One of the things I wanted to accomplish in having so many guest posts this month was to introduce you to some new voices. Monday we had a Christian horror novelist talking about why pastors should be reading fiction, and yesterday we had Christian romance novelist Jamie Carie talking about how a book cover is designed and made. Today we have a post from one of my new favorite people, Greg Horton. I met Greg when he posted on his blog tearing Imaginary Jesus all to pieces. He hated it. But in the conversation that ensued we got to know each other a bit, and I've come to really enjoy Greg's blog as well as our friendship. Greg is a religion professor, and a former evangelical, in fact a former evangelical pastor. In fact, to get very exact about it, Greg is a former Christian. Now regardless of Greg's ex-Christian beliefs, he's one of the sharpest, most intelligent and most well-read scholars of religion and specifically Christianity that I know. He's serious about it, and the thing that seems to consistently tick him off is people misquoting and misrepresenting Jesus. I thought it would be interesting, given Greg's intimate knowledge of evangelicalism, to get his thoughts about books that we evangelicals should be reading. I trust you'll find his thoughts interesting!
A megachurch here in Oklahoma City once posted its pastor’s recommended reading list on the church’s official website. Included in the top 10 was one devotional the title of which eludes me, the ubiquitous “Mere Christianity” by the non-evangelical C.S. Lewis, and eight business and church growth books. This signals something of an identity crisis for the evangelical church, but Renovare, a parachurch group well-known for its mystical emphasis (think Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” and you’re there), just this year posted a list of 25 books every Christian should read as a counterpoint to the megachurch list. Not surprisingly, the list included “spiritual classics” that no one should ever read unless you’re looking for creative ways to punish a child. Nothing enhances the horrors of time-out more than Julian of Norwich.
On one side, we’ve got the business and marketing infection that has created the megachurch plague, and on the other, we have the mystical emphasis that has created a class of Christians devoid of the rationality required to read Scripture communally. Scripture reading is a communal act; the Hebrew people understood that. The focus on expository preaching has only served to make the Bible a textbook that is to be studied more than entered into—what Hans Frei called the narrative world of Scripture—and generations of extracting “promises” from individual texts has further destroyed the narrative context of a sweeping metanarrative that was never intended to promise much of anything except redemption.
Third, and last, is the bizarre cipher that is a Christian bookstore. For decades, the largest section in these ghettoized temples of schlock was Christian Living, a category one assumes would be covered by the Bible, common courtesy, and the occasional ass-whipping as a child. However, for some reason, Christians purchased these books by the millions, as if somewhere inside the next book was the secret to living like Jesus. Brian McLaren once said he knew his evangelicalness was slipping when he could tell where one of these books was headed after reading the first few pages. (That’s a paraphrase. Read the intro to “New Kind of Christian” if you want the exact words.) That’s because they don’t go anywhere. Christian living is summed up more succinctly in the Sermon on the Mount than in any Christian Living title, but no one takes it seriously. For all the emphasis placed on the plain meaning of the text when it comes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, and various political issues around which evangelicals rally, they are bizarrely liberal when it comes to Matthew 5-7.
That’s the perfect place for a segue. Matt asked me to recommend books for evangelicals, and I’ll start with the Sermon on the Mount. Not the actual one, but with a group of people who take it seriously: Anabaptists. Evangelicals need Anabaptists like they need real wine in communion; it creates a sense of balance and authenticity. Start with John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus.” If you find it difficult, good; redemptive reading should not always be entertaining. It should challenge, stretch, and irritate. It should force you to a dictionary, to Wikipedia, to a theologian, to reflection, and to conversation. Part of the problem is we want entertainment, and there is a place for that, but if evangelicals are to recover their brains, they have to read hard things.
That’s it for theology. No more theology for now. You’ve read too damn many Christian books in your life already. Move on to Shusaku Endo’s “Silence.” Read about cross-cultural ministry and compromise. Pick up Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” and read about the whisky priest’s irrevocable calling and his painful frailty. Pretend C.S. Lewis never wrote for a while; if you really knew his theology, you’d realize you shouldn’t be reading him anyway. Next, dip back into our racist roots and read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s about sin and jubilee. When you’re ready, leave the Christians behind, even the good ones, and pick up scary books. Commit to buy the Pulitzer winner each year. I’m seldom disappointed with it, unlike the loathsome National Book Award winner. Ugh. Avoid those. Some of them have been transformative: Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Edward Jones, Marilynne Robinson, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri.
Real literature considers the human condition from a variety of perspectives: despair, hope, sex, love, hate, death, god, godlessness. It broadens our experience of the world, opens our ears to different voices, opens our hearts to “the other,” and makes us better people. The one-dimensional nature of Christian fiction has created a truncated experience of the world. The world is mostly R-rated, occasionally pornographic, and only rarely PG. (Children already know this when their parents are trying to protect them from it.) Read widely. Read without offense. Read without fear. Just read what’s good.