I've worked in the Christian publishing industry since 1998, so was naturally interested in Tim Challies’ latest video blog on those books he judges to be the most ridiculous books ever to become Christian best-sellers:
I couldn’t disagree with four of his five choices. I have long thought The Prayer of Jabez is tosh, and I refused to join in a church study group based on it. It suffers – as so many doctrines and books do – from being built on a foundation too small and weak to support it. As Challies says, the book takes one short descriptive piece from the Old Testament, and builds a prescriptive instruction on it. So Jabez prayed, therefore we should pray: God blessed him, so therefore he will bless us: we can have whatever we want. See the series of quantum leaps there?
Passing over Challies’ other choices – Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now, Mark Batterson's The Circle Maker, and the genre he calls "Heaven Tourism" – I have no disagreement with him on any of them.
But then we come to Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. To understand how terrible this book is, he says, we need to go back to the very first edition, in which Young apparently explained that she wanted to hear God’s voice for herself, in addition to what she could gain from the Bible – the Bible was not "enough". Challies is clearly horrified by the very idea. To him, the Bible is all we need, all that is on offer, and the way of hearing God’s voice.
But is it? Does it even claim to be? Is he perhaps guilty also of building (as many have done before him) a huge doctrine upon a narrow base?
The verses usually given to support the supreme importance – even the infallibility – of the Bible – is 2 Timothy 3:16, although Challies clearly believes his doctrine on the Bible is self-evident, as he doesn’t use any references at all, simply saying that most Christians have always believed it.
This ignores the fact that the Christian Church was Catholic for hundreds of years before the Reformation, and for much of that time, the Bible shared its authority with tradition and the Church, just as it does now. But it also seems to state that we can only hear God’s voice, be guided by him, by and through Scripture. That discounts Jesus’s words that his flock hear his voice.
It means if you have no access to the Bible – as many didn’t, for hundreds of years, because it was not available in their own language – then they would have been cut off from hearing from God. No access to the Bible – no access to God’s voice. It obviously means that prophecies and speaking in tongues, accepted today in charismatic circles as being a way of hearing from God (albeit one that needs discernment) would also be discounted…and what would Challies make of Paul’s beliefs on the value of prophecies and interpreted tongues in the New Testament years?
Moreover, while the 2 Timothy verse make claims for "all Scripture" it doesn’t claim that they are all we need. And finally, of course, when Paul wrote these words, he was referring to the Old Testament. The New Testament canon had not yet been decided - so was he prophesying? Did he really know that one day there would be a collection of his letters, with some other stories, that would constitute the New Testament, and be claimed as the be-all and end-all of what God wanted to say?
Publishers need to make money
What do these books tell us about the Christian publishing industry? Probably not as much as they tell us about the individual humans who make up the Church, and who buy Christian books. Publishing is a business, and if publishers don’t make money, they go out of business.
The Prayer of Jabez sold in enormous numbers because it appeared to say that God had hidden a magic spell in the Bible – say these words, in this order, and you will have whatever you want. Why did people fall for it? Because they wanted it to be true. It is not a matter of being rational, but of an emotional response. It is an attitude that we have seen repeated perhaps in political judgements made in the USA, where the bulk of the sales for all these books have been achieved. Should those who bought them have been capable of better analysis, of being more rational? Yes.
So does that let the publishers off the hook – they are simply providing what people want and trying to keep in business? No, it doesn’t. We are responsible for what we publish – perhaps even, as the New Testament says, we may be counted alongside teachers who will be judged more severely. But it is up to the entire Church to take responsibility for what we take on board.
Ali Hull is a freelance writer, commissioning editor and PR practitioner