Friday, May 30, 2008

On Discernement in Reading Material

Last year, a woman approached me in the library, looking for a specific book that promised miracle health cures and secrets. Many people had been seeking this book, and it broke my heart, but for different reasons than you might think. The creator of the book was a notorious con-artist, a man who used to sell his "miracle cures" on television until the FTC successfully prosecuted him and threw him off television for good. Now, the snake-oil salesman was still at it, and was ingeniously invoking (abusing?) his right to free speech by selling his largely discredited secrets in book form. And so many people were falling for it.

Out of all of the types of books I come across while at work, none are prone to as much misinformation and flat-out inaccuracy as those books purported to be written for Christians, by Christians.

A large part of my job as a librarian is discerning good information from bad. It's a daily exercise in critical thinking.

A library purchases, and makes available, all sorts of information- the reliable, the unreliable, and flat-out wrong. We try not to judge people's tastes, we simply want to provide access.

Still, it is with a heavy heart that many a book crosses my desk that purports to be from a Christian viewpoint, but is often a badly skewed one, doctrinally clouded, or written by fellow Christians of uncertain background and beliefs, pushing an agenda. In other words, just because it says it's a Christian book, doesn't mean it's a Godly one.

Having paged both the good and the bad, I've put into words my criteria for evaluating Christian reading material. This applies only to non-fiction, as this seems to be the most widely abused area of publishing, and fiction books are largely a matter of entertainment.

  • Does the author provide Scriptural back up for their ideas? If they are quoting the Bible out of context (or even worse, not quoting it at all) and are only relying on "testimonies" to prove their point, this is a real red flag.
  • Who published the book? Have you heard of this publisher? Are they respected? Their books widely available? Are their beliefs the same as yours? These may sound like odd questions, but in the day and age of vanity press, anyone can write a book and self-publish it. It's a system that makes reading materials more available, but sadly lumps the good authors in with the bad in one large pool.
  • Who wrote the book? What do you know of the author(s) aside from just reading their material? Good writers, like good Christians, are somewhat transparent people. They are willing to talk to anyone, anytime, to share their beliefs and promote their books. They do not hide from media and are willing to answer tough questions about their ideas. You will read interviews with them, know what church they attend, and know their denominational beliefs.
  • Is the author relying on a gimmick? Do they refer the reader not to the Bible, but to other books they have written? Some "Christian" authors are not trying to spread the Gospel or their ministry, they are just seeking to spread their own influence, increase their power, and make their fortune. And it's not free. It may direct you to attend expensive seminars, or to subscribe to costly newsletters and websites. They claim that, in order to really benefit from one of their books, you need to buy all of them! Sadly, that's a scheme, not a ministry.
  • Does the author claim to have secret God-given knowledge? Maybe they think they know the exact date when Christ will return, or make claims that an obscure Biblical practice is the key to a significant relationship with God. Even worse, maybe you get a feeling from reading their materials that a healthy walk with Jesus can best be obtained through their ministry, and that they are a mediator between you and God. This isn't a smoke signal that there is something wrong…it's a raging fire.
  • Do they claim wide and undocumented support from a vague and decentralized group of people? I've seen books where the author shamelessly claims that their book is supported by every homeschooling mom, Christian woman, evangelical, etc. Really? Because a lot of people would classify themselves in those groups and there would still be a wide cross-section of different beliefs there. Yet they all agree on your book? Hmmmm…

Remember, this isn't to say that there is nothing of value down at the local Christian book shop, because there is, easily. But we need to be aware that we too can be deceived by the false prophets among us.

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