Friday, December 12, 2008

Everything Must Go

Yesterday I took a quick look through a Christian bookstore that was in the final days of a bankruptcy sale. As I walked around I could not help but notice the signs which read, "everything must go!" That is what happens when most businesses go into bankruptcy (unless they are so big that governments must bail them out), everything is sold at discount prices, every must go. Beyond the obvious business lessons about how the marketplace has changed when it comes to selling Christian books, there were some interesting lessons about obsolescence when it comes to writing and publishing certain kinds of Christian books in the first place.

I could not help but notice the number of 'prophetic books' dealing with various world issues in the last two or three years. Today most of them are not worth the paper they are written on because the world has moved on, and no one is interested in yesterday's news. It reminded me that our search for relevance must be carried out with a solid grasp of the bigger picture or our prognostications are out of date almost before we speak. The same is true of Christian political commentary. With rare exceptions most are too superficial to stand the test of time and more critical analysis and there were stacks of them that will never be read by anyone.

Equally redundant over the long haul are issue oriented books, devotional books and biographies written by or about 'Christian superstars.' This category would include those who have managed to build big churches or television audiences who imagine that because their congregations hang on their every word that they actually have something significant to say on the world stage. Sadly, this is rarely true. Books with pictures of the author on the front cover could be found in abundance at the sale and beyond ego it makes me wonder why they were published in the first place. The same is true of books on relationships, money management, and church leadership. There were scads of them, but none worth buying even at bankruptcy prices.

However, what could not be found at the sale were books of theological and biblical substance. For instance, Bible commentaries and dictionaries, systematic and biblical theologies, language tools, serious historical and apologetic works were no where to be found. They have a transcendent value and so they are the first to go. And the more I think about it, this is the way it should be. Trends and fads come and go, but those works that wrestle with the truth of God's word live on and continue to bless and instruct people long after the authors have gone to be with the Lord. There are many mediums for us to discuss and comment on issues today, like this blog that I am writing, but before books are printed we need to make certain that what is being written is worth preserving beyond the immediacy of the moment. As the saying goes: "Only one life will soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last!" As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (12:12). There are many books looking for readers, but only a few valuable ones that will be read over and over again.


lance j anders said...

I would really love to believe that solid books on theology, study tools, and language support were the first to go because people value the transcendental values they can bring, but from my experience, most Christian bookstores don't carry books like that in the first place.

It's easy to sell out of those titles when you only have one to begin with. May we as believers reform our own culture that greater books would be in demand.

johnMark said...

When I was a messenger at the previous GA Baptist Convention there were book tables. Out of a few hundred books I may have seen around 10-15 that were of any substance.

I couldn't believe it.


RC said...

I use what I call the Half-Price Books test to determine the value of a book. When one goes to Half-Price Books and looks through the theology section one finds a lot of Spong, but a only a few Sproul. Likewise one finds a lot of Meyers and not many Mohler titles. It seems two dynamics are at work. One dynamic is that the good titles of value are purchased quickly. The second dynamic is that the flavor of the month, shallow titles are plentiful because they are discarded more frequently. It seems that works of value Christians do not soon part with.

Patrick said...

I would be willing to bet that Meyers outsells Mohler and Spong outsells Sproul but sadly NOT because of quality and biblical fidelity.

RC said...

You are more than likely correct Patrick. That was the third dynamic I failed to list. It is a sad state of affairs that fluff sells and resells. I do still think though that the quality works remain in individuals' personal libraries while the fluff is easily discarded.

Rileysowner said...

My experience at the Christian book stores in our area is that they carry from nothing to extremely little books of any substance. If they went out of business, even if I was there the first minute of the first day of the bankruptcy sale, there would likely be nothing I would want to buy, but lots of books such as what you listed. Not to mention, the huge number of idols . . oh . . I mean trinkets that they make their money with.

ChrisB said...

I gotta go with Lance -- they sold out of the theological books because they only had a few, rather than the 400 Osteen books they ordered.

WhiteStone said...

Sad but true. A lot of worthless books by spurious preachers and so-called prophets.

Heather Kendall said...

Christian bookstores have trouble competing with Amazon. Therefore they mostly sell fluff since that is what their customers will buy.

Did you read David Daniel's article in ChristianWeek last spring? In time past Christian bookstores were willing to let good books gather dust on their shelves. He used my book as an example of a good book worth reading, which belongs in a Christian bookstore.

I have been very sad at the demise of that bookstore, Pastor Kirk. The Mitchell chain was an excellent outlet for me to sell my book under consignment. Now that it is gone, I feel a great loss. I need to find other Christian bookstores, but it is going to be very difficult. The two near me do not accept books under consignment. Being Biblical theology, I realize the book will not interest everyone.

By the way, one book sold after the store went into receivership. As soon as I was allowed, my husband and I went to the store to retrieve the rest.

Heather Kendall

Ian said...

I actually found tonnes of good theology! Stan Porter on The Gospelof Judas; Nicholas Perrin critiquing Bart Ehrman; a number of books on evangelical history published by Paternoster; David Wells' Beyond All Earthly Powers; two excellent books on Homosexuality (Gagnon being one of them). Which store did you go to??

Kirk Wellum said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. Obviously there is much concern about the writing and distribution of good quality Christian books. That, in and of itself, is an encouraging sign.

Ian, I was at the Michell's in Hamilton, which was a "Blessings" store until Mitchell's took it over not so long ago. I am sure there were much better books available in Toronto. My comments, however, were not just about the demise of Mitchell's. I have been to bankruptcy book sale before and have noticed that there were too few good books and too many that should not have been printed.

Heather, I too am saddened by the end of Mitchell's. It is increasingly difficult for any Christian bookseller to compete with the big online retailers. What we need are more skilled, theologically aware entrepreneurs who will serve the Lord by finding creative ways to bring top quality books to market. This could prove to be a daunting task but a very necessary one in the years ahead.

Terry White said...

I think you'll find a number of those "keeper" books at Thank you for your insightful commentary on the fleeting applicability of so many books.

Inge' said...

There are only 2 Christian bookstores in my area. Unfortunately, both have really trimmed down their stock of commentaries and Bible study books. You can't even find them in their online bookstores.

I find this very sad and troubling. Sad because it would seem as though people here are just not interested in reading good commentaries and troubling because the items they have chosen to keep in stock are not of any worth.

Ron Reffett said...

I used to work at a Christian book store and it was always amazing to me how many of the Copeland's and the Hinn's we would sell, but the solid reference books or classics would sit on the shelf gathering dust waiting to be placed on the clearance tables.
It's truly alarming, the amount of spiritual junk food that we ingest simply because we don't want to do the hard work of wrestling through tough theological systems and tough things in Scripture.
I agree with Lance, our culture needs a definite reform in getting back to the greater books.
Ron Reffett