As a lifelong learner, I try to read all three types of books that benefit a learning mindset. As a Christ-follower I expect that I must be intentional and thoughtful about the books that I read within those categories. This is important in particular with books that I expect to disagree with or to read for new ideas. I think it is a discipline worth developing, but reading different kinds of Christian books with discernment is a skill. Here are three things I look for when reading Christian non-fiction.
The more I read the more significant this becomes to me. I have read apologetic works that are right in terms of argument, but that are arrogant and presumptuous in tone. 1 Corinthians 13:2 speaks clearly to this type of person.
Rather, a tone of humility reflects an author who is learning and sharing with the intention of building others up. It is possible to challenge something with language that communicates a spirit of love and intellectual and spiritual development.
2. Author’s Background (but not for the reason you might think)
It is good practice regardless of what you are reading to get a sense of the person behind the writing. What are their qualifications? What perspective and expertise do they bring to the topic? Who are they associated with or where have I heard/seen them before?
When I look at an author’s background, I am not looking for someone who comes from the same Christian tradition that I inhabit or that has informed me. I do not only read books by Protestants. Nor do I restrict my Christian non-fiction to Christian thought that I already agree with. At the most basic level, I am looking for indications that the author affirms the tenets of the Nicene Creed.
This is my baseline. Christians have a variety of differences in terms of our practice and our interpretations of various parts of God’s word. Those can be good, and interesting, and often world-expanding, conversations. But, when I choose a book with the intention of applying it to my own spiritual life, I want to know that we are starting with the same core beliefs.
As my reading has expanded and my understanding that my spiritual knowledge will always be incomplete on earth, I accept that Christians need to strive toward unity and not division. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences. It means we affirm the core that joins us, and we relish the opportunity to learn and grow and disagree with love about the periphery. We can’t do any of this if we’re not “talking” to one another.
The last thing that I look for when reading Christian non-fiction is intention. This is harder to identify. Often it means reading a portion of the book before knowing what the author’s intention is. However, sometimes the back cover or reviews from various sources may be able to provide clues.
What do I mean by intention and why does it matter?
Intention, in the case of reading, is trying to understand the purpose behind the author’s writing. Why did the author write the book?
The way in which this has had the most impact on my reading is closely related to the two things I mentioned before – tone and background. I get a sense of if the author is trying to undermine or discredit Christianity when these are combined. Or, I get a sense of if the author is identifying a concern within the Christian tradition that he/she is trying to understand. Perhaps he or she is also offering a new perspective so as to encourage Christ-followers to also think well about a topic.
In the case of the former, if I do proceed, then I proceed with utmost caution and prayer.
Recently I read a book in which the author’s point was not untenable, but his arguments and disregard for Christian orthodoxy were laced with disrespect and derision. Later, I picked up a book on a similar topic that was written with humility and curiosity. The suggestion that the author put forward was made with an openness to discussion and correction. That author’s tone and approach were evident of his respect and love for God and the Church.
How to Use These Three Things
I encourage Christians to read books that challenge their thinking and living. Books can do that when they reflect a spirit of “loving God and loving others.” It is tricky when there are so many books on the market in this space though.
These three things that I look for when reading Christian non-fiction are a guide. They help me to better discern whether an author’s perspective, interpretation, or advice are good to consider (even if I don’t agree!), or to identify if the author is not writing with a “love God, love others” approach.
More than any other effort on my own part, reading with these guidelines helps me to best achieve my motto. That is, I try to learn intentionally, think deeply, love widely, and live faithfully.