Barth, Wallace, and Christian Bestsellers

There has been quite a bit of recent talk about the list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. Basically, it’s pretty sad. While looking over the list, a few reflections came to mind that I figured might be worth sharing.

First, I think what the list looks like should be tied in with the growth of conservative churches and the shrinking of mainline churches. There is a lot of debate about why this is happening, but for a good starting point, see here. If the answer has to due with theology, one wonders why exactly conservative theology is better than the mainstream counterpart. I think one obvious response might be that conservatives take the Bible more seriously (whatever that means) than mainstream churches. I suppose this is possible, but it still leaves one wondering. I am about to begin reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (hopefully I will be blogging through it too), which I mention because I think it raises an interesting test case for this thesis. If my background knowledge about Barth is anywhere near accurate, he is undoubtedly a few things: not evangelical in the sense meant in America, brilliant, perceptive, probing, and he takes the Bible very seriously. So if the answer was about taking the Bible seriously, it seems like Barthian churches should be able to flourish too. Of course, one could say that evangelicals take the Bible seriously in a way that Barth doesn’t. Let me be the first to say that I am sure you can count on one hand the number of evangelical pastors who have wrestled more with the Bible than Karl Barth did. So this cries out for explanation, but let’s come back to it.

The other explanation has to do with birthrates and child rearing. Is it that these parents are reading important theological books and dispensing that knowledge to their children and that is why the children are staying in conservative churches? The book list above suggests the answer is a firm “no.” So while there are a lot of complicated issues surrounding this topic, it seems like the bestseller list should at least indicate that there might be something going on that is not really that much of a positive, at least not wholly.

This brings me to a second point that I think is related. For around the past week, I have been reading through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. When I read through it the first time, it took me forever. I picked it up and put it back down multiple times. I struggled to read 30 pages in a day. A lot of connections that are obvious (even if one pays attention while reading it the first time) I completely missed. Basically, the book was stretching me in ways it was meant to. It’s not like I was some entertainment-consuming, television-obsessed, twitter-scrolling kid who had never read a book in his life. At that point I was easily reading 150 pages/day of Biblical studies books.

So Infinite Jest was difficult reading, it still is. I read through The Hobbit in one day, yet I struggle to read 150 pages in Infinite Jest. Obviously the books are written differently, have a different amount of words per page, etc., but the point remains the same. I don’t bring up IJ just to plug one of my favorite books (although it never hurts), but because I think it is relevant to what we are discussing here. Namely, we live in this entertainment-driven culture, and I think that is tied up into other things that help explain the bestseller list.

To keep it short, I think it is all tied into American culture that a lot of evangelicalism is responsible for. We sowed these seeds and now we are reaping what has come about. This so-called Christian nation has emphasized the American “dream” where we work for the nice house, nice cars, 2.1 kids, and white picket fence. We either work ourselves to death or our work is our death because the idea that work is supposed to be enjoyable, fun, and fulfilling is so ingrained in us that we never question if that idea is correct.

This is why we refer to our homes as our “castles,” have things like “man caves,” and don’t really want people over. Or if we do let them come over, maybe for dinner so we can “fellowship” or for Bible study or whatever, then we have these particularly partitioned approved areas where they can go where we do particular activities so that we can then disassociate what has happened from what we really use those rooms for. We either have them participate in our own “recharging” (notice, again, this idea that we escape from the draining world into our homes only to go back out there and be sapped once again) by watching tv or whatever or we reconceptualize the space such that we can grab the remote, press the on button, and get whisked away by forgetting about the prayer requests, the questions about the Biblical texts, the worries about how to walk as Jesus walked, etc., because that is only my worry when I sit in that particular chair and have my Bible on my lap and these other people with their Bibles are in a bunch of different chairs, but right now it is only me and the tv. And the reason why we can pull this all off without any second thought, without a glimmer of contradiction or a tinge of cognitive dissonance is because we think of these gatherings as special times that are somehow abstracted away from our daily living, which sounds spiritual and all, but it merely underscores how different discipleship looks like in our culture as opposed to what, say, Mark envisioned.

And because of this escapism where retreat to our castle, sit down in our particular chair, and think about what we are going to do that evening, that stems from the American “dream” that the church likes to act like we aren’t big fans of, but, let’s face it, we all really pursue, the bestseller list makes a lot of sense. Because, let’s face it, who reads anyway? The clarity of Scripture that the Reformers emphasized has become so warped that anyone who has read Romans like twelve times is now able to teach it without looking at a serious commentary, which is why we have people writing books against biblicism, etc. So even if someone does decide to actually read a book, then what they are going to read seems to follow rather naturally. This is why people are reading Osteen, Young, Meyer, etc., because the person needs to be encouraged, refreshed, and figure out how to get by day-to-day given “the psychic costs of being around other humans.” And all of this leads to further estrangement, fragmentation, and alienation, but this post is already getting to long.

The difficult part is figuring out how to move forward. It is fun and easy to sit back and point out what all has went wrong and why, but explaining where we actually need to go and what we need to do to get there, well that’s just plain hard. But maybe if we can figure out what’s wrong and get people to see that something actually is wrong, then just maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

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