I have long made the differentiation between “good” and “important” books. In my experience, all good books are important, but there are many important books that are anything but good. The Shack is an important book, (but in few ways good) as are The Prayer of Jabez, The Secret, The Purpose Driven Life, and The Seat of the Soul. Each of these books became popular best sellers, exerting an enormous amount of influence, but are deeply flawed by horrendous theology and an egregious lack of intellectual integrity.
These are important books because people are reading them — they connect with some basic human hunger and offer an appealing source of sustenance. But what they offer is of inferior quality at best. They offer simple answers to complex questions — a smorgasboard of materialistic, simplistic, shallow, cheap, superficial and innocuous solutions to the most challenging of life’s problems. No wonder they are popular.
But popular and valuable are two different things. There are very few simple answers to the complex problems of life. Feeling better — the gift of many of these books — is a limited value. It requires that we set aside our common sense and mindfulness to accept a facile, and ultimately unsatisfying, solution to our deepest distress. For many, this is enough. But for thoughtful, mindful people, this is deeply dissatisfying.
What is needed is safe space in which to examine and explore the great questions of life, and to deal with life’s most challenging disappointments. What is needed is community — where trust, respect, honesty and common concern predominate. When people cannot find such healthy environments, they turn to pop-psychology (pop-theology) self-help books. What an enormous opportunity we miss as the church when we cannot provide such a safe space.
There are many books that are important, but not good. It would be nice to be able to focus on “good” books, but they tend not to make the best-seller lists. They require too much attention, commitment, and sacrifice. Instead, we are left with a parade of simple and often silly titles that promise easy answers. But these are the books that people read, and it is vitally important that congregational leaders be prepared to discuss them with our congregational members. We need to know what we really believe so that we can help people discern what is truly worthy information from what is worthless. We need to help people navigate the frothy surf of new-age and ridiculous beliefs, to sail toward that which gives life and hope. There is much that distracts, misleads, and misrepresents. What we need most are sensible leaders who employ basic common sense and critical thinking to help our communities of faith separate “the wheat from the chaff.” We need courageous leaders who will expose that which is merely popular, and help lead people to that which is truly important.