“When you go to the Christian bookstore, or even our church library, make sure to use your discernment. There’s a lot of garbage in there.”
It hurts every time I say it, but I have a responsibility to the people I teach every Sunday at church, to warn them about theological wolves and to prepare them for spiritual battle. Sadly, the battle these days often has to be fought on our side of the theological lines.
The news broke in the last week that Alex Malarkey, a young man who is the subject of a popular book called “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” has recanted his story. He says now that he made it up as a child and that his father wrote the book and has been profiting from it for years. Malarkey and his mother have made attempts for the last few years to get the book pulled by the publisher and removed from Christian bookstores. Their efforts had been fruitless until this week, when the story broke nationally and hit the major mainstream media outlets. This finally earned a response from the publisher and Christian retailer Lifeway, who have pulled the books and related products.
I’m not going to rehash all the details of this situation, because others (like Pulpit and Pen) have done it more thoroughly. Instead, I want to talk about Lifeway.
Lifeway Christian Resources began as the Baptist Sunday School Board, originally publishing Sunday School materials for the Southern Baptist Convention before growing into the national non-profit Christian retailer that it is today. While it receives no funding from the SBC (per the Wiki page), it is still tied inextricably to Baptist life and thought.
Despite this shared history with a conservative evangelical denomination, the company seems to be driven by what’s profitable rather than what’s doctrinally sound. When you walk into a Lifeway store, you see displays and promotions for books like Jesus Calling (a contemplative mystic devotional that purports to be extrabiblical personal “impressions” from Jesus Himself), 4 Blood Moons (John Hagee’s ludicrous and poorly-researched End Times theology), and various books by TD Jakes (Oneness Pentecostal who consistently flirts with modalist heresy), Rob Bell (do I even need to…?), Steven Furtick (consistently interprets the Bible as being more about you than about Jesus), and others.** For the record, there are many others I could name, including some particularly popular books among the members of my own church. All of these are books and materials with questionable-at-best and heretical-at-worst teachings and theology. Still, they are sold because they “sell.”
For the longest time, Lifeway was even giving choice display locations to the “heaven tourism” books, like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real and Malarkey’s book. This was even after the Southern Baptist Convention clearly decried these books as being potentially dangerous and often “antithetical to Scripture.” (I just checked, and it appears that Malarkey’s books and most of Burpo’s books seem to be missing from the Lifeway website. Oddly, you can still order Don (not John) Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven, because… yeah.)
So what does this mean for me personally? I’ve always been wary when I shop at Christian bookstores like Lifeway and Mardel, businesses that are intended to be for the good of the church but that sell books and products that are spiritually questionable or even destructive. It always hurts a little bit to see the “Bestsellers” rack, and count at least a half-dozen that I would consider outright theological garbage.
I expect there will be those who would respond, “What’s the solution, Dave? Censorship? Even if you think that’s a good thing, who decides what stays and goes? Whose filter should we use–yours?” I can appreciate this response, so I’ll answer the two potential objections in order.
First, what I’m proposing isn’t true censorship. I still think people like Joel Osteen and Rob Bell should be free to publish whatever they want, as should people like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. America is a pluralistic society, so I believe every voice should have the opportunity to be raised. What I’m talking about is not a “free speech” issue; it’s a discernment issue. If you’re running a Christian (and especially an Evangelical) business, and you purportedly care about how your products affect the spiritual lives of your customers, then that should dictate what you sell in your business. Furthermore, I think you are, at some level, spiritually responsible for what you promote and put in the hands of your customers.
But who decides? That’s the question. I recognize it’s a thorny issue without an easy solution. I further understand that it would be almost impossible to please everyone. That said, here’s where I’ve landed on the issue: I’ve decided that, as best as I can, I’m going to avoid doing business with these stores. I’m not launching a boycott. I’m not starting a campaign or coining a trendy hashtag. But I think, when possible, I’m going to choose a different retailer for my book purchases, even if it’s a secular retailer like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There may be times when I need to hold my nose and buy from Lifeway, but until the culture of the company changes, I think this is what I need to do.
I’m not telling you what to decide. If you want to buy from these Christian bookstores, that’s fine, and I will think no less of you. However, I’m starting to see it the way I’m starting to view two-party politics: the only way we impact the direction of the enterprise is if enough people stand up and say “no more.”
I’m interested in what you think about this. Am I going about this the wrong way? Is there something I’m not considering? Please let me know below in the comments.
**UPDATE: Eagle-eyed reader Jimmy Sloan noted that Lifeway doesn’t sell Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer, and “never has.” That is my mistake–I was confusing Lifeway and Mardel (easy enough to do). I have corrected the paragraph, removed those two authors, and added a replacement (Furtick) who I know is still being sold in Lifeway. Thank you, Jimmy, for caring enough about this issue to help me correct my mistake!