Needles in a Haystack: How to Find Christian Books Worth Reading
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
- Paul in Romans 12:2
Books. There are tons of books out there.
In particular, there are tons of Christian books out there.
On the one hand, this is a wonderful thing. We have never in the history of the world had more "Christian" reading material available to us. However, this is not always a good thing. In fact, for many, it can feel a bit overwhelming trying to discern not only which books, but which blogs and magazines, are actually worth reading? Which are biblically and theologically solid and which are not? It can be confusing.
We are convinced that filling our minds with God-honoring literature is one of the most powerful and practical ways to offer our minds to the Lord for holy renewal and transformation. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Thus, the main course for our daily, spiritual feasting ought to be God’s Word, the Bible. But in addition to the main course, we would be wise to also eat Scripture-saturated snacks that help to sanctify our minds and transform us into God’s image. So, which snacks do you choose to feed your soul? How do you decide which books, magazines, and blogs to read?
Again, Christians have countless options when it comes to Christian books to read, blogs to browse, and podcasts to listen to. With this proliferation of literature comes the need to “test and discern” which books and authors are worth our time, so that we can fill our minds with what is best and in alignment with the heart and mind of God. With the expansion and commercialization of the Christian publication industry, we can’t allow bestseller lists or Christian bookstores dictate for us which literature is truly most God-honoring and in alignment with his Word and his will. Simply because many people are (purportedly) buying and reading certain books does not make those books theologically orthodox or truly edifying.
So, how do we choose which books to read?
Reading requires work, time, and energy--valuable resources that none of us can afford to waste. Before we lay out some of the criteria we use to decide which books to read, here are two prefacing thoughts:
#1: The type of literature we’re focusing on in this article is “devotional” literature, or literature written by authors whose explicit aim is to teach, disciple, and edify Christians.
Certainly, the argument can be made for reading many different types of literature—from biographies to fictional works to newspapers and magazines. Here, we’re not discussing which type or genre of literature Christians ought to read. Instead, we’re focusing on which Christian books and authors are worth reading for the sake of our personal growth in holiness.
#2: Our intent here is not to create a list of books, authors, and publishers to read, nor is it to create a list of books, authors, and publishers to avoid.
In fact, our desire is that Christians would learn how to be critical thinkers and analytical readers. Learning how to filter all messages we receive through a biblical worldview allows us not to fear or worship any human author or book. Instead, we seek to analyze all literature and media we intake through the lens of God’s Word, so that we can test and approve what his good, pleasing, and perfect will is. As a friend of ours says, we need to learn how to “eat the fish and spit out the bones.”
Here are 15 types of questions we ask when deciding whether to read a Christian book for our own spiritual nourishment:
1. What do you know about the author’s spiritual beliefs? Many authors claim to be Christian authors, but in reality, they reject some of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Are you aware of any concerns that mature Christians have about this author’s orthodoxy (“right doctrine”)?
2. What is the author’s view of Scripture? Would he/she affirm that it is God’s inspired, authoritative, infallible, Word? Does the author undermine or undervalue God’s Word? When I (Dan) read one of the most popular Christian books a few years ago, it floored me when the author discouraged readers from making too much of Jesus and the Bible! Put down any book that encourages you to put down the Bible!
3. Has this book been peer-reviewed? If so, by whom? Do other trustworthy Christian teachers affirm his/her teaching? If this book is recommended by seminary professors, then which seminaries are those professors from? What is the statement of faith of those seminaries?
4. Which publishing company published this book? According to its website, what is the publishing company’s mission and statement of faith? Do you know any other trustworthy authors who use this publisher?
5. Which websites give this author and his/her book good reviews, and why? Which websites give this author and his/her book bad reviews, and why? Be careful of any website that tends to attack biblically and theologically sound, historically orthodox Christian doctrine. Also, be careful of any website that tends to attack many theologically orthodox authors and books as being too liberal.
6. Is the author a member of a local church? If so, which church? Which denomination? If the author is not part of a specific local church, then why not? To whom is he/she personally and spiritually accountable?
7. Beware of authors who pride themselves in having “new” perspectives and “progressive” ways of thinking. The best Christian authors won’t say anything new or revolutionary. Since neither God nor the Bible change (Isa. 40:8), then our expectation of Christian authors is simply to restate old, biblical truths in modern-day words.
8. How does this author understand and articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ? Does he/she believe in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for sinners? Or, does this author believe that the gospel is mainly about Jesus simply being a “good example” for us?
9. Does the author believe in salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone? Or, does the author believe in salvation through faith plus works? Does the author believe in salvation in Jesus Christ alone? Or, does the author believe that there are many paths to God?
10. Is the author far more concerned about doing good things FOR Christ than about abiding IN Christ? Yes, true faith will be accompanied by good works for God’s glory. This is a critical and non-negotiable aspect of biblical Christianity. However, we learn to best care for and love one another as we abide in Christ, drawing on his grace and power in our pursuit of godliness. Our good works must flow from a heart that is surrendered to Christ and His Gospel in all things.
11. What does the author believe about suffering? Does the author believe that Christians should take up their crosses and follow Jesus, expecting suffering in this life? Or, does the author mainly believe that following Jesus is about having fun and experiencing your best life now?
12. Is the book God-centered or man-centered? In other words, is the author’s agenda primarily to help readers achieve their own goals and desires, or to achieve God’s goals and desires?
13. What is the author’s view of sin? How serious do they take it? Does the author believe that people are mainly good? Or, does the author believe that people are inherently sinful, and in desperate need of the grace and mercy of God for forgiveness and new life? Do they believe that we must continually fight the sinful tendencies of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in our pursuit holiness? Or, do they view the idea of fighting sin as foreign, odd and unnecessary?
14. Does the author speak the truth in love? Or, does the author mainly speak about love with little truth? Or, perhaps they speak about truth in an unloving way?
15. Does the author quote much scripture, or does the author mainly present his or her own thoughts? If the author quotes scripture, does he/she use Scripture appropriately? Or, are verses misused and often quoted out of context?
Obviously, we don’t run through all these questions every time we pick up a book; however, some or all of these questions have helped us decide which authors and books we look to for discipleship and spiritual growth.
In short, may God grow us to be critical thinkers who use the Bible as the touchstone by which we evaluate the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the authors and books we read for the renewal of our minds, for Christ’s glory and for our joy in him.
Ephesians 4:15; 2 Timothy 2:25