Saturday, March 24, 2007

Christian Influence Writing: Writing for a secular audience without going over to the Dark Side

I've put off writing this one in part because there are many different perspectives on the issues I raise. But I've decided to go with my own convictions, while trying to give a reasonable presentation of opposing view points.

Someone mentioned in a blog response to this topic about "sanitizing" Christian fiction. The implication was that one could not write for a secular audience without using profanity, sexually suggestive or explicit scenes or graphic violence. That may not have been the intent, but I run across that attitude a lot.

The reasoning goes that Christian literature has been too "squeaky clean." People have children, but somehow never have sex. The only problems the kids have are cheating on tests or sassing parents. It's like a flashback to
Leave it to Beaver.

This is a legitimate criticism. Many Christian writers are afraid to tackle the tough issues such as pre-marital sex, adultery, drug abuse, abortion, environmental destruction, criminal activity, corporate or political greed, or corruption in religious organizations. Some are afraid of being politically incorrect within the context of the current evangelical political arena. They are afraid of going against conservative political philosophy, even when such philosophy is not supported one way or another by scripture. The environment being a case in point. I have difficulty understanding how Christians can approve of destroying the world God gave us simply to feed corporate greed. Likewise "liberal" issues such as care for the poor, health care, or compassion for those society has rejected are not liberal or conservative values, they are Biblical ones.

There are many ways, Christian literature has been "sanitized" and has lost its ability to speak to the realities of the real world. However, that does not mean that the Christian influence when writing for a secular audience should stop at the selection of a Christian as a main or supporting character. How we approach ethics, personal behavior and language in writing also matters.

I am sometimes shocked at how some "Christian" characters act in stories by Christian writers. I have read science fiction stories in which members of a persecuted church of the future shoot their way out of trouble with blasters killing everyone in sight without so much as a tear shed for any of the dead. This is hardly in keeping with the example of our founder who went to his death peacefully, healed one of the guards taking him to his trial and eventual death, and forgave those crucifying him. Nor is it in the character of the early church who won over the populace of the ancient world by a peaceful lifestyle and a gentle power in the face of the worst persecution the church ever knew to the current day.

Some Christian writers are so anxious to create Christian action heroes that appeal to a society fed a diet of bloody video games and gory movies that the characters become indistinguishable from the non-Christian characters except in professed religion. These characters bear more resemblance to James Bond than to Jesus Christ. They stand in stark contrast to the quiet courage of the first century martyrs who "turned the world upside down."

Another question, which is maybe harder to deal with is language. Now, Wayfarers Journal has a strict "No profanity" rule. However, the argument can be made that in the real world you hear profanity. This is true. Although, to be honest, that depends heavily on what part of the real world forms your world. As a college professor, I hear very little. The professors are articulate enough to not need to use profanity to be expressive, and the students are more likely to use expletives among themselves than with teachers. I, frankly, hear more profanity on TV than in real life.

However, the point is well taken. Everybody doesn't say, "Ah shucks" when they are disappointed or "fiddlesticks" when they hit their thumbs with a hammer. The question is whether or not one needs to actually use the profanity in their writing for the sake of realism. The arguments in favor are that people are used to reading it in secular literature, that characterization may suffer without using it as part of the dialog, and that it is necessary to be realistic. Some point out that even C.S. Lewis used four-letter words in his writing. (Although, to be honest, you can count on one hand the number of instances, and in a couple of cases, the word "damned" is used in the context of something that is condemned and not as a curse word.)

These are compelling arguments. However, I disagree that one needs to actually print profanity for the sake of realism. All secular literature does not use profanity. I am an avid reader of mystery stories of the "country cozy" variety. Two particular favorites are Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries and Lillian Jackson Braun's
The Cat Who series. Neither of these series contain a lot of profanity. One could say, legitimately, that one would not expect a 12th century Monk to use profane language, but the story takes the monk out of the monastery into the streets among coarse peasants and into taverns. The Cat Who series follows a hard-bitten investigative reporter relocated to a small town filled with the descendants of miners, fishermen, farmers and bootleggers, yet there is little profanity. Both Peters' and Braun created best selling series. Tolkien created realistic villains without recording every profane word that came out of their mouths. And his Lord of the Rings trilogy is more popular with modern audiences than every before.

So, it is a myth, that everyone is doing it and you have to as well to get a readership. Good writing will draw readers and not just sprinkling your writing with vulgarity. But that's the point, can you develop certain types of characters without some of them using profanity? Certainly, some of your characters might use profanity, but does that mean you have to record it word-for-word? You can write, " One-Eye Louie spat on the ground and said, "Now you @%$#!@'s , I'm gonna *&%$((^&% your (*&^$%$).' Then he hit John across the face with a piece of pipe . " Or you can write. "One-eyed Louie cursed, spat on the ground and hit John across the face with a piece of pipe." The second actually has more economy of language and it gets across the point that the guy is no Sunday school boy.

Truthfully, there is a secular market for clean stories. The success of TV channels like TV Land, Nick at Night and The Hallmark Channel demonstrate this. Just because someone is not a Christian doesn't mean they actually want to read someone where every sentence is profane, and violence is glorified. Christian influence stories can help fill this niche and appeal to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More than an Opinion: Writing an Effective Book Review

Some people think it is an easy thing to write a book review. They think all it means is to read the book and write down what they thought about it. You can do that, but that is not a review. It's a reaction. Unless you already have a following, the reader doesn't actually care much if you enjoyed the book or not. The reader looks to the reviewer to find out if he or she will enjoy the book. That is a significant difference.

The reviewer is an advocate for the reader. He or she provides the reader with enough information and analysis for the reader to make a buying decision. That means that the reviewer can't be concerned about the author's feelings, the publisher's reaction or even their own personal enjoyment of the book.

A book can be informative and well written and not be interesting to me personally because it is a genre or on a topic which is uninteresting to me, or the writer employs a style of writing that I don't like. Those are often matters of taste and preference. The reviewer has to move beyond personal taste and review a book on a fair evaluation of it’s merits.

Reading Like a Reviewer

To be a good book reviewer you need to analyze the book at a deeper level than you would if you were just reading the book for pleasure. This analysis means that you need to judge the book against a set of criteria. When reading you need to pay attention to these criteria, therefore if the book is fiction, you need to ask yourself questions like:

  • Are the characters believable?
  • Is the dialog natural? Is the pacing of the action appropriate to the genre and style of writing? Are the settings and descriptions engaging?
  • Does the plot move along naturally or does it seem forced in parts?
  • Is the style of writing engaging?
  • Is the work original or derivative?
  • Does the work capture the readers attention at the beginning and hold it to the end?
  • If part of a series, how easy would it be for a reader new to the series to pick up on the action?
  • What about the handling of controversial or potentially offensive elements such as sexuality and violence? Is it handled with subtlety within a proper moral context? Is it explicit? Does it have an implied approval of violent or sexual acts which might be contrary to the ethics of your readers?

For nonfiction books the questions include:

  • What is the target audience for this book?
  • Regardless of the obvious audience for this book, what group or groups of people would benefit most from reading this book. Which ones would benefit least?
  • What is the theme or thesis of the book?
  • How well did it serve the needs of that audience?
  • Was the information helpful?
  • Was the writing style engaging holding the readers attention even when discussing technical matters?
  • Was the format and organization of the book helpful to the reader?
  • How could the reader apply this to their personal lives?
  • Did the book focus mostly on theory or practice or both?
  • How did any illustrations used in the book support the subject matter of the book?
  • Was everything in the book necessary or did it seem that the author was padding the writing to reach a certain word count?
  • Is the information given accurate? Did you find any significant fact errors, misquoted scripture, etc.
  • Is the theology doctrinally sound?
  • Is the exegesis of scripture consistent with accepted principles of hermeneutics?
  • Were scriptures taken out of context or interpreted inappropriately?
  • What level of spiritual maturity or Bible knowledge is required to understand the concepts in this book?

You will note that some of these questions do not elicit answers which make a book good or bad, but rather give us information about aspects of the book which might make it more or less appropriate for specific groups of people or which might cause it to appeal to or lack appeal for certain tastes. It is important to go beyond a Good Book-Bad Book dichotomy in your review.
Of course, all of these elements that you considered in your reading won’t be covered in every review. Some of these elements are more important in some books than in others. Likewise, this is not a comprehensive list. Certain genres of writing have their own criteria for excellence. Learning about those genre-specific criteria is especially important if you choose to specialize in that genre.

Once you have a complete understanding of not only how you liked the book, but how the book was constructed and written, then you can begin to write your review focusing on those relevant criteria.

Elements of a Review

There are three basic elements to a good review: Summary, Critique and Recommendation.

Summary. Early in your review you need to give the reader a basic sense of the content of the book free of commentary. For a fiction book, this means giving the basic premise for the plot and maybe introducing the main characters. For nonfiction, it means to give the general theme of the book and a summary of the topics covered.

What you don’t want to do in the summary portion of your review is try to summarize the entire book. It’s a balancing act. You want to give the reader enough unbiased information to decide if the content is of interest or not, but on the other hand, having someone try to summarize the entire book gets boring pretty quickly. I tell my students when writing book reviews to limit this to no more than three paragraphs and aim for one.

Analysis and Critique. Obviously, the bulk of the review is critique. This is where you evaluate the book according to the appropriate criteria for that genre. This is where the notes you made while reading the book will come in handy. Use those questions we posed earlier as a guide for your evaluation. That will keep you from simply responding to a general impression which might be based more on your personal tastes rather than on solid literary grounds for critique.
In this section choose a limited number of specific items (3-4) author did well and tell why they are good. Be specific and use examples and quotes from the book whenever possible. Then focus on those things which were not done so well. Again, tell why you gave that judgment and present specific examples of where the book failed to fulfill its promise.

Obviously, if the book is a positive review, you will spend more time on the good points. If you found the book to be not so good, then you will spend more time on the negative points. However, to be fair, most books are not universally good or universally terrible. The worst books usually have one or two good points, and there is usually something in the best books that could have been done better. A balanced review acknowledges both the strengths and the weaknesses of the work.

Recommendation. This is usually the last paragraph. In it, you give your recommendation concerning the book. It can be an unqualified recommendation or a qualified one. An unqualified recommendation is one in which you state without reservation that the book is a "good read" (although that phrase has been somewhat overused) or that the book is not worth reading. Remember, before you give such a recommendation, that your reputation is on the line. Be sure you have given adequate reasons for this judgment earlier in your review so the reader can say, "Yes, I can see that."

You can also give a qualified recommendation. You might think that a book is generally good, but either it has some flaws or it may not be good for everyone. For instance, there is a popular secular book about healing from childhood abuse. It is an excellent book. However, the author says that it is not important to forgive the offender. She misunderstands the meaning of forgiveness and confuses it with excusing the abuse. So, whenever I have written about that book, I tell people it is good, but to ignore the chapter on forgiveness. That is a qualified recommendation.

Also sometimes the book is better suited to a particular group of readers. For instance, an "edgy" Christian suspense novel may have several violent scenes which might not be suitable for younger readers. So, you might include a warning about that.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, "Wow, that’s a lot of work!" It is, but you will find that you will not only provide a service to others, but also enhance your own enjoyment of the books you read.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Christian Influence Writing Part III: Sermons or Stories

I remember taking a creative writing in college. I wrote a story with lots of "meaning." It had a "message" and my characters spouted that message at every opportunity. My teacher, a very blunt spoken man, asked, "What were you trying to do with this story?" (Okay, he had a few words of description before the word story, but I don't use that language.) I told him all about the message I had in mind.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, "If you want to send a message call Western Union," then he threw down the paper and said, "Next time write me a story and not a sermon."

Only when I became a teacher and later an editor, did I fully understand his point. Way too many people try to wrap sermons into stories. Even when writing for Christians, the reader doesn't want to read a short story or novel with some heavy-handed message hitting them in the face. They want to be entertained, inspired, even challenged, but they don't want to be preached at.

When writing Christian-Influence fiction for a more general audience, it is even more essential that one resist the temptation for sermonizing. Nothing is going to cause a website visitor to surf away quicker than to think they are going to read an entertaining bit of fiction and then be hit with some sort of polemic about how they should think or believe. And an editor for a general interest or genre publication is going to be reaching for the SASE after just a couple of pages of didactic fiction.

Does this mean that a piece of fiction can't have a message? Absolutely not. Good pieces of fiction often have a message.
Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, and hundreds of other classics contain lessons, but those lessons, those messages grow out of the story. They are not imposed on the story. The story comes first and the message lays beneath the surface glimpsed occasionally as one skims across the the water chasing the plot.

And in the best stories the general essence of the message is clear, but it's details are not so clear. Is Huck Finn a racist product of his time with compassion for one slave or is he making a statment about slavery as a whole? Is H.G. Wells making a statement about class warfare in
The Time Machine or is he warning against an unquestioning acceptance of an easy life without engaging in the work that makes that life possible?

Personally, I would like to see more entertaining secular short stories which simply have Christian characters in them Too many stories are about Christianity or the Christian walk. But where are the mystery stories in secular publications in which the main character happens to be a Christian, just as Sherlock Holmes happened to play the violin and organized his files by the amount of dust on them. Where are the science fiction stories in which one of the crew members on a planetary survey expedition prays before he puts on his suit for an EVA, but in which the story doesn't revolve around his religious beliefs?

There are some. The Father Brown mysteries, in a different form Zenna Henderson's stories of devout people in extraordinary situations, and a few other places.

It is easy to blame the "godless" secular media for barring access, yet, one of the most popular TV shows on CBS for several years was Touched by an Angel with a Christian producer and some Christian actors.

But a Christian created, produced and advocated with the network for the show. And she created good compelling secular stories with a spiritual twist. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of Christian Influence writing.

Maybe part of the problem is a reticence among secular publishers to include stories which include Christian main characters. But maybe it's also because Christian writers aren't writing stories which include Christian characters which don't become sermons.

If we want more Christian characters in secular fiction, then we will have to write mainstream and genre stories with Christian characters, and we need to advocate for them with editors and publishers. After all, if we don't do it. They won't.

Next Time: Writing Christian Influence fiction without going over the "The Dark Side."

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

Second Life Chat Schedule Announced

[This news release is going to be going out to a bunch of speculative fiction sites this week. Feel free to use it on your site or blog if you wish.]

Spirituality in Science Fiction Discussion Group Meets in Second Life

The second Tuesday of every month speculative fiction writers and fans are invited to a discussion of spirituality in science fiction at 7 p.m. (Pacific Time) in Second Life ( ), a virtual world with more than four million “residents.” The “in -world” coordinates are (184,25,64)

"Speculative fiction has often been ignored by traditional religious publishers as a recognized vehicle for spiritual themes," notes Terri Main (Terri Marathon in Second Life), facilitator of the group and editor of Wayfarers Journal ( ), "Likewise speculative fiction publishers, have also avoided fiction which seemed too 'religious' in nature. So, it’s good to have a place to discuss spirituality-based speculative fiction with like-minded people."

Future discussion groups may include visits by guest authors and editors as they become available. However, a tentative schedule of topics has been announced:

  • March - Alien Theology: Finding Redemption under a Different Sun
  • April - Spirituality Based Horror: Is there such a thing as Christian Horror?
  • May - The Ethics of Technology: Just because we can, Does that mean that we Should?
  • June - Swords and Sorcery: The Place of Magic in Christian Fiction.
  • July- Stories or Sermons: Do Stories need Messages?
  • August - Beyond Bug-Eyed Monsters: How do we create believable, sympathetic characters when they have three eyes and two heads.
  • September -The Future’s not What it Used to Be: Creating believable future societies.
  • October -Get Real: How do we create realistic literature without compromising Christian principles?
  • November - Playing God: Worldbuilding in speculative fiction.
  • December - Year in Review: A pause to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

This schedule is subject to change based on the availability of special guests.

Anyone wishing to take part must register at Second Life and download their software. Once registered, they can follow these instructions to reach the location of the meeting:

  • Register at

  • Download and install the software

  • Run the software

  • Enter your "in-world" name and password. It may take some time for the world to load depending on your internet connection and graphics drivers.

  • To reach a particular destination, click on the "map" button on the bottom of the screen. In the bottom right of the map screen, you will see a place to enter these co-ordinates (184,25,64). Enter them in the order given and click "teleport." You will be taken to the location. Once there, you can click on "World" at the top of the screen, and click "Save this Landmark." This will save the copy in your "inventory" which you can access by clicking the appropriate link in the bottom right of the main screen. Doing this makes it easy to return to the location for future meetings.
For more information about Terri Marathon’s Town Meeting, email her at

Terri Main

Science Fiction with a Difference:

Study the Bible at Bible Study Central .

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Christian Influence Writing Part II: Watch your language!

Have you even went with a friend or spouse to a company party or some other gathering of people who all worked in the same field which is different than yours? You stood around hearing them talk shop without you understanding a word they said. You know they are speaking your native tongue, but you still felt like you needed a translator.

Non-Christian visitors to Christian web sites or readers of Christian fiction (even some intended as "evangelistic") often feel the same way. They are hearing the words, but they don't understand the conversation. Not only do they have to struggle to understand what is being said, they also begin to feel isolated. They begin to see spirituality-based literature as being "insider" literature which excludes anyone who doesn't have the key to unlock the code. This just reinforces the image of Christians as being elitists looking down on everyone else. Whether or not that is true of some, it is not the image we want to project, if we want them to hear our message.

When I was in journalism school, we often used the "man from Mars" test to see if a story was understandable. It went something like this: If a man from Mars landed on Earth yesterday with a rudimentary knowledge of the language, but no knowledge of current events, could he understand the story?

The same test can be applied to Christian-Influence writing. Can a person with no prior knowledge of the tenets of Christianity understand what you are writing? For instance, writing a story about a time traveler going back to the First Century with an automatic weapon to try and prevent the crucifixion can't assume the reader understands the importance of the death of Christ as the propitiation for our sins. They won't even understand what "propitiation" means.

But it's not just Biblical allusions and doctrinal knowledge that can push people way. The very language we use can do so as well. Every culture develops its own "insider" language. This language helps to bond the individuals of the community together, and it also acts as a type of short hand communicating concepts quickly within the community. There is nothing wrong with this. It happens in every cultural group.

Unfortunately, we often forget that everyone doesn't understand these culture-specific expressions. We are as much at loss to understand, as Captain Piccard was to understand the alien who spoke entirely in allusions to the history and legends of his planet. Communication effectiveness depends in part shared fields of experience. One must remember that non-Christians do not share the same religious experience that Christians do. They don't know what we mean when we say things like "serve the Lord," "Get saved," "be convicted," "Confess Christ," "witness," "pray through," "get right with God," "be born again," "on fire for Christ," and a thousand other pieces of Christian jargon.

So, what should we do? The following are some simple suggestions for inclusive writing.

  1. Remember, it's about them and not about you. It isn't easy to turn off the Christian jargon many of us grew up with. But if I am going to communicate spiritual matters with anyone outside the four walls of the church, I need to speak their language. I've known some Christians to scoff at "seeker-friendly" writing and preaching. They often view it as compromising the message. This is ridiculous. Taking the time to put our message into the language of the people is simply good sense. You wouldn't go to a remote village in Africa as a missionary and give all your messages in English and expect to have any success. If we say we care about evangelism, then we need to care enough to speak their language. It all starts with being willing.
  2. Be careful about allusions to Bible stories. I grew up in Sunday school. By the time I was out of grade school, I could tell you the biographies of The patriarchs, David, Solomon, a few prophets, Jesus, Peter and Paul. But I can't assume my reader has the same background. If the reference to a Bible story is called for, then give a good summary of the entire story and not just a passing reference. The same advice goes for other Biblical references, too. For instance, Christians often make quick references to common Bible passages by the chapter and verse or a well know appellation. For instance, John 3:16, Acts 2:4, I Corinthians 13 (or more popularly, "The Love Chapter"), the 10 Commandments (And by the way, can you quote all 10?), or the 23rd Psalm. To the non-Christian these are just meaningless labels for the most part.
  3. Drop the jargon. We have already alluded to this before. Put Christian Jargon into more common language. It takes some work, but it can be done. For instance, instead of talking about "getting saved" or "converted," you can say "deciding to become a follower of Christ" or "accepting God's forgiveness." Sin can be explained in terms of failure to live up to God's standards. Instead of "witnessing" or "sharing my testimony" say "telling about my experience as a Christian." There are many examples. Here are three helpful web sites about dealing with Christian Jargon.

    Unlearning the Lingo

    When Words Get in the Way

    How Insider Jargon Excludes People

    It isn't easy learning a new language, but if we truly want to reach a wider audience than other Christians, we have to make the effort to communicate spiritual truths without using church jargon.

    Next time, sermonizing or storytelling.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Christian Influence Writing Part I: Beyond Preaching to the Choir

One of the great tragedies of Christian publishing in all venues, whether in print or online, is that 99 percent of Christian writing is for other Christians. It uses Christian jargon, makes oblique allusions to Christian principles and "familiar" Biblical passages, and assumes a general agreement with Christian doctrine. Even most spirituality-based speculative fiction is like this.

There is nothing wrong with this per se. The Christian world view has certainly been at best ignored and at worst ridiculed by our popular culture. Rarely is a "born again" character in a secular book, movie or TV show presented as sympathetic. One can argue that the actions of many of our high profile leaders contribute to this ugly view of evangelical Christianity, but whatever the reason, Christians are not presented positively in the mass media. So, having an alternative within our own community of faith makes sense.

However, we were never called to be insular. Jesus' last words to his disciples were not, "Go to your churches and stay put until I come again." They were, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all of Judea, and in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." (Acts 1.8) While there is nothing wrong with writing "insider" fiction and nonfiction - and I've written a lot of it - it is not our primary mission.

I want to emphasize that I believe we do not need to abandon efforts to write good quality Christian fiction which entertains and challenges the reader to live a more productive Christian life. I simply want to encourage some of us to prayerfully consider expanding our mission by writing fiction (and nonfiction) which engages the non-believer’s imagination but with a Christian spin. I have come to call this type of fiction "Christian Influence Fiction."

In some ways speculative fiction is a perfect venue for Christian influence fiction. The readers already come to the page with an expectation of the numinous, the fantastic, the supernatural. Even science-fiction readers, who tend to be a bit more cerebral, are ready to consider extreme possibilities like alternate universes, time travel, hyperspace, tachyons, extraterrestrial cultures, and speculative futures. In other words, the speculative fiction reader by nature approaches a story with fewer expectations and keeps more of an open mind, than say a reader of Romance novels or historical fiction, in regards to that which lies outside the phenomenal world.

This gives the Christian writer an open door to present spiritual principles in a nonthreatening way. Gene Roddenberry broke new ground in the 1960's with Star Trek by addressing social issues such as racism, war and peace, poverty and ethical implications of technology during a time when television was dominated by shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, and The Adams Family. He claimed that he could address social issues left untouched by other shows because he could wrap them in a series he pitched to the network as "Bonanza in Outer Space." When the insanity of racial prejudice is presented by an alien race with faces split between black and white and the contention is over whether the black is on the right or left side of the face, people could examine their own prejudices more safely.

The same can be said of theological concepts. C.S. Lewis' book Perlandra is a case in point. Two human beings: A professor of philology and a physics professor find themselves transported to Perelandra (our Venus). The planet has floating islands and the only two natives have been commanded by Maleldil, the great creator spirit, to live only on the floating islands and not the fixed land. The struggle ensues between Westen, the physics professor, to tempt the woman to live on the fixed land, and Ransom (great name, right?) to encourage her to obey Maleldil's wishes.

This is the classic struggle between good and evil with a very simple definition of each. Good is following God's commandments. Evil is not following them. It is the Garden of Eden played out on an alien planet.

In a less cerebral way, Zenna Henderson's "The People" series of stories brings us face to face with a community of aliens who "Praise the Power" at their good fortune and depend on his/its help while stranded on an "alien" planet which the natives call earth. This easy relationship with the divine seems somehow less threatening when it is practiced by an advanced race of extraterrestrials than when it's your neighbor, saying "Praise God" over a blessing received.

Therefore, science fiction, fantasy, even horror stories provide us with opportunities to explore spiritual, moral, ethical and even theological themes in a manner which can be understandable and appealing to non-believers. Of course, we have to approach it correctly. We'll talk about that in our next post.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Where are the Books?

By now you should have been teachers, but once again you need to be taught the simplest things about what God has said. You need milk instead of solid food. People who live on milk are like babies who don't really know what is right. Solid food is for mature people who have been trained to know right from wrong.
(Heb 5:12-14)

Yesterday was payday. It's sort of a special day for me. It's my day out on the town. I pay bills, have a nice dinner at a better restaurant. And I browse in bookstores. It's one of my favorite activities. Well, I went to a local Christian bookstore yesterday, and my first question was "Where are the books?" I saw a few magazines on a rack in a corner and a small display of relationship books, but the rest of the entire front of the store was filled with T-Shirts, wall decorations, curios, games, videos, greeting cards, home decorations. I even saw a pack of playing cards featuring Biblical characters.

Over half the floor space of the "book" store was devoted to everything except books. The books were clear in the back of the store.

I don't condemn the store for this layout. They are just responding to the marketplace, I'm afraid. It's easier to take your theology in a cute saying on a wall hanging or T-shirt than to read a commentary or Bible study. The irony of this is that across the street was a secular book superstore, and books are the featured item, even the non-book items are mostly book related like book lights and book marks.

I hope I'm not reading too much into this, but I fear that many Christians are falling into a shallow Christianity. I had a minister friend years ago, commenting on a late night inspirational feature on TV, said, "Sermonettes make for Christianettes." He meant that if all we got were ear-tickling devotional "thoughts," that we would not delve into the depths of the glories of God's Word.

I wonder if in the intervening 30 years since I first heard that statement that we have a generation of Christianettes. We are more likely, if we buy a book at all, to buy the latest "Chicken Soup for the Soul" book than a Bible study, commentary, or study Bible. I even heard about one book which called itself something like "Mint Candy for the Soul." At least Chicken Soup has some nutritional value. Many Christians have become spiritual junk food junkies. They will wave a banner at an anti-abortion rally, but won't spend 10 minutes praying with a pregnant teen thrown out of her home, abandoned by her boyfriend, feeling hopeless and helpless in the big world. Of course, to do the first doesn't take much spiritual strength. The second does. You can't do that on a Chicken soup and Mint Candy diet.

So, what can we do? Several things.

1. Don't confuse a Christian decorated home with a Christian home. It's not the scripture verse wall hanging that is going to make a difference in your family. It will be doing the hard work of loving one another as God loved you, and delving into the word of God to find out what that looks like in daily practice.

2. Buy books that make you think as well as feel. You don't always need a warm, fuzzy feeling at the end of the book for it to be a good book. Some books may even be hard to read, because they require you to think and reason. Those are the books you wrestle with like Jacob with the angel not letting go until you get your blessing of enlightenment.

3. Be a critical consumer of products sold in "Christian" stores. Some stores are simply money-making venues for their owners. Some "Christian" imprints don't even have Christians in charge of deciding what is printed. I saw a book advertised the other day called Christian Yoga. Yoga is a religious practice of the Hindu Religion. Whatever else it is, it is not Christian. Yet, there it is sitting on many Christian bookstore shelves. I don't believe you should boycott the bookstore like some are advising. But don't assume everything sold in a Christian bookstore is doctrinally sound. Read your books with a Bible open next to them.

4. Start and End with the Bible. If books are more important than wall hanging, the Bible is more important than books in your daily diet. You need to be reading the Word regularly and committing parts of it to memory. You need to learn Biblical principles for daily living and understand the moral and ethical code of the Bible. Then filter everything you read elsewhere, even if you got it from a Christian bookstore, though the lens of the Bible.

There's nothing wrong with a wall hanging, some chicken soup or mint candy, but put first things first. Don't forget the main course - the strong meat of the Word of God.

Lord, remind me once again of my priorities in terms of what I feed my spirit with today. Amen