What’s the Problem with Christian Books?
I’m not a huge reader, but am a steady one. Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading at the rate of just under one book a week, and I’m the kind of reader geeky enough to keep a record of everything I read. Looking back at the last eighty or so books I’ve got through, it has generally been the Christian ones that I’ve found hardest going. This was brought home to me last week when I read one of the books recommended by Andrew in his review of 2014, back to back with a book on cycling. I won’t say which of Andrew’s recommendations it was, in order not to defame a fellow believer, but the contrast between the Christian book and the cycling book (in this instance, Faster by Michael Hutchinson) reflects some broad generalisations I would make about the weakness of much Christian writing:
1. Too many Christian books are too long. It’s not that I’m one of those lazy Christians who thinks every sermon should be no longer than ten minutes and every book no longer than fifty pages, with lots of cartoons and jokes thrown in to stop the attention from drifting. My beef isn’t with academic books: I’ve just started a preaching series on Romans and am grateful for the heavyweights sitting on my desk. No, my issue is more with the serious end of the popular level of writing: the kind of level that is comparable to the secular non-fiction I tend to read. This might be as much a lack of quality Christian book editors as a weakness in Christian writers, but too many Christian books I read take longer than they need to to make their point.
2. Too many Christian books are too dull. I don’t think it’s simply that I am more interested in cycling – or travel, biography or military history – than I am in Christ. I’ve devoted my whole life to following Jesus. No, it’s something about the writing itself – and that troubles me; not least as I am (very slowly) working on a book of my own. Again, perhaps this is because Christian authors tend to lack the kind of editors who tell them, ‘You need to pep that up’. But it is frustrating when (as with the book I read last week) I am in overall sympathy with the point the author is trying to make, yet am bored by the way they are expressing it.
3. Too many Christian books are written up sermons. There are transcribed sermon series that have become classics, but generally the spoken word does not translate brilliantly to the page. It’s understandable that preachers who write are often writing about things they have preached on and transcribing sermons is much more time efficient than starting from scratch: the trouble is, usually this doesn’t result in a satisfactory experience for the reader.
4. Too many Christian books have too many quotes. Christian writers, certainly those of a more evangelical persuasion, want to write biblically and back up their writing from the Bible. With so much to quote from, quoting is hard to resist, but, “Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Slamming in multiple Bible quotes tends not to be an effective device in producing a book that is readable. We have enough such books, as the teacher says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl. 12:12). Books like this deserve a drastic end, “And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19).
5. Too many Christian books are more concerned with warning about something bad than encouraging the enjoyment of something good. This tends to be the case even when the book purports to be written to help the reader understand something that is good. Too many Christian books seem to be written because the author is irritated about something, rather than invested in something. (And please, don’t think I’ve missed the irony that this post is doing pretty much the same thing: O physician, heal thyself.) By contrast, the secular non-fiction I read tends to be written by authors who are fascinated by their subject (even if the subject itself is something unpleasant or horrific: say, doping in sport, or the holocaust), and that fascination communicates in their writing.
6. Too few Christian books seem to be written for readers who enjoy reading. When I am researching something I expect to do some heavy lifting (hello Schreiner, Wright and Jewett on Romans) – which doesn’t mean that there is never any pleasure in the process, just that the primary purpose is gaining understanding, rather than reading for pleasure. But when I am reading I expect a certain degree of aesthetic satisfaction; which means the writing needs to be good, and too often it isn’t.
There are some notable exceptions to these observations, and it may be that I am simply not casting my net wide enough. If you have examples of Christian books that don’t share the weaknesses I’ve described, why not tweet me @thinktheology, and I’ll be able to look forward to a more enjoyable year of reading.