Essay / Theology

Evangelicals Recommending Books

A hundred years ago, in a 1911 issue of The King’s Business, the founders of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles made this proclamation: “Buying and selling books with some, is like buying and selling potatoes –a mere perfunctory business. With us, buying and selling books is a matter of as much spiritual import as teaching the Bible.”

Could these doughty, radical evangelicals, these proto-Fundamentalists, whose glory was their confession (contra liberalism!) that the Bible is the very word of God, really have meant to call book-selling “a matter of as much spiritual import as teaching the Bible?” Yes, they meant it. And evangelicals have long understood that the power of life and death is often in the recommendation of a book.

They were not, of course, suggesting that other books were on a level with Scripture. They said no such thing. What they said was that they considered their ministry of handling books (stocking them in their downtown bookstore, endorsing and recommending “Best Books,” distributing them free of charge when possible) to be a ministry as serious as their ministry of teaching Scripture. These aren’t just potatoes we’re moving here, these are words that form souls, move hearts, change minds. These are books!

We handle books for the glory of God and cannot buy or sell those that we do not believe will accord with the teaching of God’s Word.

The reading of one book might undermine the faith of a person or destroy his soul.

The reading of another book might lead a soul into the eternal light or arouse to a life of devotion.

It is almost a hallmark of evangelicalism to take book recommendations so seriously. Evangelical protestants don’t have nihil obstats or imprimaturs from a central magisterium, but in its place they have a network of endorsements and recommendations. Seen from this perspective, maybe one of J.I. Packer’s most important ministries has been his ubiquitous endorsing of good books for decades. I don’t know if blurbing could be a spiritual gift, but if it is, Packer may have been exercising it.

The book-network goes as far back among evangelicals as you’d care to trace it. The Reformation in England started as a network of book recommendations among the scholars at Cambridge: not just a covert circulating library for forbidden books by Luther, but a regular Erasmus Book Club meeting at the White Horse Inn.

In the great awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, the circulation and recommendation of best books was a driving force. Susannah Wesley recommended Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man to her son Charles, who recommended it to George Whitefield, who said he never knew what true religion was until he was enlightened by that book. Another book these evangelicals circulated, Francke’s Nicodemus (now little heard of), provoked Whitefield and Wesley to stifle their fear of man and take to open-air preaching.

“Books from time to time bowled Wesley over,” says one historian, and a born influencer like John Wesley was bound to pass along these books which had become events in his life. Contrarily, when he read a bad book (especially by an author he had reason to expect better of), he warned people away from it as if it were poison. Though he had learned so much from William Law’s early works, when Law’s later works took a turn toward the mystical, Wesley denounced them in public and scolded Law in a personal letter.

In fact, after his evangelical awakening at Aldersgate, Wesley wrote to Law in the strongest terms, demanding to know why Law had never written more clearly about justification by faith. For all the good that Wesley had drawn from Law’s books, when he looked back on them he noticed that the most important thing was missing. He wrote to Law:

How will you answer it to our common Lord that you never gave me this advice? Did you never read the Acts of the Apostles, or the answer of Paul to him who said, ‘What must I do to be saved’? Or are you wiser than he? Why did I scarce ever hear you name the name of Christ; never, so as to ground anything upon ‘faith in His blood’? …If you say you advised other things as preparatory to this, what is this but laying a foundation below the foundation? Is not Christ, then, the first as well as the last? If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not in the heart.

Wesley presses Law even further, asking him to “consider deeply and impartially, whether the true reason of your never pressing this upon me was not this — that you had it not yourself.”

These are harsh words, but Wesley strikes the true evangelical note when he talks of books as having the power of life and death in them. Once he came to experience saving faith in Christ, he looked back with shame and horror on some of the books he had recommended before. They were good books, but some of them (especially his favorite, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ) talked up obedience to the exclusion of faith, highlighted personal righteousness and obscured the righteousness of Christ. Little wonder that Wesley spent so much energy in later life in circulating “Best Books,” books he selected more carefully with an eye on the main things of the gospel: his Christian Library that he distributed through his network of preachers.

“Buying and selling books with some, is like buying and selling potatoes.” But evangelicals are in earnest about the books they recommend and pass around to each other. The simple question, “What’s a good book to read on subject X?” is not just a bibliographic query; It can provoke considerable soul-searching. On that book recommendation hangs serious responsibility, and the possibility of great blessing.

In addition to that Packeresque gift of blurbing, there is a more pastoral gift of discerning which book is good for a soul at a particular time. Fitting the book to the person and the moment is an art that demands prayerful consideration. It can be as serious as teaching the Bible. Brothers, be not many book recommenders.

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