Monday, October 30, 2017

From My Mailbag: How to Choose Whom

Bring the Books 7

This series has produced more email in my inbox, texts to my phone, and comments to my facebook page than any series I have done so far. It has struck a nerve, not just with those who agree or disagree, but with those who feel a need to grow in this area. Here is a paragraph from one such email, an example of what I am talking about:

"So, here’s the question:  How do I know the “who” behind a book that I am considering reading?  I understand we live in the age of Google, and I feel that is a blessing and a curse.  Google has provided much, quick access to information on any topic.  However, even in Google searches there is a dire need for folks to consider the WHO that they are reading about WHO they are considering reading about.  (Not sure if my grammar teacher would approve of that last sentence, but I trust you’ll understand it.)  :-)  I can find a thread from a Google search to justify and agree with just about anything I want.  We all know and are eternally thankful that Wikipedia is infallible as well.  Even an author can portray himself in a bio that would make him appear one way (possibly to appeal to a particular audience) though his core beliefs are different."

I think this is an excellent question, and one that has been obviously given some thought. By no means do I think I have the only good answers, and I genuinely welcome your perspective here, and hope you will consider offering it, but in today's post I am going to give you the substance of my answer to him.

The first part of my answer to him involved the concepts I have already explained in Dead Guys. In short, there is wisdom in reading men who have already passed the test of history's judgment. You can see the arc of their ministry. That begs the question, though, how do you judge the arc of a dead man's ministry if you are unfamiliar with that ministry?

W. Graham Scroggie
Part of the answer to this question is experience. For example, when you learn the strengths and weaknesses of a particular group i.e. the Puritans, as Joe Cassada has discussed, you have a green screen against which to set any particular Puritan author you are considering. You already have a grasp on the background of who he ran with, and what they emphasize as a group. Yes, this is broad-brushing, but at this point you are painting those broad strokes on purpose to get a sense of the larger context. When I first heard of Graham Scroggie's excellent The Unfolding Drama of Redemption mentioned by Clarence Sexton I had no idea who he was. Upon learning he had taught for years in Spurgeon's Bible college it gave me an excellent starting point. Through experience, if I pick up a book and see Sword of the Lord Publishers on the spine, or Banner of Truth, or Moody Colportage Association or Kregel Reprints I can place an unknown author into a generalized category in my mind.

Sometimes, however, I have no immediate background context on a dead guy. In that case, I must try to build it from scratch. Yes, Google is the place to start. I will search his name with the words "biography" or "author" attached. Often I will search with the phrase "what's wrong with (name)" just to see who has an axe to grind with him and why. J. Gresham Machen said, "I like Billy Sunday for the enemies he has." Machen and Sunday were contemporaries who were utterly unlike one another, yet Machen had the sense to know that a man's enemies can sometimes reveal much about him, both intentionally and unintentionally. So I find those detractors, if I can. Usually, at some point in this process I come to Wikipedia but when I do I take it with a grain of salt. In fact, I will almost always skim the article, and then focus on the links at the bottom of the page. Those lead to source material, and that source material is usually more reliable or at least more detailed than Wiki generally.

Watchman Nee
Another great source of reliable information on dead guys is older, more experienced preachers. My father pastored for 38 years. As a young teenager, newly surrendered to the ministry, I was perusing his library when I came across an intriguing title and an even more intriguing author, The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. My dad wisely piped up and said, "You have to be careful with Watchman Nee." I set the book back down and did not return to it for another 25 years. When I did return to it I spent a good amount of time researching Nee first. What I found armed me well in reading him. It helped me to spot weaknesses of his in that book that would only become apparent much later in his ministry. More importantly, after reading it, I concluded I could never recommend Watchman Nee nor could I quote him positively to the general public. Why? Because an older, more experienced minister had offered me some initial guidance. Find men who know you, who have walked with God and loved their families and ministered faithfully for decades, who are solidly fundamental, and who are widely read. Do not ask them to make your decision and do not let them think for you. Do bounce an author or two off of them and see what kind of a reaction you get. If they put a fence up do not tear that fence down until you figure out why they put it up in the first place.

A third avenue of approach to research dead guys is Google Books. In 2004, Google decided to digitize every book in the world. It has had its legal challenges in the process, but even the imperfect result we currently have contains more than thirty million books. Google Books will not let you read the entirety of the book for free, in most cases, but they will often allow you to read sections of it containing whole pages strung together. This allows you to get a feel for the author, to take a taste of him, so to speak, before deciding whether to pursue him further or not.

Now, a word or two briefly about living authors. The publishing business pushes men to have a personal author website. Many do, especially those who publish in both hardcopy and digital formats. Even I do and I am only self-published at this point. Look past the advertising fluff they use to try to sell books and go to their "about" or "biography" page. Read that with a jaundiced eye (remember, they are trying to sell something) but focus in on proper nouns, the names of mentors, peers, churches they work at now or did work at in the past, colleges where they teach, etc. Track down the websites for those churches and colleges. Examine their doctrinal statements, mission statements, etc. Pull up the facebook pages of all the men and institutions mentioned that you can find. Again, do not read the gloss they put up for public relations, instead look at the pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the quickest and easiest way to read what a preacher, a church, a college, or a ministry actually believes and practices is to look at those pictures. They will reveal which Bible version (s) they use. They will reveal what their church or chapel stages look like. (Yes, I completely understand what I just said there. No, it does not bother me that you think I am an ignorant philistine, a borderline uncultured swine, and a full-blown Pharisee because I said that.) They will tell me what their standards of dress and appearance are. (Yes, I really just said that too.) They will tell me what their emphasis is. He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: But a companion of fools shall be destroyed. (Proverbs 13.20) I may not know an author well, but if I can dig up this information I have a pretty good handle on whether he is a wise man or a fool, and whether I would be a wise man or a fool to read after him.

Finally, I must mention Amazon. In the process of reinventing how we shop and buy everything, Jeff Bezos has nearly destroyed the for-profit book industry. Okay, maybe that is going too far, but he has certainly blown it up. In the process of putting it back together, Amazon has become the de facto place almost all of us go to examine and buy books now. This is not entirely bad, and one of its benefits is the reviews Amazon provides, often verified as coming from people who have actually purchased the book. Those reviews are pure gold. You will find some positive and some negative. Read them both. Look for objections or recommendations that are detailed, not just an emotional rant. Additionally, if the book is available on Kindle, you can download a free sample of the first 20 pages or so, and that will give you a good flavor of the author as well.

"Tom, that sounds like a whole lot of work. I have a growing ministry to wrangle. I don't have that kind of time." If you want your growing ministry to stay on track for the long term you had better take that kind of time. Who you read influences you. As a minister, you, in turn, influence those under the scope of your ministry. You owe it to them to choose who influences you carefully, with forethought and discernment.

Now those are my thoughts, but about the only thing I am sure of is that I have missed something. If you have something helpful to contribute in answer to this question, I invite you to do so.

Next week, we will move beyond the question of whom to read and begin to offer some practical wisdom about how to do so, categories of books that are helpful for ministers, specific book recommendations, etc. Stay tuned.


  1. Practical wisdom from a brother who is so young! Trust many pastors will follow your advice. "Standing on the shoulders of giants" is only a good thing if the so-called 'giant' is worthy.

  2. Well put. Discernment, discernment, discernment is needed in our day. What we read is many times what we become.

  3. What are some reasons that you would not recommend Watchman Nee? I read one or two of his books a long time ago, but do not remember much about him.

    1. In his actual writing, in my view, he is careless in his handling of Scripture. In some cases, he does not cite Scripture for his major points of contention. In other cases, he does, but he gives it a rather radical/new interpretation. I have learned to be wary of men who dogmatically assert something new in the Word of God.

      More troubling, he accepted charismatic aspects such as divine healing, tolerated speaking in tongues, and practically embraced continuing revelation. In his later writings he flirted with baptismal regeneration, and I can see troubling hints of that even in The Normal Christian Life.

      When I combine all of that with the regular/ordinary doctrinal disagreements I have with him as an independent Baptist it just becomes too much for me to stomach.

      He was a good writer, he was a sincere man, he was an effective leader. But he was not scripturally careful at all. And that last sentence rules him out. I will not allow men such as this to influence me - if I can help it - nor will I allow them to influence others through me.

    2. Thank you for your reply.