Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Books, Reading, and Christianity

May 10, 2014

OK, there is not much new one can say about books. They have been around for quite a while now. A couple of millennia ago King Solomon could say this about them: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

booksAnd if part of my concern here is the decline of reading (and it is in decline), then the problem is, those who can’t or don’t read will not avail themselves of this piece, while those who do read will not need it! Nonetheless, let me tie together three different news items I have recently come across on the issue of books, reading and Christianity.

The first is a bit of a worry if you are a book lover. It speaks about a general global decline in book sales. One report begins this way:

According to data presented yesterday at the IfBookThen conference in Milan by David Walter, Research and Development Analyst for Nielsen BookScan, book sales around the world are in general decline. Sales in the US in 2012 were down 9.3%, Spain -10.3%, South Africa -8.8%, Italy -7%…to cite just some examples. Walter noted that sales in the UK fell by 3.4%, data which corresponds with that from Bowker Market Research cited in our feature story today, “UK Book Buyers Spend Less, But Still Loyal to Print.”
The one bright spot around the world was India, where sales were up 16%, but this was “not nearly as large a jump as we had anticipated.” Certainly in Spain and Italy, you can blame the recession. But the US claims its economy is in recovery. So what’s going on?
In South Korea, where book sales there were down 20% in 2012, the drop was blamed on a simple phenomenon: “Korean’s don’t read books and don’t read newspapers,” wrote The Korea Times. Earlier this month a New York Times Op-Ed, called out Mexico as “The Country that Stopped Reading” and blamed a failing education system for the lack of commitment to reading.

A decline in book sales presumably has something to do with a decline in reading. That is always a worry. A people who don’t read are a people easily led like sheep to an unhelpful end. Christians of all people should be readers, but many believers are not reading at all.

I read a horror statistic some years ago now saying that the average American reads just one book a year. That is a shocker, at least in my eyes. Back in 2003 Arthur Hunt penned The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway).

In it he bemoaned the general decline in reading and a book culture, and the rise of content-less imagery in its place. Christianity is of course all about the Word (see John 1 for example) and thus believers should always have a high view of the word, since that is a primary means by which God has chosen to communicate.

My second, and somewhat unrelated item has to do with recent trends in Christian writing and publishing. One article says in part:

Over the past 25 years some of the major Christian publishers—Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, for example—became part of big, non-Christian operations. A lot of these grand, old publishing houses published really good, solid Christian books—no fluff—but the business drove the companies to produce more and more lightweight things, and gifts became big. Then they became part of for-profit companies: Management is responsible to the stockholders, so the bottom line has got to drive them.
What are some of the other dangers facing the Christian publishing industry now? The great masses and many megachurch pastors are not as discerning as they need to be, so I’m worried that people will drift because they’re reading the pabulum that’s served up. If something sells a lot, the Christian public tends to go and read it.

The piece goes on to talk about things like Christian ghost-writers (it happens more than we may think) and the way Christian leaders will charge to have their blurb on the back cover of a book. It is all very interesting, if at times concerning, reading.

My last item is more of a worry or at least should be. It speaks to the continued increase in biblical illiteracy amongst Christians. One report on this opens as follows:

A recent American Bible Society survey that reveals a rising number of people skeptical of the Bible and a diminishing number who view it as sacred isn’t rattling some Baptist ministers. What concerns them, instead, is the growing number of Christians who swear by Scripture but don’t do such a good job of knowing—or following—what actually is in it. “Biblical illiteracy has been on the rise for some time with the nature of our country being post-Christian and less people going to church,” said Joe Bumbulis, minister to students and missions at First Baptist Church in Austin. “Even Christians don’t know the book and the (biblical) stories.”
Scholars, too, say ignorance about the Bible is afflicting congregations across the denominational spectrum. That means passing references to “the prodigal son,” the “woman at the well” or “the Psalms of David” are just as likely to generate blank stares as affirming nods, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“Basic biblical knowledge can’t be taken for granted. It’s no longer possible to suppose the people sitting in the pews understand biblical references or givens to any significant degree,” Leonard said. “Basic biblical knowledge cannot be taken for granted in anybody’s church anymore.”

Now an entire article can be written on this topic alone. I have often spoken to it, and it is clearly one of the big concerns in our churches today. And we can speak about who is to blame here. Is it more the fault of those in the pulpits, or those in the pews?

I suspect a bit of each really. We have such a dumbed-down gospel message we present today, with sermons little more than cotton-candy chats filled with humanistic platitudes and feel-good self-help pointers, with a few passages of Scripture thrown in along the way. And most believers love it that way.

But I have addressed that topic often elsewhere, so no need to rehearse it again here. See for example:

Since this is about books and reading, let me just close with a few of my fav quotes on all this, from a wide range of sources:

“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” (Anna Quindlen)

“A house that has a library in it has a soul.” (Plato)

“Like the dope fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm, I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.” (Somerset Maugham)

“Reading maketh a full man; speaking, a ready man; writing, an exact man.” (Francis Bacon)

“My books. I cannot tell you what they are to me – silent, wealthy, loyal lovers. . . . I do thank God for my books with every fiber of my being. Friends that are ever true and that are ever your own.” (Oswald Chambers)

“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analysis of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be, ‘much not many’.” (Charles Spurgeon)

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” (Erasmus)

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” (G. K. Chesterton)

‎”If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying.” (John Ruskin)

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10 Responses to On Books, Reading, and Christianity

  • In case I misread, you say Christian leaders charge to have their recommendations on the back of books? Does this really happen?

  • “Back in 2003 Arthur Hunt penned The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway).”

    More profound than Hunt’s book, and preceding it by a couple of decades, is Jacques Ellul’s insightful ‘The Humiliation of the Word’.

  • Loved this post Bill!

    Myself and my wife, we have two bookcases at the moment, one for secular books, cooking, building, craft, etc, and one dedicated for Scripture and biblical references. We are planning on building a home shortly and we have both agreed it needs lots and lots of book room.

    I also loved the stories you mentioned, I have been reading the NT this week and have just read two of those stories in the last couple of days, such powerful messages in each of them.

    Mind you, I think our secular book case will remain fairly small, as there is really not much in the secular world worth reading to be honest.

    Neil Waldron.

  • The one thing I will say for ebooks is that you can carry a multitude at any one time, with many titles cheaper than their printed counterparts. Still, it isn’t the same as a book. For all the blog and ebook reading I do, I do enjoy picking up a print book when I get the chance.

    The ipad has reinvigorated my passion for reading, and I have purchased many titles I never would have bought in print format. I really enjoy being able to read blog posts and link straight off to online book vendors and purchase the ebook.

  • Yes Aidan, read the second link I post and you can find it there.

  • I’m just not sure what more I can be doing for the cause. Preparing my tax return I must’ve bought over two hundred books this past year.

  • Dear Bill,

    Thank you for the article. I love the quotes! A Library is one of my favourite places and I visit my local library at least once a week a good habit I developed when I was a child seventy years ago.

    I can’t understand people who don’t read when libraries are free and so well stocked. We are so fortunate in Australia. Reading helps us write, spell and speak much better as well as providing us with valuable knowledge and enjoyment. If the population doesn’t read these social skills will decline and society will be the poorer for it.

    I would be the first to admit that there is a lot of rubbish written which is not worth reading but that is all part of learning to be discerning. Books should uplift our spirits and inspire us to do better things. I thank God for blessing us with so many talented writers who have set out to do exactly that.

    I couldn’t bear to leave my large collection of books behind when I moved house because they were like old, faithful friends. I often read a book I have enjoyed more than once.

  • Thanks Bill,
    We even have inspired scripture to instruct us here where Paul sets the example in 2 Tim 4 v: 13, yearning for his scrolls and parchments.
    Although the web is great, I worry if it crashes or is censored, all that information is gone so try to get what I can in hard copy.

  • On link 2 Marvin Padgett:

    “So even if the person whose name is on the book and the writer have an agreement and they’re satisfied with that, that is not satisfactory for the third person in this whole equation: the reader. That’s what I think.”

    I’m not sure I would be as strong as that.

    We have evidence in the NT that Paul had amanuenses for his letters. They are not always identified in the lettters, but we understnad that that was how things were done then.

    I agree it is much clearer when the disclosure is made on the cover, or in the frontispiece, and naturally the content must be clearly that of the main named author, but we simply need to be aware that ghosting happens a lot.

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