This past Sunday I started a new sermon series called “Transformed.” In the introductory sermon I made the point that Scripture presents transformation as an expectation of following Christ. Sadly, many of us Christians spend more energy excusing our lack of transformation than we do embracing transformation as an expectation.
We do this by surrounding ourselves with people we know will never challenge us to make the changes in our lives we need to make, by downplaying our sins as “mistakes” or “flaws,” by telling ourselves we can’t change because that’s “just the way I am,” and by reading blogs and books that glorify our “mess” instead of moving us toward spiritual maturity. In the sermon I equated these kinds of resources with “Christian pornography” because they are meant to gratify self and to make us feel good, while distracting us from the true goal of (in this case) the renewal of the mind that brings about transformation (Romans 12:2).
To push that point even further, I am sharing an excerpt from Aimee Byrd’s book No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God. This excerpt speaks specifically about women, as that is the subject of the book, but men also need to heed the warning Byrd is providing. As Christians, we cannot afford to trade in critical thinking and theological depth for the pablum that passes for “Christian” literature in our day.
My cohosts of the Mortification of Spin podcast and I once went on a dangerous mission. We went into a Christian bookstore to broadcast live a conversation about best seller lists. Okay, we only pretended to be in a Christian bookstore—but it was still pretty dangerous. Imaginary security guards were after us, and we almost didn’t make it out of there with a coveted pack of Testamints™. How would we be able to share our faith and our passion for fresh breath with others if we couldn’t get some Testamints™?
But we were really looking at a current list of Christian best sellers, and it was quite revealing. Evangelical Christians are not generally expected to be critical thinkers. And this is sad. During the show, cohost Carl Trueman observed that there’s a lot of “sentimental drivel” marketed to women. As insulting as that sounds, it is true. We did that episode a couple of years ago, but unfortunately the list of Christian best sellers looks strangely familiar, in terms of content, every time we take a gander. The best sellers list is often dominated by women authors, which in itself isn’t a bad thing—but just about all the books on the list are filled with theological error. And the ones marketed especially to women appeal to the emotions and sentimentality of the reader while subverting the faithful teaching of Scripture. Does this reveal more about the women who read, about the churches that they may or may not attend, about Christian bookstores, or about Christian publishers? We all have some responsibility in this.
Women are a prime target market for Christian publishers and bookstores. In 2014, a global consumer study found that during the previous year Christian book sales grew four times as fast as those of the secular market. And women are reading more than men, buying 72 percent of Christian fiction and 59 percent of Christian nonfiction books. Barna’s research in 2015 continued to show that women read more than men do, revealing that almost twice as many women as men read Christian nonfiction. So it makes sense to provide a good selection of Christian books for women. We have our own genre now in the Christian book market. Before the establishment of Christian trade publishers, pastors and professional theologians were the main authors of religious books. Readers would buy these books with a good idea of the confessional position and theological qualifications of the author. However, most of these books weren’t written with women in mind.
Interestingly, the first “trade” book that Zondervan published in 1938 was titled The Women of the Old Testament. The Zondervan brothers must have picked up on something while they were selling books out of the trunks of their cars. Maybe there was a big consumer base of women readers. But it wasn’t really until the mid-1990s that women began to break into the Christian publishing world as a popular genre of their own. By then, technology had grown enough for women like Kay Arthur, Joyce Meyer, and Beth Moore to begin to have their own ministries, radio programs, and prolific speaking engagement platforms, helping them to establish themselves enough to be able to publish. These women all became best-selling authors, blazing a trail for many other women to follow.
Women like Joyce Meyer and Beth Moore, and now Lysa TerKeurst, Jen Hatmaker, Christine Caine, and Priscilla Shirer, have a charisma that is attractive to many women—and also to a significant number of men. Television, videos, and social media are used well, making them all the more engaging. They have a way of appealing to empathy, humor, and the desire to hear an entertaining story. Their friendly demeanor sends a message of trustworthiness and conveys the sense that you aren’t merely buying their books and learning from their videos to get information, but are also learning from someone who is just like you or one of your friends. The combination of these gifts tends to disarm people. So they learn from them and read their books without critical discernment. And if someone does offer some criticism, it comes off as a personal attack.
All of a sudden, the doctrines of the church that those before us died to protect become obtuse, and the psychological jargon of our times becomes more palatable. The language of the gospel gets hijacked in order to teach personal fulfillment. That is what much of the Christian best seller list has come to, anyway. Many of the top-selling Christian books appear to have a high view of Scripture, but, once you get past the sparkling endorsements and attractive cover design, they teach extrabiblical revelation, mysticism, New Age spirituality, the prosperity gospel, or just plain bad exposition. These are not harmless books.
The evangelical culture has stereotyped women. So much of what is marketed as Christian literature reminds me of the airbrushed, digitally doctored, duct-taped cover models. The truth isn’t good enough, so it gets a new spin. And then it sells. But is it still truth? Christians are responsible to be discerning readers, to separate the truth from the lie. Why should women be less responsible? Instead, discernment has become just as unappealing as the truth it stands up for. It seems that we have entered an era of what I call Pinterest Christianity.
We can take a Bible verse and paint it on stair risers. We can put together super-cute baptismal ceremonies with dramatic sandbag candles. We can distract people from our potentially offensive doctrines by offering our own homemade remedy and marketing it in a trendy Mason jar. We can take an Old Testament prophet and turn him into a poster boy for a great diet plan. We’ve become brilliant at taking the old and making it new again. We unleash the ordinary with sparkling promise that goes viral. And followers are giddy with the new revelation. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Pinterest. I happen to love it. But we shouldn’t take this whimsical approach to our theology. We need to love God’s truth for what it is—all of it. Because he is good.
—Aimee Byrd. No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God (Kindle Locations 1426-1470). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.