The Important-Good Distinction

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 stupidityconnect 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.

13 replies

  1. This is incredibly helpful. I know that I need to read what the people in my church read, but so much of it is drivel. I would add the DaVinci Code to your list. What an incredible mess, but it made many of my church people convinced of a Catholic conspiracy to take over the world! What a load of manure! I didn’t respond to your post on The Shack, but it was incisive and accurate — it says what all church leaders should be saying. These are not “good” books, no matter how popular they may be. We cannot, as leaders in the church, stand by while these terribly “new-age” voices shape the direction of our church. We need to know what to say to people who are mislead by this garbage. Otherwise, what we offer is NOT leadership.

    • Thanks for the affirmation, Sylvia. I’m not sure everyone agrees with you. I cannot emphasize enough the role of leadership to know what is out there, to help people discern the good from the bad, and to help people learn to think critically and theologically about all the conflicting information they encounter. If we do nothing else, we do an invaluable service by helping our people think critically.

  2. I am writing from the Netherlands where I feel we are experiencing much the same thing. How have we come to a place where people do not use discretion in their reading? Why are we taking things at their face value and not asking more questions. I read your view on The Shack and it is the most sensible, articulate, and theologically based view I have seen. I am in complete agreement with you that good books are seldom the popular books, and while popularity may make them important, they are seldom good. Are Christians so ignorant that they do not discern, as you say and the Bible says, wheat from chaff? What accounts for our apparent inability to tell the difference between what is good and what is not?

    • I really don’t think it is a matter of ignorance — more of laziness or sloppiness. Adults in the U.S. are not challenged to think critically or to work very hard at looking below the surface for deeper messages. Television is not challenging — it is basically an escape. Most fiction on our bestseller lists are written at a third grade reading level. Like a muscle, the brain (I know it’s not a muscle, but like a muscle…) needs exercise in order to stay sharp. I don’t think most people pick up a Shack or Purpose Driven Life to be challenged or to learn anything, but to find comfort, assurance, or simply a good, simple story. The best thinkers I know dismiss both these books as fluff — nice messages lacking substance or depth. This doesn’t make them bad books… just not GOOD books.

    • Years ago (when the book first came out) I wrote a short review. I can’t find a copy of it here, but I do remember four of the main points I focused on.

      1. The book is a mixed bag of good and bad – with many helpful observations and suggestions, but limited by the individualistic perspective.
      2. Where is the community? A healthy faith is more than me and my buddy Jesus figuring out why I was born.
      3. Values and identity precede purpose – it is great to have a personal mission and sense of purpose, but it cannot exist apart from clarity of core values, fundamental beliefs, and a carefully examined and understood worldview (which a small group to discuss what the book really means can provide)
      4. It bears more resemblance to new-age-y, pop-psychology self-help books than a serious guide for spiritual formation and development. What disciples spend a lifetime on is likely to take more than 40 days, even for the most adamant readers. Making Christianity simple, easy, and undemanding is not ultimately helpful.

      That said, I do find merit in many portions of P.D.L., though I do not recommend it. Any time the problems outweigh the benefits, I tend to tred lightly. P.D.L. falls into my “important, but not good” book category.

  3. Maybe things haven’t changed. I always thought The Shepherd of Hermas fell into the “important (for it’s day) but not good” category. In the secular realm as well, many of the popular writings of previous eras are not longer read today — precisely because they were not good.

  4. There are a couple things i disagree with in this post and replies (and since most here are affirming, a little criticism might be good to include…).

    I would disagree first that adults have become lazy to thinking critically in general. Perhaps, i am mischaracterizing some points here, but the people i encounter are very deep thinkers. The problem is they think deeply in some areas, but not in the important areas. For example, people can talk for hours about future possibilities for the show Lost (of which i am a fan). What does this mean? Will this change the future? Is this person really gone? How might they stay alive? Harry Potter conversations were similarly prevalent until the completion of the series.

    People think critically at work, in how to resolve issues with family, and with works of fiction across multiple forms of media. The trouble is that people often struggle to think critically when it comes to their own lives. So books like PDL do have a purpose in keeping things simple, simple because the vast majority of people are ready yet to think deeper than that book goes.

    PDL gives, in my experience, a great launch point from which to have those deeper, more critical conversations. I would disagree that PDL is not fellowship oriented as a whole chapter is about the importance of fellowship in the church and in a small group. Then we take it deeper. If someone reads PDL and then goes back to it a couple years later and still finds it as fulfilling, that becomes a problem. I think the issue i’ve encountered more and more, especially when i left seminary, was that i assumed people had been educated in the things i was educated in. The truth is many people now never grew up going to church. They never studied things like creeds, or heard the Word of God regularly, and so for them books like PDL is as advanced as they can begin.

    Just some points i thought of off the top of my head…

    • I’m not sure we’re very far apart, Adam. I tried to say that some of these works can have value where there is safe space to unpack what is said — so when a group can move through a popular piece, the serious shortcomings can be addressed.

      As to Lost — I don’t know. Most of the deep thinkers I know walked away from the show because of all the glaring inconsistencies and impossibilities, but then most of the people I know are cynics and cranks anyway. I wish as many people would give the same kind of time and attention to understanding God’s Will for their lives as they give to “who’s going to go rogue and mess things up for everyone else on the island?” You may be breathing rarified air — the feedback I get from most pastors is that people don’t want to wrestle with much of anything intellectually.

  5. John Dewey (atheist philosopher) said people don’t think unless they have to. We are creatures of settled habit. Only when those settled ways are disrupted, do we begin to look around and figure out why.

    Even then, we often accept the first plausible answer that comes along. It takes effort and discipline to engage in careful inquiry or “wrestle with” tough questions.

    This is why cultivating new habits has always been a central parts of some spiritual traditions. People don’t function well in a state of constant inquiry. But if you can create new habits, they will persist in those just as stubbornly as they used to cling to the old ones.

    Or, that’s the theory.

    Thank you, for your early comments on PDL (I learned a new acronym).

  6. I’m a Presbyterian who has been “eavesdropping” on your site, and I find it very helpful. We experience much of what you do. I just wanted to say that I have read both your “best books” — by Osler and Jenkins and feel that they model what you are talking about when you say that some books are both good and important. I think both of these books qualify, and I look forward to your future recommendations. I am tired of slogging through what’s popular — important or not, bad books — like those you mention — get old fast. Glad I found your site. Thanks

    • Thanks, Brady, but my “best books” so far are Philip Jenkins and Gustav Niebuhr (Beyond Tolerance). I absolutely love the Osler book, think it’s great, but it lacks some of the universal appeal of the two others. I encourage everyone to read Jesus on Death Row, but I believe it is essential that people read Jenkins and Niebuhr for the good of the church and the future of the Christian faith. My standard for choosing a “best book” is that I think it has the potential to positively influence and aid anyone who reads it. Keep watching. I have a long list and will be posting a new one every week or so.

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