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Evangelical Bookstores and the Evangelical Mind

By February 15, 2004 No Comments

In the last few years, some leading evangelical scholars have raised a cry against the intellectual malaise in the evangelical world. David Wells, for one, has pointed out a decline in evangelical interest in doctrine (No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, 1993) and in ethics (Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision, 1998). With a broader sweep of analysis, Mark Noll exposed the failure to develop a recognizable evangelical intellectual perspective (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1994). Os Guinness has been even more pointed (Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It, 1994).

These authors call for evangelical Christianity to get busy in the world of thought; their mutually reinforcing assessments argue that evangelicalism has failed to produce robust intellectual discipleship. In the estimation of these respected evangelical leaders, evangelicalism has not followed the apostle Paul in bringing “every thought captive to obey Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5). The apostolic call to renew our minds (cf. Romans 12:3) seems to have fallen on deaf evangelical ears. This indictment of evangelical failure in the realm of Christian thought should embarrass and humble those of us who claim an evangelical identity–and should prod us to get busy being disciples of Christ in the intellectual realm.

None of these authors claim that nothing has been done: indeed, there are some substantial, challenging contributions to the realm of Christian thought available from several evangelical authors. In addition to works by David Wells, Mark Noll, and Os Guinness, evangelicalism has meaty fare produced by Chuck Colson, George Marsden, Miroslav Volf, Richard Mouw, Clark Pinnock, Nathan Hatch, Alister McGrath, Arthur Holmes, James Skillen, Craig Bartholomew, David Benner, Dale Moody, and others. So, there is a “critical mass” of robust evangelical thought available. Furthermore, several evangelical publishing houses regularly publish substantial fare by evangelical scholars: among them are Eerdmans, Baker, Zondervan, Word, and InterVarsity (to name no others).

So some solid material is available and accessible, if evangelicalism is interested in getting serious about the Lord’s call to love him “with all our mind” (cf. Matthew 22:37). Has the call to get busy in the Lord’s vineyard of thought gotten through to evangelicals, though? Has there been some change in the last few years? Is the message being heard in the evangelical world? Are those evangelical scholars’ books being read?

Not long ago, I determined to find some answers to those questions. If the message urged by Wells, Noll, Guinness, and others has been heard, and if evangelicals are starting to get serious about thinking about the faith we profess and its implications for life in our day, then one way to document that would be to see what evangelicals are reading. I did not want to be misled by statistics about books published and bought, though: information like that lumps together all kinds of bookstores and all kinds of purchases, and might well result in misleading conclusions. What I wanted to find out was what evangelicals seem to be reading–not what may sell in the bookstores of Christian universities, colleges and seminaries, as students purchase texts for study in the rarified world of academic learning, but what is attracting the interest of evangelicals in the “regular” world.

To find that out, I decided to check out what evangelical bookstores have to offer. The stock found there should give a good indication of what evangelicals are reading, I surmised: if Christian bookstores are to stay in business, they need to offer what their consumers want. Christian bookstores are businesses, after all; “supply and demand” and “consumer interest” will direct their ordering and dictate their stock. So, over the last couple of years, I have deliberately and repeatedly gone to the evangelical Christian bookstores in the city where I live, as well as some in the various cities I have visited in different parts of North America. I wanted to see what they offered the largely evangelical reading public who frequents them and makes purchases there.

The results are not encouraging. From what I can see, we not only face a “scandal of the evangelical mind,” as Mark Noll put it; we also face a “scandal of evangelicals’ minds.” Are evangelicals interested in material that would challenge them to think about the Christian faith they profess? From what I have seen–and not seen–in Christian bookstores, the answer must be a resounding “No!”

What did I find in those evangelical bookstores? I was looking to see whether they offered their customers material that would offer them the riches and the depths of the Christian faith–books that would challenge evangelical readers to ponder the implications of that faith, the demands it makes on us as individuals and families, the significance of the Christian faith for issues in today’s world. I wanted to see if there were volumes in these bookstores which dealt with serious ethical questions, or that advised Christians how to approach contemporary cultural issues, or that wrestled with significant social problems. I looked for books that offered substantive treatments of Christian doctrine, whether of the full range of systematic theology or of individual doctrines. I tried to find books that dealt with the history of the church, or of Christian teaching. Additionally, I looked for biographies of significant Christians of the past.

In all the evangelical Christian bookstores I visited, I could not find even one book on any of these topics. If evangelicals were reading such books in any significant numbers at all, then books like that should appear on the shelves; they did not–not even one, in any of those categories.

In desperation, I cast my net somewhat more widely. I figured that surely there would be commentaries on books of Scripture. After all, evangelicals profess a high regard for the Bible, and many fine commentaries are available. Evangelicals should certainly be interested in studying Scripture in some depth; that should result in commentaries ready for purchase on the shelves of those evangelical bookstores. What I found was definitely underwhelming; even Scripture doesn’t seem to capture our intellectual interest.

Thankfully, there is an occasional bookstore that is an exception to this pattern. In the area where I live, there is a fine Christian bookstore about twenty-five minutes away, which deliberately stocks meaty material. The owners belong to a small denomination noted for its emphasis on sound doctrine, and that is reflected in what they stock. However, such stores are the sad exception to the general rule. Perhaps some readers of this article will be able to point to an evangelical bookstore in their city which is an exception, too. But that confirms the point: these are exceptions. The generality of evangelical Christian bookstores don’t offer much to chew on with regard to the faith–and they aren’t offering books like that, obviously, because evangelicals aren’t asking for them. What are evangelical readers asking for, then?

Check out your own local Christian bookstore. Your list will likely coincide closely with mine. You will probably come across a handful of Bible study courses, with a sort of “Coles’ Notes” approach–a “10 Minutes with God” version of Bible study. Books like this can’t wrestle with the biblical text or its potentially profound implications for responsible Christian discipleship. But it’s not likely you’ll easily find more than that, as far as Bible studies go; they could all be published by Gerber’s.

What else might you find? You’ll likely see a few books on basic evangelism and the latest techniques of prayer–probably short books with big print and wide margins. You’ll find books on personal enrichment and Christian living, books on biblical advice for how to handle your money, books on how
to lose weight, plus books presenting a baptized version of pop-psychology approaches to your worries and problems. As for biographies, they’ll be limited to current Christian celebrities–and in an Olympic year you’ll find books on Christian athletes.

You can also find Christian fiction; in fact, a large segment of most evangelical bookstores is devoted to it. But that Christian fiction almost always presents a pastel-colored, saccharine-coated world much less complicated than the one most people inhabit. You’ll probably see a few books on biblical prophecy, replete with prognostications about how close now the Lord’s return simply has to be. As well, the latest biblical fads will get some shelf space. (Bible codes are a hot topic right now).

Enough, though, of my dreary general findings over the last couple of years. Let me be more specific, recounting what I found on my most recent visit (a few months ago) to three evangelical Christian bookstores in the city where I live. In the three stores, I found no books at all by the contemporary evangelical scholars whom I mentioned above–nor any by C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, or any other of the stalwarts of the preceding generation. Celebrity biographies on contemporary preachers, Christian musicians, and Christian athletes stocked a shelf, but there was not one biography of any Christian from before the twentieth century. There was no section on doctrine at all, whether for systematic theology or treatments of individual doctrines–except, of course, for “eschatology,” which had whole shelves filled with volumes specifying fulfillments of prophecies and assuring that the return of the Lord must certainly now be just around the corner.

The three evangelical Christian bookstores had a combined total of sixteen commentaries: one store had eleven thin volumes, another had five, but the third had none. By contrast, each of these evangelical Christian bookstores had a large section devoted to Christian fiction. The contrast was particularly striking in the store which had no commentaries for sale whatsoever; that store offered five shelves, each fifteen feet long (so, seventy-five shelf-feet!), filled with Christian fiction. These stores offered sections on “women’s issues,” “men’s issues,” “family issues,” and a fairly large section on “Christian counseling” (evidently, to enable readers to counsel others on weighty psychological, sexual, and ethical issues–a particularly frightening prospect, given the rest of the reading materials these would-be counselors would evidently have to draw on for insights). One of these bookstores had a section entitled, “Critical Issues”; for a moment, I hoped that I would be pleasantly surprised, but I was brought back to reality by seeing that the section offered only two books, one each on music and on movies.

Check out your nearby evangelical bookstores and see for yourself. As the caution says in any weight-loss advertisement, “results may vary.” So, do your own stock-taking, and see what you find–and don’t find.

Virtually everything you can find in an evangelical Christian bookstore is shallow, unreflective, and superficial. The books there don’t ask or deal with hard questions of the faith or wrestle with the broader implications of what it means to believe in Christ in this world. The stock in Christian bookstores indicates we haven’t listened to the exasperated denunciation of Scripture itself: “You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature” (Hebrews 5:12-14).

Has it always been this bad? I can recall going into evangelical Christian bookstores fifteen to twenty years ago and finding substantial books that reflected deeply on the faith and its implications for life, both for the individual and for society. You could buy books by C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and others, right off the shelf. You could find solid, substantial commentaries that helped you wrestle with Scripture’s meaning. You could find books on a wide range of ethical questions and cultural issues, as well as meaty volumes on doctrine. If you want books like that today, though, they have to be special-ordered–you won’t find them on the shelves any more.

It’s a sobering comparison to walk into your average Roman Catholic bookstore. There you’ll find the obligatory crucifixes, medallions, and rosary beads, of course–and, yes, they may have some Christian fiction, too. But you’ll find a large number of books that offer substantial thought-food. Just three days after my most recent foray to the evangelical bookstores, I went to the Roman Catholic one about half a mile from my house. It was the smallest of the four shops, but what a difference in what it offered! I found there biographies of numerous Christian stalwarts (and not just of Roman Catholics), both of contemporaries and of others over the course of several centuries. It had a section on church history, and another of classics of spiritual reading. The bookstore had several books on theology, both wide-ranging systematic treatments and volumes on various doctrines. It offered a section on “ethical issues,” and it included a section–not a book, but a whole section–on “bioethics.” In addition, the Roman Catholic bookstore offered twenty-two commentaries: six more than all three evangelical bookstores combined, and twice as many as the one with the largest number of commentaries.

The stock at this particular Roman Catholic bookstore is not unusual. At your typical local Roman Catholic bookstore, you can find books that encourage Christian thought and challenge you to ponder the riches of the Christian faith. That leads to an unflattering comparison.

From what you can find in the two different kinds of bookstores, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the future of serious Christian thought is not with evangelicals. Evangelicals are fond of saying, “Jesus is the answer.” From looking at the stock in Christian bookstores, it’s not clear evangelicals even know the questions.

I’m not trying to be hard on evangelical Christian bookstore operators–although one could wish that they would be more proactive in offering and promoting books that would challenge and enrich Christians in their consideration of the faith. (At the least, they could display every month a significant evangelical contribution to rigorous intellectual discipleship, with some kind of recommendation about its value.) But a Christian bookstore is, after all, a business–and in order to stay in business, that bookstore must meet the felt needs and desires of its customers. So, while the problem is easier to see with the stock you find (and don’t find) in an evangelical bookstore, the real problem is unseen: it is evangelicals’ minds. In general, Christian bookstores don’t stock deep, rich and challenging books because evangelicals aren’t asking for them.

What we have in Christian bookstores indicates what evangelical Christians are looking for–simplistic introductions to superficial Christianity, fluff religious fiction, plus some material that deals with your worries, your wallet, and your waistline. If you want more than that, though, you’re out of luck. Evangelicals are not seeking out books that help us grapple with the faith and its implications for the contemporary world. We aren’t looking for much in the way of instruction; we don’t even seem to be aware we need it.

We in the evangelical world confess Jesus as personal Lord and Savior. We profess to be his disciples. And, indeed, discipleship is what the Lord expects of us–discipleship in all areas, including the realm of thought. Loving God with all our being, as he requires of us, includes loving him with “all our mind” (Matthew 22:37). So, wrestling with the faith and its implications is not an option for some who may be so inclined; it’s a call issued to all Christ’s disciples. We evangelicals are doing a lousy job in that regard.

Read any good books lately?

If you’re an evangelical, proba
bly not.

That’s scandalous.

James R. Payton, Jr., is professor of history at Redeemer University College, in Ancaster, Ontario.