There are lots of ways to qualify what constitutes a “good” Christian book. We might consider the quality of the author’s writing, the originality of the author’s approach, or, most importantly, the faithfulness of the author’s use of Scripture. By those measures, we who speak English and read Christian books here in the twenty-first century are much blessed. We have countless thousands of books to turn to when we want to read something that will shape our lives and strengthen our faith. But, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it if that was the end of the story, would I?
Sadly, the qualities that make up good Christian books have little bearing on the quantities of Christian books sold. Just this week the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association released a list of the bestselling Christian books of 2017. Let’s give it a brief gander, shall we?
The number one bestselling book of 2017 was The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This is remarkable in that the book has just arrived at its 25th anniversary. It has been hanging around the top-10 list for many years and has achieved the rare distinction of receiving the ECPA’s Diamond Book Award for topping 10 million sales, one of only seven books to ever earn this distinction. The Five Love Languages is certainly not a terrible book and, in fact, offers some helpful guidance in understanding how different people give and receive love in different ways. Still, the entire premise is troublesome and merits some interpretation, for Chapman fails to distinguish the very nature of our desires and how satisfying our deepest desires may not be the path to last personal or relational joy.
In the second spot we have Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and, right behind it, the sequel Jesus Always. (And that’s not all: Jesus Calling Deluxe Edition is at spot 26, Jesus Calling Adult Coloring Book at 42, Jesus Calling Devotions for Kids at 56, Jesus Calling Large Print Deluxe Edition at 65, Jesus Always Large Print Deluxe Edition at 72, and then Jesus Calling Deluxe Edition again at 83). Jesus Calling has now surpassed 10 million sales while Jesus Always has surpassed one million. Concerns with Young’s books have been well-documented on this site and many others, but essentially come down to this: Young claims to be doctrinally-sound and within the Reformed theological tradition, yet she also considers herself a “Listener” who hears and writes down messages from Jesus. She never explains how this is consistent with the precious Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone). There’s also the matter of the Jesus of her book speaking in a voice decidedly different from that of the Jesus of the New Testament.
In the fourth spot we have The Magnolia Story by HGTV superstars Chip and Joanna Gaines. Chip’s book Capital Gaines, released late in 2017, comes in at number 8. Capital Gaines is part biography, part business book while The Magnolia Story is a joint biography that recounts their life, marriage, and rise to fame. While the book is full of fun anecdotes, its spirituality never rises higher than this: “We both hope, with all of our hearts, that the people who read this book and watch our show and come to see what we’re working on in Waco will take a chance to go after their dreams too. Because the key to everything Chip and I have learned in our life together so far seems to be pretty simple: Go and find what it is that inspires you, go and find what it is that you love, and go do that until it hurts. Don’t quit, and don’t give up. The reward is just around the corner. And in times of doubt or times of joy, listen for that still, small voice. Know that God has been there fore the beginning—and he will be there until … The End.” It may be a book that describes the lives of two Christians (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but it is not a source to learn much Christian truth.
Next, we come to Paul Young’s The Shack. The standard paperback edition lands at number five on the list while the movie tie-in edition is close behind it at number seven (with another movie edition at the 20th spot). I suppose it’s likely that, with sales split across three editions, The Shack actually outsold every other book in 2017. It, too, has achieved Platinum status, having crossed the 10 million mark all the way back in 2009, and having since more than doubled that. Once more, the serious and full-out heretical issues with the book have been well-documented here and elsewhere. Though wildly popular, The Shack teaches false doctrine related to the Trinity, butchers the doctrine of the atonement, misunderstands free will and forgiveness, and so on. Of greatest concern, it has a quiet but consistent subversive quality to it that means to undermine the very heart of Christian faith and doctrine. Young’s non-fiction Lies We Believe About God (which thankfully is entirely absent from the list) is essentially a “systematic heresy,” in which he shows why he is far beyond any reasonable boundary of Christian orthodoxy. This non-fiction work explains the seditious doctrine of his novel.
Let’s keep moving! Lysa TerKeurst’s Uninvited is in the number six spot (with the study guide at number 40). This is a deeply personal book on rejection and acceptance in which TerKeurst invites the reader into her own struggles. It is written in a style that seems to be especially popular in today’s books (and perhaps especially books for women)—sentences are short and fragmented, whole pages are given to a single tweet-worthy quote, illustrations and anecdotes are constant, and the author writes with extreme transparency. Though the book contains a lot of Scripture and an inspirational message, verses and passages are often imaginatively twisted and formed to fit a point she wishes to make. So for example, when Nabal rejected David, David was experiencing the cruel re-opening of an old father wound. Abigail, in her virtuous response, was tending that wound through her acceptance of David. This is a novel telling of the story to say the least.
In the ninth spot is Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. This book has been around for almost 15 years in a multitude of editions and, as you probably know, provides a plan for financial fitness. Ramsey’s methods are well-established by now, and countless people have been positively impacted by them. Though I’m not always comfortable with his understanding and interpretation of Scripture, his methodology is proven and sound.
Finally, we come to number 10: Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids by Rob Elliott. (He also appears at 21 with Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids and at 99 with More Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids.) I have not read it and know nothing of it, except that it’s a book of jokes for children and it was the 10th bestselling Christian book of the year. There’s nothing wrong with jokes, of course, but it’s telling that it outsold every good book. Here’s a sample joke: “Where do generals keep their armies? In their sleevies.”
I wish I could say the list improves a lot from this point, but it continues in roughly the same way all the way to Joel Rosenberg’s apocalyptic Without Warning in the 100th position. Though I am not familiar with every book and every author, I do try to keep up-to-date with Christian publishing and, from that perspective, spot only a handful of books on the list I’d recommend at all, and fewer still I’d recommend unreservedly.
What can we learn from this list? Here are a few bullet points that come to mind:
- A book and its author can doubt or deny creedal doctrines of the Christian faith and still be tremendously popular among Christians. This is the case with The Shack and a number of other books further down the list. It seems no doctrine is too sacred when dollars and cents are at stake.
- A book and its author can contradict crucial (even if not creedal) doctrines and still be exceedingly popular. This is the case with Jesus Calling and many other books that tacitly or blatantly deny very important doctrines like sola scriptura.
- A book and its author can make any passage make any point without consideration for the biblical author’s intent and this is considered a perfectly valid method of teaching. If someone wants the story of Nabal and David to be about rejection and acceptance, so be it.
- For all the attention I and others give to reviews of theologically-sound Christian books, these are a tiny minority within Christian (and/or “Christian”) publishing. It may not be a stretch to say that the most popular book of 2017 outsold the sum total of all of those excellent books put together.
- Readers bear the responsibility of ensuring that what they read is consistent with the Bible. The fact that a book is published under a Christian label and sold in a Christian bookstore has absolutely no bearing on whether it is filled with truth or stuffed full of error. At a time where truth is easier than ever to access and book reviews abound, there’s no reason to be taken in by the junk.
- I’m not the least bit surprised or dismayed by the list. I hope it serves as further incentive for authors to pen books that are biblically-accurate and theologically-rich, and for those publishers who value truth to decline the junk and promote what is honoring to God. Though such works are unlikely to rise to the top of a list like this, they can fight the ugly trends and serve God’s precious people.