:: Saturday, August 17, 2002 ::

We are what we read? World magazine's July 7-13 issue carried an interesting analysis of American evangelical Christians' reading habits. The story analyzed the content of the top 100 best-sellers as identified by the Christian Booksellers Association. Although the CBA only charts Christian book sales from Christian bookstores, not considering the sales of Christian books via Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Borders and other secular booksellers, the list probably mirrors any more global list of top-selling Christian books. (In the interest of full disclosure, and with much sadness, I report that neither of my books were on that top 100 list.) Gene Edward Veith, the author of the article, summarizes his thesis: "On the principle 'you are what you read,' the books that are most popular among Christians provide a snapshot of American Christianity. The issues that most concern them, the nature of their theology, and their engagement in the culture around them are all evident from the Christian bestseller lists." Among Veith's observations:

  • Christian publishing has finally broken free of the Christian ghetto, accounting for 16 percent of all book sales last year. (This confirms an earlier Christianity Today report, which pointed out that the publishing industry's best sellers in 2001, in both fiction and non-fiction, came from Christian publishers.) "By economic standards, Christian books have certainly penetrated the culture," Veith writes. "The question remains: What are they saying about that culture? Are the books -- and, more importantly, the Christians who read them -- appeasing or transforming the culture? Or ignoring it altogether?"
  • Based on a glance at the top 10 best-sellers, it seems Christian readers are more interested in escapist fiction than theology. Six of the top 10 best-sellers were from the Left Behind end-times Christian soap opera series, signifying a preoccupation with premillenial end-times theology.
  • Many of the best-sellers that deal with God are "experiential" and "relational" in nature. This perhaps reflects the postmodern mood of Christianity.
  • There seems to be more emphasis on works than on grace in many best-sellers. "The Christian life tends to be depicted in terms of what we do, rather than what God has done," writes Veith. "Thus, a number of the bestsellers dealing with God are 'how-to' books -- in the words of the editorial descriptions, 'how to find God's will through the power of the Spirit'; 'how to know and do God's will'; 'how to be constantly transformed by the Holy Spirit.' ... . From many of these spiritual 'how-to' books, one could easily get the opposite impression, that salvation is by works after all."
  • Only four of the top 100 are about Jesus Christ; only two are about the Holy Spirit.
  • If you count The Catechism of the Catholic Church (at No. 26), then there are two books on the top 100 about the church. The other is Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Church (No. 87), and it "is about how the church needs to be changed."

    What do you make of all this? While the sales figures do tell us about the reading habits of American Christians at large, do they tell us anything about the state of the church today? I'd love to hear your comments.

    :: Andrew 10:13 + ::
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