or a reader I cannot control what influence I receive. I do not know what that person is going to say or write next. I opened my mind when I opened the book. Simply put, it is going to influence me. No, I cannot control whether that influence will take place but I can control who is doing the influencing. I cannot control what they say but I can control who I listen to (podcasts, I am looking at you) and who I read after. And I should, because who I listen to and read after will influence me. I cannot help it. I will not remain unmoved. So I had better think through who I allow to push me before they start pushing me.
This brings me back to the grief that lies on my heart as I write this piece. In my estimation, there is present in the independent Baptist movement a wide tendency to read men who are pushing us in the wrong direction. This is a philosophical piece. I do not want to press it to strongly into specifics lest you lose the larger point. I do, however, want to be clear so let me give you a couple of contemporary examples of what I am talking about.
Let us take Francis Chan for a moment. Most known as the author of the best-selling Crazy Love (no, I have not read it), he founded a mega-church, and a Bible college. His life, as far as is known, is marked by integrity and a genuine devotion to his family. He gives away a substantial portion of his income, and has a genuine passion to share Christ with as many people as possible.
So why won't I read Francis Chan? After all, numerous friends of mine have informed me his books are well-written, thought-provoking, spiritual, and edifying. My answer is simple: I don't want Francis Chan influencing me. See, in addition to all the good of the previous paragraph, Chan does not use the KJV, embraces contemporary worship, is a Calvinist, is comfortable speaking for doctrinally disastrous organizations, co-writes books with the most egregious religious pragmatists of our day, and embraces a charismatic approach to spiritual gifts. Further, his whole approach to ministry is constantly shifting, moving, morphing, transitioning, going somewhere else other than where he is now.
For good measure, let us throw David Platt into the mix too. As with Chan, he is a hot commodity amongst American preachers today, including with many younger independent Baptist ministers. Most known as the author of Radical (no, I have not read it), he is highly educated and articulate. He routinely occupies the most influential pulpits in not just the Southern Baptist Convention, but more broadly throughout America. Like Chan, he has a reputation as a thinker and a doer both, and appears to be by all accounts deeply committed to his wife and children.
So why won't I read Platt? You already know the answer, don't you? Again, like Chan, he embraces a huge swath of doctrine and practice and ministry that I find not just highly questionable but repugnant. I am not interested in allowing him to pour his thoughts into my mind and heart. I do not want him influencing me, and since I cannot read his books without also partaking of his influence I choose not to read his books. I do not want to go where he is at, let alone where he will be going next so I simply refuse to read him, period.
I can hear them from here, the multitudes of my preacher brethren sighing in exasperation with me as they peruse this. "C'mon, Tom, be serious. You cannot only read people with whom you agree. You have to eat the meat and spit out the bones."
Shockingly, I actually agree in principle with that statement. What I
disagree with is the practice that increasingly flows from that principle, as if it justifies reading after anybody and everybody. It is one thing to read an author with whom you know you have one or two differences. It is an entirely different matter to embrace willy-nilly the popular authors of our day, a day in which American Christianity is not coincidentally doctrinally deficient, practically anemic, and disastrously worldly.
I like fish, not to fish, but to grill them and eat them. I can pin-bone my own salmon (a risky proposition) or I can purchase one that has been carefully prepped already. Eat the meat and spit out the bones? Sure, but the more bones there are the greater chance they have of getting through, and once they get through they can inflict serious damage. My children eat what I grill. I would be a fool not to carefully inspect the fish I am going to pass along to them.
See, it is not just about you. It is even more about those whom you, in turn, will influence. If you allow yourself to swallow the swill that currently passes for edification in much of American Christianity you will find it does not stop with you. When Peter said we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard (Acts 4.20) it was in the context of not being able to keep quiet about Christ. Why couldn't he keep it quiet? Because Christ had influenced him, to put it mildly, and what was in Peter as a result of that influence was going to come out of him as he, in turn, influenced others.
A professor at a leading American independent Baptist Bible college recently published his recommended reading list. On this list you will find evangelicals of all stripes, including Calvinists, Southern Baptists, covenant theologians, professors at compromising, even liberal Bible colleges, and charismatics in all but name, with the occasional marketing expert thrown in for good measure. What you will not find is a single book written by an independent Baptist.
"So? You think independent Baptists have the market cornered on God and on truth?"
No, but I do think we are right about a whole lot of things many people in today's Christian America are wrong about. If I did not I would not be one. And I dead sure do not want the professors teaching in our Bible colleges recommending books that will move impressionable young preachers away from who we are, and the truths we believe Christ would have us to stand for. I am not saying this particular brother in Christ is wicked. I am confident he is sincere, a good man, serving the Lord out of a pure heart, but his course here is a very dangerous one. Why? Because you cannot control what an influence does once is is let loose; you can only control who does the influencing.
I beg of you, grasp the fact you are reading more than a book; you are reading an author. For the love of all that is good and right and holy, for the sake of yourself and those that follow you, choose that author carefully. He will take you somewhere. Make sure it is where you want to go before you read him.