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Books and Beliefs

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Last month, in an article entitled By Our Books Shall We Be Known, I discussed some commentary Al Mohler wrote based on an essay that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The purpose of the article was, quite simply, to show that there is a lot you can tell about a person by the books in his library. Mohler said, “To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister’s library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?”

In recent days I have several times been asked by friends or readers of this site for my opinion on various churches, leaders or organizations. More and more I find myself encouraging people to look for two things: a statement of beliefs and a list of recommending reading. But I am coming to believe that you can often tell more about a person through a reading list than a statement of beliefs. Many churches have wonderful statements of faith that they choose to ignore. Very few have lists of recommended books that betray their true beliefs.

Statements of Faith are usually static documents and are somehow integrated into the history of a church or a denomination. They are, in many cases, rarely read or revisited. While they may retain historical value and while they may always be meaningful to a church, they do not necessarily continue to reflect the beliefs of the members or leaders of a church body. Look, for example, to the Beliefs page for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists. Under Lord’s Day it says, “The first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. It is a Christian institution for regular observances. It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should be employed in exercises of worship and spiritual devotion both public and private and by refraining from worldly amusements and resting from secular employments work of necessity and mercy only being expected.” As someone who was once a member of one of these churches, I can attest that most Canadian Southern Baptists had no sense of Sunday being the Lord’s Day and that most did not refrain from either worldly amusements or secular employment! Whether or not this is a good thing is a whole different discussion. The point is that the statement of beliefs is far removed from the church’s actual practice and from the church’s enforcement of the document.

Now this is not to say that a statement of beliefs is a useless document. If a church continues to abide by the document, and continues to revisit it to ensure that their practice matches their profession, these documents are very useful. But too often they are of greater historical value than contemporary value. It is often equally or even more useful to look elsewhere to see what a church or leader really believes.

Let me give you an example. A short time ago I visited the web site of a Presbyterian church. This church is a member of the Presbyterian Church of America and would affirm the tenets of the Reformed faith and of Presbyterianism. According to the statement of beliefs, we would expect this to be a conservative church. Yet heading up the recommendations for books appropriate to seekers (a term that would be out-of-place in most Presbyterian lexicons!) was Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Try as I might, I cannot imagine John Knox or the Westminster Divines sitting placidly and reading this book. Nor can I imagine them discussing “seekers.” The books this church recommends are a dead giveaway that all is not right. I visited the site of a church planted by this one and noted that Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church heads their list of recommendations and that excerpts from this book are quoted throughout the web site. Again, a book that seems strangely out of place in a Reformed, Presbyterian context.

I went to the web site of a prominent Christian leader and read his biography. I know that if he and I were to draw up a statement of beliefs, they would be quite similar. And yet in his list of recommended books for living the Christian life, alongside titles by John MacArthur, John Piper, Francis Schaeffer and the like are titles by Philip Yancey, Sally Morgenthaler, Thomas Kempis and others. How are we to reconcile books that would, in many ways, contradict each other? What are we to think about a person who would, without explanation or caution, endorse such books?

I don’t think I would have to look far to find many more examples. Countless churches here in Canada, especially churches of the Presbyterian variety, would have wonderful statements of faith. Many of them were founded on Reformed principles and would, in theory, still adhere to them. And yet many of these churches have forsaken the gospel and have completely walked away from the principles of the Christian faith, even while their statements of belief have remained untouched.

As I researched my own book last week, I found an interesting quote in Richard Phillips new commentary on Hebrews. “In my pastoral work,” he writes, “I often find it to be a good diagnostic question to ask for the names of books a person has read in the previous six months. The point is not to promote my own approved reading list, but to see whether the person is fixated on himself, her own wants or search for experiences, or whether he is interested in the character of God, the treasures of the gospel, or the challenges of representing Jesus Christ in the world.” It seems to me that the same is true of a Christian leader. By finding out what a person is reading and willing to recommend, by finding out the books a church considers worthwhile reading, or by discovering what books are in a church’s library, you may find far more useful information than if you read a statement of beliefs.

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