What was the last book you read? Chances are it would have been a novel (especially if you were looking for some holiday reading). Sales of modern fiction are booming – inspired in part by the recommendations of Richard and Judy and other book groups. One of the novels I enjoyed over the summer was the English translation of Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ – a moving account of life for ordinary Germans in the Berlin of 1940.
But what was the last Christian book you read? Booksellers tell us that less than one in ten of churchgoers ever enters a Christian bookshop. With the demise of SPCK and Wesley Owen it’s getting harder to find a place you can browse among a wide selection of Christian books, while Amazon will save you the inconvenience (and paying the full price) of tracking down a Christian bookshop, so long as you know the book you want to buy.
Reading Christian books is one important way we can build up the ability of ordinary Christians to give an account of their faith, to develop confidence and enable the Church to be intellectually credible. The likes of Richard Dawkins, with their aggressively anti-religious secularism, continue to dominate the best-seller charts. The need is more urgent than ever before for Christians to be informed about their faith, and at least know where to begin a response.
There are many reasons why that doesn’t happen. Too many Christians just stop learning about their faith after they’ve been through confirmation (or, in some cases, Sunday School). The desire, the appetite to go further and deeper simply evaporates. A fair number of Christians make use of bible study notes as a regular devotion, and some read ‘inspirational’ books (‘The Shack’ is the most obvious example). And while these are all good and useful, they still represent what St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians as ‘milk’ rather than ‘solid food’: nourishment for those who are ‘infants in Christ’ rather than ‘spiritual people’, as he puts it. Likewise, clergy and the Church generally must take some of the blame. In an episode of the recent series ‘Rev’, the Archdeacon replies to the Vicar’s suggestion of dealing with important issues of faith by saying ‘you want to give them muesli, but they only want corn flakes’. In other words, don’t frighten the horses. And so clergy can all too easily collude in presenting a version of Christian faith they themselves gave up when they went to theological college.
What to do? Well here’s one suggestion, a book recommendation. Try Keith Ward’s book ‘The Word of God?’ (published January 2010, price £9.99, or £5.99 on Amazon if you must). 150 pages long, and divided into chunks of about 6 pages, it covers issues such as ‘Can we believe in biblical miracles?’ and ‘Are there immoral rules in the Old Testament?’ It’s a book for those ready to step up from ‘spiritual milk’ to solid food (and for those who may not want to step up but who really should). Some may find some of Keith Ward’s comments surprising – perhaps even shocking (certainly those who are still wedded to the view that the bible is literally true, or else faith falls apart, are in for a tough time). But Ward is really only summarising for the most part what any first-year ordinand or theological student will be familiar with.
Bible Sunday this year is on October 24th. Looking further ahead, 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James version of the bible. What better time than now to develop an adult Christian faith by the reading of Christian books?