Assumed audience: People who want book recommendations from me, and/or people who are thinking about thinking and learning in general.
When teaching or talking on theological matters — from theology proper to sexual ethics and everything in between — I commonly get a variant on the question: Do you have a book I could read on this? The unfortunate reality is that, a majority of the time, the answer is simply no, for a few reasons.
First, most of the reading I do is not the kind of reading I could hand to most people asking me. Much of it is far too academic. I loved John Webster’s The Culture of Theology, for example, but the arguments he makes in the book assume an enormous amount of background in theology, criticism, and the nature of the contemporary university. I also read very broadly, so that I’m often learning from people I disagree with, sometimes strongly. Those disagreeing reads are sometimes some of the most profitable, but they’re also not the kind of thing I could hand to someone asking a question like this. (Some books are both too academic and a point of much disagreement, like David H. Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence!)
Second, the way I learn is very rarely (though not quite never) by reading a book that provides a concrete set of answers in a way that I could then pass on to others. Instead, I tend to read very broadly — “omnivorously,” my friend Stephen once put it — and synthesize my views from that very broad array of inputs. This means that very often, some of the critical sources for how I came to my view on any given subject might seem only tangentially related if I handed them to you!
Third, the sad reality is that the vast majority of the popular-level books I encounter on the subjects people ask me about — usually related to theology — are simply not very good. This is partly because an enormous amount of theological writing in general is not very good. It is also partly because popular writing is particularly, pervasively, and perniciously subject to forces that push it toward the uselessly provocative on the one hand or toward insipid pablum on the other. If you want a mediocre devotional book which repeatedly verges on heresy while offering up platitudes to make you feel better, I can hand you dozens. If you want a devotion which works through the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation and rightly applies it to the Christian life (to your life!), well, as far as I can tell it doesn’t exist. At best, most popular treatments of theological subjects tend to be unhelpfully reductionist: not just offering approachable answers, but failing to convey key truths. At worst, they end up “simplifying” to the point of deep error.
In the defense of authors of popular works, though, this is because writing a good popular-level book is one of the hardest tasks of writing I can imagine, especially when dealing with complex or fraught subjects. Want to write in a way that anyone in your average American church can read on a subject like race relations and the questions of political theology and theological anthropology that go with it? Then you need both a deep academic understanding of the subjects in question and the ability to write clearly and comprehensibly without exposing all the jargon that your academic training has normalized for you. Writing on a subject you are expert in to non-experts, compared to writing to other experts, requires a greater degree of facility with the subject and also much more practice (and, dare I say it, talent!) as a writer.
On balance, I have a great deal of sympathy for the people writing popular books. Most of them don’t have the training required to do any given subject justice… but that’s part of why they’re able to communicate reasonably well to a bunch of other people who also don’t have that training. And most academics simply lack the writing ability to communicate well to non-academics — not least because their fields generally provide no incentives for doing that work. But however much I sympathize, the result remains that most popular books I encounter on any given subject are not great.
(All of this is that much truer of most popular article-writing, especially short-form articles!)
Finally, while I could work around that problem by offering qualified recommendations, this is simply an enormous time commitment. For one thing, it means reading popular-level books simply and only for the sake of having recommendations to offer to people. For another, though, it means reading them closely and carefully enough that I could offer recommendations with the appropriate caveats: “Skip chapter 4; they really go off the rails.” Were I a full-time pastor, I would commit to doing exactly this — at least one book every single month. But I’m not. I am perpetually behind on the other reading I have to do, and adding popular books from which I myself would profit little is simply more of a time commitment than I’m willing to commit to at this point.
Now, all of that being said, I have started taking people’s questions as a way of prompting further reflection and eventually generating my own materials on the subject — tailored precisely to the context in which the question is asked. This has a few advantages.
First, if I know the person well, I can often answer in just exactly the terms they need. Even if I don’t know them well, if I know their context well, I can provide a much more helpful answer than anyone could provide when writing to the unknown audience of “someone out there reading this book.” (This line of Plato’s critique in Phaedrus is obviously one I feel strongly about!)
Second, this approach helps me by provoking further reflection on subjects. Writing down answers for people (whether in email, in a string of text messages, or in a long essay or paper on the subject) works wonders for clarifying and sharpening my own thought, as well as exposing gaps in my thinking. Often, simply being asked a question and doing the work to write up an answer will allow me to synthesize thoughts and ideas and reading I’ve had floating around in my mind for years, just waiting for that catalyst. Other times, I’ll find that I don’t have a good answer and can’t formulate one, and it makes it clear that I need to go do more reading.
Third, it keeps my writing and study connected to the real life of the church. While it is genuinely good to study deeply on all sorts of things (whether laypeople are asking questions about them or not), the constant pull of people’s questions helps ground other theological reading and thinking, and it is often those very questions which make the other, broader and deeper kinds of study so valuable.
I’ve written this largely in terms of my own habits of responding to people’s requests for books or articles on a subject. I know from talking to others, though, that this is common. On the one hand, we could bemoan this as a problem with the state of popular publishing, especially among evangelicals. There is legitimately something to complain about here! I would love to see much more popular writing — both articles and books — which is well-educated and careful, but without requiring deep erudition on the parts of its readers. We should press for that wherever and however we can!
But on the other hand, there is a goodness to questions asked and answered in local contexts which I have increasingly come to appreciate. People often learn more and more deeply from friends or pastors they trust than from experts they don’t know (for good and for ill). And, equally important, it is good for scholars to remain deeply connected to the questions people are asking. There is a virtuous circle when theological scholarship is rooted in the life of a church: the church itself sees her members grow in wisdom and understanding; while her scholars are kept honest in their work as they are given the opportunity to connect it to the lives of their brothers and sisters in Christ.1
In conclusion, an answer to the question, and a pair of pleas–
If you ask me for a book recommendation, don’t be surprised if the answer is “Alas, I do not have one for you. I’d be happy to write something up, though!”
If you are a scholar, think hard about how you can connect your work to the life of your own church, for the good of your fellow saints and for the flourishing of your own work.
If you are an evangelical publisher, please work harder to publish theologically rich and robust popular works so that I can hand them to people!
Much the same is no doubt true in other fields. In my own context, it’s clear that computer science and software engineering are both healthier fields the more they interact with each other! ↩︎