Post Summary: This post will give you some guidelines and help towards making wise purchases on buying Christian books. No I am not promoting any particular book or Christian publisher in general, and I don’t mention any in general. These are general spiritual and common sense guidelines.
Some General Considerations
Is it legal?
Probably one of the least thought of questions in book hunting is if it is legal. This issue didn’t really exist until the Internet. Today you can get all kinds of copyrighted books via the Internet. The question you should ask yourself, is not if you can obtain the book, but can you obtain the book legally.
Granted that the copyright laws are a tangled mess that probably the lawyers and judges hardly understand them, and between them, they fight as to what is legal, but basically the rule of thumb is, if it was written after the “safe” date (which in 2011 is around 1922, then it is okay. The other factors are if it was renewed (which you will have to investigate the copyright laws to know this), and if it is copyrighted and the author grants his or her permission to be distributed for free.
But it is a consideration that should be examined seriously by every Christian. You wouldn’t steal a typewriter to write a sermon, because God wouldn’t bless your creative efforts if you sin in the process. Likewise no books can be good for a Christian spiritually if he sins in obtaining it.
How much do I have to invest to use it?
This is another question that needs to be addressed. Why does a thick theological book cost so much? You can invest a week or two’s salary for some of these commentary sets. Why? Even if you have that kind of money, is it wise Christian stewardship to keep this Christian book industry draining the blood of Christians constantly?
Kindle’s and the like. These devices come on the market to “fill a niche”. The real niche they are filling is that book publishers cannot economically print books anymore. They have grown into an industry that prints a normal book for 1 or 2 dollars and then turns around and sells that book for $20, claiming that they have expenses. Their “expenses” are the overhead that they want (a million dollar complex rather than renting some warehouse) and advertising, where they spend money hand over fist with no real returns to their business. In other words they waste great amounts of money in the latest, the greatest, and in personal pleasures as a business.
Now that those 1 or 2 dollars have turned into 5 or 10, they cannot make 1000% gain on their money, and electronic texts are making their warehouses burst with unsold books.
Kindles, iPads, Android tablet PCs, and the rest of these devices that are coming out are making it possible to put a library of thousands and thousands of books on something the size of 2 dozen sheets of paper. The problems here (that I see) are (1) they are charging for these books, which means you have to calculate the cost of the device plus the cost of the book. (2) the books remain in the system, “their” property, not yours. When Apple or Kindle wants to put an App or book, they flip a switch and you no longer have an accessible copy of your book. (3) As the formats change, you pay more. Upgrading is good except when it is frequent, not feature-rich, and costly, (and is solely the company’s possession). This makes your investment in a book nebulous. Are you paying for a book to read it only once?
Ruppert Murdoch, the king of content (he owns several media giants), has said that his vision of the future is that every time a person reads a book, watches TV or a movie, that should have to pay again. You never “own” anything, you just pay for the rights to read it once. Thankfully Congress hasn’t conceded everything to him yet. You still have rights when you purchase a book.
The most important aspect is the cost. How much should you pay for a book? This element should be carefully weighed. The value of the book should be measured by its value to you. Good books can be had for free, so why pay outrageous amounts for paper books?
How long will the work last? When you buy a book in a pdf format (for example). The book never physically wears out, and you can make copies to protect against loss, so this is an important consideration also. Paper and ink books get old, and sometimes water damage, mildew damage, and even worms eat their merry little way through your book. How do these things affect the “wiseness” of your investment?
What is the format of the book?
Electronic or Paper and Ink
Very simple both have their advantages. You need to weigh both sides, and not “make a policy” for or against one or the other.
Paper and Ink Books. These are “old school”, but most of the older generation would better use and get better understanding from a paper and ink book. There are possibilities of deterioration from an old book, but you don’t erase the contents of a paper book by passing a magnetic over it, and I have yet to see the hard disk crash or a virus destroy a paper book.
Electronic books. The problem with paper books and the older generation is that at some point, your eyesight becomes worse, and reading a lot with a magnifying glass isn’t pretty. You can get a very large monitor and still read an electronic book. Moreover, you can also text search an electronic book very fast and accurately. What you can do as far as finding things in an electronic book is heads and shoulders above any paper book.
Programs like TheWord allow you to search every single book in your library for a particular word, phrase, etc, as well as doing complex searches that would simply be impossible in a paper book, and even if you could do these searches in a paper book, it would be very time consuming.
One of the main disadvantages of electronic books is the format that you have to use to read them. Paper and ink books “lend themselves” to notes in the margins, and electronic books don’t. Also in studying and using heavily a paper book (like your Bible), your mind actually memorizes where on the page a certain text is. Electronic texts defeat and ruin this.
At the same time cross referencing, defining hard, little understood words, linking to deeper explanations, and other such things are very easy to do in electronic texts, and impossible almost in paper and ink books. (Physical size versus price becomes a restricting factor in physical books.)
Is it complete?
I don’t like to purchase an incomplete book. To me, any book without a table of contents is incomplete. Also the book is incomplete in my view if the book doesn’t tell me something pertinent and useful about the orientaton of the author. I want to know who he was, his background, and his doctrinal orientation.
Who wrote the book?
Was he/is he a Christian?
The first and most important consideration for buying or obtaining a book is who was the author. Sometimes it is extremely important to know at what point in his life did he write that particular book. Sir Robert Anderson was Brethren at the beginning of his ministry, and he changed to Presbyterian. Henry Paul Newman was an anglican priest writing many tracts and works against Catholicism, and he got involved in the Oxford Movement to return the Anglican church into Roman Catholicism, and eventually he left the Anglican church and rejoined the Roman Catholic Church and was finally beautified by the pope. Wouldn’t it be important to know where in all that mess of theological movement he was when he wrote a particular work? Arthur Pink was a dispensationalist Baptist that changed to heavily Reformed Calvinist position, and towards the end of his ministry, he didn’t even attend any church because he thought all organized religion (i.e. formal churches) were of the devil. Theodore Austin-Sparks was Baptist, and got involved in the Deeper Life movement of the Holiness Movement and left the Baptist name altogether, calling himself an “ex-Baptist”.
All of this points up the need to know the spiritual relationship of the author with God, and his doctrinal orientation. When you look at a book, consider who wrote it before you consider what is in it.
What doctrinal and denomination orientation did he have?
Most of the time, authors write from their own heart, their own personal perspective, and their own perspective. Knowing that perspective beforehand is very important in making wise decisions in getting a book. I have on my website a large range of theological perspectives, from Catholic to Baptist to Brethren to Presbyterian, from Arminian to Calvinist-Reformed.
Having studied many different groups, it is important to remember that a person’s personal relationship with God (his salvation status) is something that is dependent on his understanding and having saving faith in Jesus Christ, not necessarily the church he attends or the names by which he calls himself. I would like to be able to say that all Baptists are saved, and only read or buy books written by Baptists (if you can find them because the entire range of books written by Baptist is so small as to almost be non-existent). I could even expand on that to say only books written by Independent, Fundamental Baptists. But having personally known some (which what I think) are unsaved Baptist preachers on a dictator control the world insanity benge, others which don’t have a clue as to what salvation is much less spirituality, and having read books by people that according to their denominational affiliation, I would say they have to be unsaved, but I actually reading their books, they express a very devout seriousness and impartiality in studying the Bible and presenting true information, or even a real insight that most other people pass over without ever noticing. So my conclusion is that there are some good stuff in books by people that would make you raise your eyebrows when you know their affilitation and orientation.
Truth is truth, and we can only judge what is true by how it corresponds correctly and neatly with divine revelation. When an author grasps a divine truth, study the Bible verses he uses, his logic as his unwraps those verses and explains them. Judge his logic and deductions from Scripture, not his orientation at that point. When you have finished reading his work, then check what is his doctrinal orientation and affiliation, and then see if he has shown heavy bias or prejudice against or for on that basis of his doctrinal orientation and affiliation.
Good valid observations are valid even when made by the worst of people.
Did his religious bias and prejudices show in his book?
Thayer comes to mind here. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon is a standard in most Seminary Greek classes (at least in years past). Thayer (and equally Barclay) were Universalists. I loved Thayer’s Greek Lexicon out of the several that I had in seminary, and one day when I was a pastor and new missionary here in Mexico City, I started doing some “basic Bible studies” to try to understand better and deeper what some of the basic concepts and words we use all the time, but just assume we know their meanings. I started a study on the word “God” in the whole Bible, and with my new (first ever) computer with a Bible program (CompuBible back then) I started going through every verse in the Bible that had the word “God” in it. During that study I got out my lexicons and I checked Thayer. In the definition for “theos” (God) he says “mistakenly attributed to Jesus Christ.” I was floored.
By that time I had done probably 40 Greek and Hebrew Word Studies, and in the Greek I used Thayer a lot, and I never saw anything that I would consider prejudice or bias, until this one. I read the introduction and preface to the lexicon and recognized the Unitarian identification of Thayer. That introductory material is very important to read before using a book. You get to know the author there, and that can mean all the difference in the world.
To be honest and fair, I think both Thayer and Barclay has a lot of good material. Just don’t believe everything you read when crossing their doctrinal bias or you will be led astray.
Was the author a woman?
I am not a sexist, in the sense that all women are inferior. But I am a biblicist, somebody who holds the Bible as literal, true, and as my spiritual authority.
1Cor 14:34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
1Tim 2:11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
It is obvious that the Bible teaches that women are not to teach, usurp the authority over a man, but rather they are to be in silence. I understand this teaching as not conflicting with women as teachers of good things (Titus 2:3) to children and youth, and the elder, wiser Christian women are to teach the younger inexperienced women (Titus 2:4). On that basis, I think it is perfectly correct that a woman teach children, youth, and other women, but never is it correct for a woman to teach men. In so doing they usurp the obligation and duty of men to teach men and mixed groups.
From that biblical position, I take it that it is unbiblical and unwise to follow a woman teacher of men. When men are present, the godly woman will be silent. My personal conviction is that a woman bible teacher (of men or mixed groups) is simply a rebellious woman who should not be followed.
Having said all of that, books written by women must be carefully dealt with. I have books by women on my website, but I would recommend them only for women to read and study. Basically at this point, the two authors that come to mind are Jesse Penn-Lewis and Catharine Mumford Booth (wife of Salvation Army founder Booth). Both of these were in the Holiness branch of things, and Ellen White is a pure cultist (Seventh Day Adventist).
As a Pastor and Christian book author myself, I have read Penn-Lewis works to analyze them. My impression is that it is about the same quality as others in her same mindset. The errors and failings I see in her writings are the same errors in the holiness-Nazarene movement as a whole, and specifically those the Deeper Life movement (compare Watchman Nee, Theodore Austin-Sparks, and others).