The books of a Christian’s library.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 December

Birthdays and Christmas frequently mean gift cards, and if you got one you might be thinking, “Hmm, what books ought I buy?” But probably not. People don’t read.

Okay you clearly do, if you read TXAB. But most don’t. Christians might read the bible, though many of us consider it a massive struggle; a New Year’s resolution we never get round to completing, and peter out in March along with our gym memberships. We’ll read little else. We don’t want any more books, and figure most Christian books are either poorly-written fiction, repackaged sermons, or light devotional stuff which are no deeper than the stuff we hear Sunday morning. (Which largely ain’t wrong.)

So I rarely get asked, “What books should I own?” Most Christians figure if their Christian library contains a bible alone, they’re good.

Sometimes more than one bible. Maybe a study bible; maybe a concordance, exhaustive or not; maybe an inexpensive one-volume bible commentary, like Matthew Henry’s. Maybe a prayer book or devotional.

The rest will be the odd Christian book they were given as gifts, or bought when a traveling preacher visited the church and had a book table, or bought because they heard it was really good… so they read it, and likely won’t read it twice.

Ought we own more than that? Well, it won’t hurt.

Get a bible app!

If you don’t own a bible app (and for you older readers, “app” means “software”), get one.

No you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg for apps and in-app purchases. I have; you needn’t. There’s lots of free stuff out there. But free means you’re dependent on how much time the programmers wanna dedicate to making the best possible app… and free often means they can’t afford to put that time in. And because all the current bible translations are under copyright, free also means you’re gonna have to settle for old translations like the KJV and ASV—which are fine, but you might have a newer favorite.

Some of the free apps are internet-dependent. Like Bible Gateway and YouVersion: Really, their apps are just custom internet browsers which only show their websites. Which is fine… and kinda handy, since you don’t have to download any translations or resources. And you have access to all their translations, which they already licensed so you don’t have to.

But internet dependency has a catch: If you don’t have wifi, or ran out of data on your phone, the apps don’t work, and you’re not carrying a bible. I remember one bible study I attended where a woman had that very problem: “Oh, Bible Gateway doesn’t work on my iPad.” Well duh; you’re offline. So she naïvely asked our host, “What’s your wifi password?” and he got all uncomfortable; he didn’t want to give it out! (Me, I don’t even have my wifi password memorized; I’d have to look on the bottom of the router.) So yeah, a lack of internet is gonna happen from time to time. You’re gonna need at least one translation downloaded onto your machine. So, does your bible app install anything for offline use? If not, you’re gonna need that.

If you have a bible app, you don’t need a concordance: The app’s search functions will tell you every instance of a word. Most of them let you tap or double-click on a word, and then show the original-language dictionary definition of that word. (If it doesn’t, get a better app.) So if you’re on John 3.16 and wanna know the original Greek word for “everlasting”/“eternal,” your program should at least provide the Strong number, but ideally the dictionary entry for αἰώνιος/eónios should pop up.

A good bible app will also include, or let you buy modules for, other translations, bible dictionaries, and bible commentaries. In fact instead of filling your bookshelves, you can just buy a bunch of computer modules. Really handy, ’cause now you can carry your “bookshelves” everywhere.

Yeah, there are print versions.

If you prefer analog resource materials, fine. They take longer to search, aren’t as portable, you can’t adjust the font size, and spilling coffee on them tends to destroy them. But some people just gotta read books instead of screens. So for them, here’s a list of the useful resources a Christian might want.

BIBLES, obviously. More than one translation, because if you’re doing serious bible study you gotta compare multiple translations. Publishers have parallel bibles, which line up two or four translations (or even eight!) side by side so you can compare and contrast.

Need they be study bibles? That’s optional. Study bibles come with a built-in commentary, but you can of course buy a separate commentary.

Yeah, there are daily bibles which split the scriptures into 365 segments so you can read the bible in a year. I don’t think anyone needs one, but you might want one to help you with your bible-reading plan. (I still think mine’s better.)

CONCORDANCES are what people used before search engines: If you want to find a word in the bible—if you wanna see how many times “love” is in there, or you remember there’s a specific verse with a certain word in it but you can’t recall its address—the concordance lists every single instance of every single word in the bible. That’s why they’re huge books. A good concordance includes links to the original-language words. An okay concordance will simply help you find your verses.

BIBLE DICTIONARIES are properly one-volume bible encyclopedias: They don’t define bible words, so much as they give you some backstory on the item you’re looking up. If you look up “Messiah,” it won’t just tell you messiah means “anointed [king],” but tell you what the Hebrew people believed messiahs were; about their expectations of an ultimate, greatest Messiah; and how we Christians understand that Messiah to be Jesus. And of course proof texts for everything, so we can read it in the bible for ourselves.

BIBLE COMMENTARIES. Yep, many a Christian has gone through the bible line by line, and told the world what they think of it. Bible commentaries tend to be of three sorts:

  1. Historical commentaries give us the historical background of the bible, so we can better understand it from the viewpoint of those it was written to.
  2. Devotional commentaries are really about material for meditation: The commentator points out some interesting things to think about. Sometimes they’re deep ideas; sometimes not.
  3. Theological commentaries promote a specific point of view. If you want a commentary that’ll really encourage you to be Catholic, Pentecostal, Calvinist, or dispensationalist; if you want a commentary that really zeroes in on End Times prophecies, or promotes young-earth creationism and its theories, or even encourage you to be a politically conservative American, there are actually bible commentaries spun all these ways.

For serious study, you want historical commentaries. Devotional commentaries can also be useful when you need your thoughts provoked. But I have no use for theological commentaries; nearly all of them are trying to force their worldview upon the bible. They’re only good for self-justification, and there’s way too much of that in Christendom already.

BIBLE HANDBOOKS are actually bible survey textbooks: If you ever took a college course on bible, this is what you’d read. They give you an overview of the bible’s historical background. The whole bible—unlike commentaries which focus only on one book or chapter or verse at a time—so you get a good overview.

PRAYER BOOKS are great for helping you pray better, or in greater depth. As for prayer journals, you get an empty notebook and make it yourself.

DEVOTIONAL BOOKS do the same as devotional commentaries, but bounce around the bible a lot more. Some, like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, are arranged so you can read a chapter every day for a year, and use the author’s thoughts as a starting point for meditation. Other books are more designed for you to meditate on it rather than on scripture… which is not so profitable. Yeah, with effort you can use it as a starting point, but you might not care to put in so much effort. Stick with the devotionals which point you to scripture.

Your other needs depend on you.

Since everyone is different, some Christians will need other things on their shelves. Christians of different denominations might need their churches’ catechisms or official prayer books, or other official reference materials. Musicians will need music books and hymnals. Christian leaders will need leadership resources. And so on.

If you can’t afford all these things, relax. Many of them can be downloaded off the internet for free. Many can also be found in public or church libraries. Save up for the few things you can’t afford—or put them on your Christmas and birthday lists.

If you don’t read—and you’re certainly not alone—the idea of having to get all these books, and actually look through them, will bug you. You should be able to find audio versions of some of them; definitely the bibles, but it’s less likely with the reference books.

But more likely you just need to get disciplined about reading period. I’ve known many people who never bothered to read anything till they became Christian… and suddenly they found they couldn’t stop reading. If you really want wisdom and knowledge, that’s how you get it the fastest: Get to reading!