Before you go book shopping…

This Christmas, some of you are getting gift cards or gift certificates. I regularly get Starbucks cards—which is great, ’cause that’s exactly what I want. I’ll definitely use ’em. Yes, I’m at Starbucks as I write this.

Anyway, some of these gift cards will be for bookstores. Maybe Amazon, maybe not. And as Christians who wanna get religious about our relationships with Jesus, some of us are likely thinking of buying Christian books and resources, and stuff that’ll help us get better at Christianity. I know I do.

And, when I was newly devout, I wasted a bunch of money on stuff that really didn’t do any of those things. Likely so will you. We all do. Our zealousness overtakes our wallets. But hold on there, little buckaroo: Don’t get all fired up to ride off an’ lasso some steer, ’cause you might just wind up with some bull.

If you go to a brick ’n mortar Christian bookstore, first thing you’re gonna notice is they sell an awful lot of “Jesus junk.” And bibles; most of their money comes from bibles. But they also sell art, T-shirts, CDs, devotionals, romance novels without any sex in ’em (with Amish girls on the cover, just to tell everyone who catches you reading one, “Nope, the clothes are staying on”), inferior Christian fiction, bestselling Christian books by famous authors, and classic Christian books by famous dead Christians.

There are some actually useful books in there. But more of them are junk. Even among the classics. They’re nice sentiments, disguised as God-inspired wisdom. They’ll make you feel good, like they’re expected to. But you won’t grow any closer to Jesus, won’t get any more spiritually mature, won’t grow in the Spirit’s fruit, won’t anything. I used to own bookshelves of that rubbish.

How d’you tell the difference? Which of them should you buy? Well maybe this article’ll help get you started.

Get advice!

And not from the clerks at your local Christian bookstore. I’m not saying they aren’t devout, earnest, and zealous; many of ’em are. (And for some of ’em, it’s just another job.) But do they know what’s any good? Not usually. Like I said, I used to own bookshelves of the stuff they rave about. And they will rave about it, same as all the other Christians who love that muck.

What you wanna do is go to the religious Christians you know. The people who are striving to grow and succeeding; the ones who do produce good fruit and act spiritually mature. Hopefully you know a few. (Hopefully your pastors are among them. If not, you need a better church.)

Ask these folks which resources they use most. What bible software or audio bibles do they use? What’s the most practical study bible (or bible study guide) they’ve seen? Which books do they always find themselves returning to? What authors have they found the most reliably informative? Which commentaries do they find the most useful? What’s on their wishlists?—which books do they want to add to their reference shelf?

If the Christians you trust, are willing to trust their own Christian development to these books and authors, likely you can too.

Yeah okay, you can also pick the brains of the Christians you don’t personally know. It’s better if you do know them, ’cause you can’t always tell whether they’re hypocrites over the internet. (Heck, the people you do know, might have secret Twitter accounts they use to troll people. But it’s still easier to tell, when you know ’em in real life.) If your favorite blogger has a top ten list of the best Christian books, it probably won’t hurt to check ’em out.

Try before you buy.

You’d be surprised how many Christian books are available at your local public library. Or, if you’re going to school, at your school’s library. For that matter, if you’re near a Christian college, some colleges allow non-students to check out books from their libraries—and if not, you can just go to the library and read the books there. So if you’re wondering about the content of a well-known book, you can read it first.

If you’re thinking, “But I’m not qualified to judge whether a book is any good or not”—in this, I completely disagree. You’re reading this book to determine whether to buy it, so you’re gonna wind up reading it critically, looking for evidence it’s worth purchasing. More often Christians do it the other way round: They already bought the book, and wanna justify the purchase in their minds, so they’re likewise looking for evidence it’s worth their money—and are way more likely to vote, retroactively, yes.

You’d be surprised how many Christians are willing to make concessions for nearly every Christian book they pick up. You, on the other hand, are thinking, “This book might accurately describe God… but it might not.” Fake prophets and false teachers hate this attitude: Their book sales kinda depend on readers swallowing their teachings without thinking.

You know how to identify good theology. You know how to check whether bible verses are quoted in context. You may not have all your theological beliefs sorted out, or have a lot of bible memorized, but you know what you know. Most of the time, that’s plenty. You can detect right away whether a book is solid truth or old baloney. And when you’re listening to the Holy Spirit, regardless of how good a book looks, he’ll make you uneasy about it… which’ll provoke you to keep looking at it skeptically till you find out what’s actually wrong with it.

So I’m not worried. If you still are… well don’t buy it then. Work on your theology till you feel confident enough to review books. Work on your faith till you can trust the Holy Spirit to keep you out of trouble. But I think you’re ready already.

Incidentally… you know all those books you already own? Yep, you ought to go through them too.

Sometimes it’s free!

Some Christian authors will let your read their books—yes their entire books—on their websites. Check there first.

Everything published before 1923 is in the public domain in the United States. The copyrights have expired; anyone can publish it; anyone can post it on the internet… and many already have. Go visit the online booksites!

  • CHRISTIAN CLASSICS ETHEREAL LIBRARY is a project of Calvin College that’s attempting to put useful classic Christian writings on the internet.
  • THE ONLINE BOOKS PAGE tries to provide books to every ebook they can find. (Well, every non-pirated ebook.)
  • PROJECT GUTENBERG hosts classic books of all sorts, including Christian classics.
  • GOOGLE BOOKS is full of scans of public-domain books. And copyrighted books, ’cause they wanna help sell them. So their search engine comes in handy when you’re looking for something specific.
  • INTERNET ARCHIVE lets people upload scans of public-domain books, so if they’re not on Google Books, often they’re here.

So if a bookstore offers the complete works of John Wesley for only $9.95, yeah it sounds like a steal… but Wesley’s in the public domain, and everything he wrote can be downloaded free and legally. Same with John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, St. Augustine (depending on who translated him) and hundreds of others.

Sometimes it’s junk.

A lot of Christians give advice as to what resources to buy, and a lot of that advice is maddeningly based on how inexpensive it was. “I got this 20-volume commentary set for only $29.95! You realize other commentaries will cost you hundreds.” Yes, but those other commentaries were written by college professors, whereas your 20-volume commentary set was written by a self-educated pastor whose volume on Revelation still claims the Soviet Union will trigger the End Times. Sometimes price really does indicate value.

This is particularly true of bible software. A common selling point is, “It came with so many books!” Yes; it came with every public-domain book they could get. Including Matthew Henry and John Wesley and John Calvin’s commentaries. All of which they got—and you can get—free. Was anything in it written after 1923?

More importantly: How many seconds does it take before the app produces search results? Does it allow you to search for words by their Strong number? When you double-click on a word, does its original-language definition pop up? Does anything link to anything else?

Not everything cheap is junk, of course. Like Christians, judge ’em by their fruits. But don’t let the purchase price influence your decision to buy it.

And if you bought junk, return it! If you already ordered the 20-volume set of The Very Best of Pelagian Preachers (I hope there’s not really such a thing) return it.

Too many people assume that after you’ve read a book, you can’t return it. And honestly, booksellers would prefer you believe that. But a book is like any other product: If you can’t use it, you may as well take it back.

However. If you creased the heck out of it or used a highlighter on it, they won’t take it back. And this’ll teach you to stop doing that. (And if it’s a gift, and someone wrote a dedication to you in it… well, you could always turn the books into decoupage.)

Take store trade, pay the restocking fee, and replace it with something good. And do it quickly. Useless books lose their value fast. If you try to resell these things on Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s websites, you’ll find a lot of them are reselling for a dollar or less. Booksellers just wanna be rid of the stupid things. (That’s one of the tip-offs about how good a book is: If it’s still in print, but the very same edition is reselling at a huge discount, it’s probably crap.)

Sometimes the bookstore asks why you’re returning it, and telling them “poor theology” has a tendency to make it back to the publisher. I don’t know how much impact it’ll have, but it’s worth a shot.

And when it’s good, recommend it! People tend to notice when Christians are trying to be religious about our relationship with Jesus, and they tend to pay attention to what we’re doing. If they’re smart, they realize we’re headed in the right direction. So when we recommend a good book or resource, they know it’s good advice—at least, it’s better advice than they’ll get from the overzealous fanboy who just reads anything his favorite preachers write, and accept them as if they’re brand-new books of the bible.

Religious Christians are always looking for resources—’cause we know we don’t know it all!—and we can help one another find good stuff, and weed out the bad stuff.

That said, happy shopping.

Book pile.