Too Derivative: A Growing Problem With Christian Literature

Derivative graphic

I had to think about how to frame this without coming across as pretentious. I don’t know if it’s really possible, so I’m just going to say it anyway and hope you perceive my intentions correctly. I have been growing increasingly concerned with regurgitated, derivative Christian literature that’s being mass produced. I think this is particularly true amongst evangelicals, of which I would consider myself. By derivative, I simply mean imitative; imitative to the extent that I think we, collectively, should reject it. Disapprove by refusing to purchase another catchy but ultimately empty book. Here for a moment, then gone. Trending momentarily, but ultimately unmemorable. I’ve read entire books only to reflect that I couldn’t recall a single coherent theme or progression. Many of these titles are simply collections of anecdotes and lack spiritual depth.

Growth can never occur if we read the same book time and time again. 

No, we don’t actually read the same book repeatedly. To the contrary, most of us are probably relieved when we finish one of these vacuous monologues. We would never consider reading it a second time. Put it on the shelf and forget about it. Or, better yet, give it away! I was at a local faith based thrift store recently, and, being a lover of books, was browsing their selection. I couldn’t help but notice the multiplicity of Christian literature (do we want to call it that?) that surely would never again see the light of day. There were also some great titles mixed in. I picked up a copy of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, as well as How Now Shall We Live? by Chuck Colson.

Here’s the thing. Peter admonished us to be ready to give a defense of our faith (1 Peter 3:15). However, the quality of content being consumed by evangelicals is potentially so dismal, I don’t believe many are in fact prepared. This isn’t a conscious decision. It’s not as if we decide one day to read awful, unfulfilling literature. I can distinctly recall my progression in realizing how worthless a lot of the stuff being churned out really was. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. These books masquerade as being profound and spiritual but in reality exhibit very little depth or lasting value. They are deficient of substance. They leave you with nothing to consider other than a pithy title and some mildly interesting anecdotes.

“These books masquerade as being profound and spiritual but in reality exhibit very little depth or lasting value.”

I think many read these books simply because they are available, and because it’s popular to do so. They are marketed very well and circulate through the ranks of evangelicals (not exclusively). What else are you going to read, after all? That question is only partially rhetorical. There are thousands of intimidating books in the Christian literary corpus, some of which are incredibly daunting . It’s difficult to begin selecting material from this vast and formidable library encompassing thousands of years of rich literary history. Furthermore, concerns about doctrinal reliability may be present. So, you revert to the latest something or other with a sharp looking dust jacket. Wrong move.

What is the end result of our consuming a piece of Christian literature? 

What is the end result? What was the intended result? Spiritual growth? Theological knowledge? Christian literature differs from other types of literature in that we are seeking to grow our faith, deepen our relationship with and expand our knowledge of God. This is not the goal when I’m reading a fictional piece, for example. Yes, we can read Christian literature because it’s enjoyable, but there is always an underlying assumption. The fact that Christians are consuming books concerning their faith is superb. There is a hunger and desire for God! It would seem, however, this is often met with disappointment when the available and “relevant” literature lacks any real depth.

You will notice I haven’t given any examples of the abysmal literature I have been describing, and I’m not going to. I’m not in the practice of criticizing individuals or specific ministries. However, I think you can picture the type of stuff I’m talking about. Contrast it with something noteworthy, something enduring. Have you read C.S. Lewis? I still recall the profound but accessible lines from Mere Christianity and the difficult concepts from The Problem of Pain. I distinctly remember wrestling with the themes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. These pieces of literature stick with you. To use a catch phrase, they challenge you.

We must steer away from the vacuous, derivative literature that has become so popular.

We have to stop reading the same spiritual feel good stuff over and over again. It’s not healthy. This is the equivalent of feeding our theological health with french fries. Momentarily satiating, but ultimately ruinous. We must take Peter’s advice seriously. Not only that, but the value and joy derived from devouring a solid piece of Christian literature is noteworthy. Consuming solid content is a bulwark against the often whimsical nature of culturally derivative faith movements. When we have a solid foundation, we will not be torn apart by humanism, by culture, by syncretism, nor by the slyest of devilish devices, complacency.

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