Let’s Play “Spot the Heretic!”


Balaam's Ass by RembrandtThis is the post wherein I make my secret confession before you all.

I've been a Christian for nearly thirty years. I've read a lot of books by a whole host of authors. And despite the fact that I'm fairly intelligent, graduated with high honors from probably the toughest Christian college in the country, and can use seven-syllable words with abandon, I don't read today's Christian writers much anymore.

Now I'm not speaking of Christian novels about young, chaste teachers coming of age on the Kansas prairie of 1880—aren't all Christian novels about that?—I'm talking about the non-fiction works of everyone from N.T. Wright to Brian McLaren.

If I were a proud man, I would attribute this to the lofty theological edifice I have constructed from bare rubble through my hard-won Christian discipleship. But I'm not a proud man; I'm simply a person like you who finds himself progressively confused by what passes for Biblical scholarship and discipleship lately.

Now with the Christian blogosphere filled from one end to the other with wild-eyed apologists, "remnant watchers," bell-ringers, deconstructionists, and self-christened "apostles for a time such as this," I've come to the conclusion that I simply can't parse it all. Yeah, this guy may be right and then he might not. She's got a good point, but arrived at it through a highly tortuous route that deviated through "Suspect City" to get there. And that guy in the corner always cries "Heretic!" over any idea that isn't his.

Sadly, there just isn't enough time in the day, so my only recourse is to ignore the vast majority of it. If it comes down to a case of discernment, perhaps the best discernment that a Christian in the 21st century can achieve is to always assume something's wrong unless it's been tested by time.

So that's my stance.

I used to help manage a Christian bookstore. I was the Bible and book buyer. Once you're in a position like that, you quickly attune your sense of smell to the stench of one lousy book after another grappling for bestseller status. I got adept at finding the stinkers before they found us. I attribute this to the Holy Spirit and to the spirit of our age.

The "spirit of our age" as I use it here is the quality of a book or set of thoughts that smacks of everything that is trending one way or another at this moment in time. Doesn't matter if it's right or wrong; in the end it simply won't last. Twenty years from now, no one will be referencing it for anything. It was dead on arrival, but the readers simply couldn't tell because the hype machine and word of mouth drowned out the naysayers.

Honestly, I think the Lord understands the dilemma of most earnest Christians today as they attempt to trudge through the mountains of half-baked theology and pseudo-spiritual tripe that get served to us on a sizzling hot platter—every single day. I believe that He knows it is far worse than in His own day when He battled the superstitions and mindless obeisance to the prevailing ethic of the land that relentlessly fought for the minds of His own disciples.

What is my out? Well, I'm hopelessly behind the times. I've said here before that most of the authors I read are dead. And that's my out. They're dead, no one is making big bucks off 'em, and yet their words last from one generation to the next. One set of Christians a hundred years ago read this stuff and found it spoke to the soul. And now another set today is reading it still because someone continues to be blessed. It won't crack the top ten on the bestseller list, or even the top ten thousand, but the words on those pages live. They give life and will do so until the day the Lord comes back—if, on that glorious and awful Day, He still manages to find enough people who take those old words to heart.

So I don't keep up with "New Think" for the most part. If I do mention a new book from time to time here, or mention a new blog that seems to have "it," then it's only because every reference in it goes back to someone from fifty years ago who could be trusted. I can tell you right now that Tozer, Ravenhill, Schaeffer, and a few like them can be trusted. Time's imprimatur has shown they can stand up and still speak the truth to a day and age where truth is so easily warped to be untruth that even the best of us can't always spot the mistakes.

I just can't filter it all; too much comes in. And while ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths pure is good enough for soap, it's not good enough for the Gospel. As for me, I'm simply not smart enough or spiritually adept enough to mercilessly spot the 0.56% impurity that exists in today's writings.

Are you?

{Image: Detail of Rembrandt van Rijn's "Balaam's Ass" (1626)}

19 thoughts on “Let’s Play “Spot the Heretic!”

  1. Any Man

    I could not agree with you more. The only reason I read modern Christian literature is because my wife runs a book club. We get many of the “latest, greatest” books from the Christian bookstore. And a large percentage of them are tripe.

    The authors put a thin veneer of biblical truth over their humanistically, psychologically-inspired books.

    Why should the secular world be the only ones to have “Seven Habits”, let’s have “Seven Ways to…”. There seems to be a “Christian” answer to each motivational book that hits the shelves.

    I have found that even though I read Christian literature prolifically, I am still a biblical Anorexic. There is no depth of insight into the Word in these books.

    I used to read a book cover to cover regardless. I would push through to the end just to find the little nugget of Truth in the book. Now that I have a much bigger pool of reading available to me, I am much more critical. After reading the first two chapters of “Time Management for Busy Christians” or “10 Ways to Pray for more Stuff”, I toss them to one side.

    Not too long ago, I remember there being a perception that Gospel music was an easy niche market to break into for fledgling musos. Since then the Gospel music industry has matured greatly and we are hearing great music that is arguably better than anything the secular music industry can offer. Sadly, it seems as if the Christian literature industry is going the other direction.

    There is an industry that needs to be fed. There are shelves to be filled. And they will.

    The Word of God first – and only the Word of God.

  2. You took the words right out of my mouth, Dan.

    I used to think it would be a good idea to keep up with everything I could. Now I realise my heart and time are too precious to waste on that game and find myself walking into Christian bookshops and out again without having seen a single thing that stirred me to buy … unless, of course, there is a squeeking staircase that bears me to a higher room full of faded and dusty treasures, usually at bargain second, third or fourth hand prices.

    My lament goes a little deeper though as I keep asking myself “WHY?” “Why, in spite of this glut of “new” Christian thought acessible to anyone (with a large enough wallet) is western churchianity getting poorer and not richer by every title that rolls off the press?

    I think that the process of innoculation parallells what has happened to us. An innoculating dose is a small and weak dose that helps the body to develop a resistance to the real thing. Consumption of truth (if it is even that) in palatable form, watered down with an overwhelming amount of clever words has given us a hardness to the real thing.

    Indigestion is another biological metaphor that seems appropriate, too. This is the sheer inability to “parse” the information deluge.

    Finally, we (postmodern western churchians) are people who can entertain ideas without having to apply them. We can play with concepts and enjoy the spirals they make in our minds without them having any bearing on life. A dangerous habit.

    I prescribe a diet of raw scripture supplemented by any of the writers from your sidebar, worshipfully chewed and prayerfully digested.

  3. Hey, one thing I’d like to clarify.

    I’m NOT saying that there are no recent books that are worthy to be read. I’m sure there are plenty. I’m just saying that I can’t always tell when I’m “digesting something” (as Seymour wrote) that’s a little tainted. The thing about “a little tainted” though is that time has a way of revealing the rot by letting it come to full fruition.

    Let’s just say that I’ve got the time to wait. Like it says in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” No sense wearing myself out trying to spot the heretics.

  4. Dan,
    I have to take a different stance. The manna from heaven was only good for one day (except for the day of worship). So also I think God has a fresh word for our days. I am glad for your clarifing that there is a timely word, only it is hard to find. The revealation of the knowledge of God is infinate, a thousand lifetimes is not enough to find all the truth. As for authors, I look at their fruit for proof of their calling, as Jesus said.
    Be Blessed,

  5. Karen

    I agree that some of the new books that are coming out are just a means to go along with the current trend. It is almost parallel to the self-help we see with the new age phenomenon.

    I try my hardest to test the spirits when I read; I ask the Holy Spirit to reveal His truth to me. I do this in order to accept or reject what is and is not of Him. Some write and twist scripture to suit what the subject is about. This is very wrong.

    1Jo 4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but try the spirits to see if they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

  6. While I enjoyed your post, I think you’ve constructed it on a bit of a false presupposition. During the days of Tozer, Schaeffer and even Calvin and Luther there was much more tripe than good. If it was true in Solomon’s day, it was true at the time of the Reformation and it’s true now.

    If people don’t read the books when they are new, they’ll never become classics. If we were all to hide our heads in the sand when it came to new books, we’d never know which were good and which were bad.

    So as I would caution those who toss out the old and only focus on the new, so I’d caution those who forsake the new in favor of the old.

  7. I tend to like dead authors as well. I�m currently reading The Golden Legend by a 13th Century monk named Jacobus de Voragine, as translated by Wm. Granger Ryan.

    As for knowing who is in and who is out: be sure to consult my �Know Your Heretics� list at Lunar Skeletons.

  8. Any Man

    I would like to clarify my stance a bit. Now that I have read my comment in the bright light of day, it may incite the burning of Christian bookstores.

    Not all the modern Christian literature is devoid of value. There are many modern writers that I truly enjoy and bring a new perspective on the Word of God as it is applied in our lifetimes. I have found authors like Steven Farrar to be thoroughly entertaining and at the same time challenging. I find myself drawn to read the Scriptures on the issues that he raises about fatherhood and marriage.

    I think that is the litmus test for me. Does the book inspire me to search the Word of God for that same truth – to find the application of that truth in my life? Do I seek God in the matter or does the book stand on its own as a “silver bullet” to solve a particular problem.

    As I stated previously, I am particularly averse to modern humanistic/motivational/New Age principles being sold in a Christian guise with some loosly quoted Scriptures to back up the leap of logic that the author has taken. There are far too many of these kinds of books in circulation.

  9. Tim,

    Wanted to respond to your post since one of the reasons I like your site is that you do an excellent job with book reviews.

    In my case, all I am saying here is that the subtlety of many of the erroneous teachings out there in books and websites is getting harder for me to discern. I can only speak for myself here and some people may be better at it than I am. Still, I’m not an unlearned person, plus I feel that God has given me a gift of discernment.

    If I find it difficult, I know for certain it is far more difficult for people who do not have the combination of abilities that God has blessed me with in the area of discernment. Given the fact that so many people unquestionably follow after whatever’s perched at the top of the Christian bestseller’s list, I think you’d have to agree with me that perhaps sticking with the classics is the best option for many of the people who would be easily led astray by the codswoddle (thanks, Rebecca!) occupying those top positions on the shelves.

    Your point is well taken that even in Luther’s day there were heretics, but the sheer volume of books published today even in the Christian ranks dwarfs what was available to the common man of Luther’s time—and even the uncommon Renaissance Man did not have the sheer breadth of material available to him that the average person does today. Finding the signal smid the noise is far harder for most people than in Luther’s time. A short trip to Amazon shows more than two million distinct titles available!

  10. John

    Thanks Tim for posting this, it is timely and dare I say, prophetic! especially to younger Christians who believe, if it’s new and Christian, it must be good.

    I have stopped buying new books that are marketed for the Church, preferring instead the older books, as I want to analyse what made these older Christians so dynamic in the Lord!

    I also get put off books by people who critique them, it might be necessary for some, but I find that they are immersed in their own ego’s.

    For instance, I just read a post on someone critiquing M. Scott Peck’s novels and was absolutely horrified when I double checked the books and found them to be heretical, the person who did the critique was supposed to be “Spirit filled.’

    I believe that if I can’t examine a book to see if it appeals to me, I have no right looking at it or even thinking of buying it!.


  11. “Given the fact that so many people unquestionably follow after whatever’s perched at the top of the Christian bestseller’s list, I think you’d have to agree with me that perhaps sticking with the classics is the best option for many of the people who would be easily led astray by the codswoddle (thanks, Rebecca!) occupying those top positions on the shelves.”

    I agree with that. A friend and I discussed this the other day – he takes a similar stance to you, preferring to read only the older material. He says that these have stood the test of time, and thus he knows they will be good. And I replied that those of us who enjoy the new materials are the ones who help those books stand the test of time by marking them as something special during their time. 🙂

  12. denise

    I haven’t read any modern, living Christian author that could hold a candle to “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. It’s amazing how relevant that book is 500 years later.

  13. Dan,

    You make some great points. However, oh this is really mean and I probably shouldn’t say it, but it’s kind of ironic that in my reading of your site, you give me some almost overwhelming reasons to never read it again! 🙂 (And, even worse, to stop blogging myself! 🙁 )

  14. Anonymous

    Dan I don’t know you sir, but I do understand that giving away secrets will always bring out the wise guys.

    I agree that the works that stand time are safe bets.

    I also agree that todays bestsellers could very well be tomorrows time standers.

    Book reviews are great…just don’t label me a heretic if I don’t decide I must live my life according to book reviews.

    Very often there is a self absorbed identity within the books and even the reviews themselves.


  15. jaw777

    Unfortunately, I tend to agree that there is little published in this season that is worthy of the gifts of time or brain power. However, I find it very interesting that there has not been a suggestion here of how to combat this trend. I realize that while we may want to point out that which is dangerous to the Body as a whole, can’t we take up the reigns of leadership in our own circle/church and promote healthy reading? This blog does a good job of reviewing new works, but offers no suggestions to us how we can change this. So, here are some of my suggestions; can we start in our circle and recommend new disciples read the sermons of Spurgeon, or suggest (or give as gifts) an original version of Chamber’s My Utmost For His Highest? I like reading opinions, but I find it hard to understand why the writer cannot suggest alternatives, or ways to combat an issue in their own Body of Christ.

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