I’ll Never Be Afraid of a Christian Bookstore Again

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found the Bible bookstore at the local mall to be an unnerving kind of place.  If you walk in and pick up a book at random, who knows what you’ll get.  Maybe you’ll get a book telling you how denominations are on their way out, to be replaced by the “emergent” church, and how that’s the greatest development in the history of Christianity.  Or maybe you’ll get a book telling you how the “emergent” church movement is of the devil.  Or perhaps you’ll grab a copy of the latest book explaining how what’s happening in Israel RIGHT NOW was predicted in the book of Revelation.  Or you could find yourself reading about how all of the prophecy in the book of Revelation was fulfilled when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Because of the lack of any kind of coherence to the books carried in the Christian bookstores I would frequent as a Protestant, I found myself totally at sea when I was trying to figure out what devotional literature I should read.  So, typically, I’d just go read whatever the latest “bestseller” was.  I could never entirely overcome my unease at picking my spiritual reading based upon which book had gotten the most buzz, though.  I knew that, just because lots of people had read a particular book, it wasn’t necessarily worth reading.[1]  But, without reading a book from cover to cover, I had no idea whether it even presented an “orthodox” understanding of Christianity (at least as I understood what constituted Christian orthodoxy at the time).

This, again, is an area where becoming Catholic has been amazingly liberating to me, for at least a few reasons.  First, as I’ve mentioned in several posts, I now have the benefit of an authoritative compendium of Christian teaching—the Catechism.  For the average person in the pew like me, this alone is worth its weight in gold.  If I want to know what Christ and His Church expect of me, it’s in the Catechism.[2]  What a gift!!  As a consequence, the Catechism itself constitutes wonderful devotional reading.  It also helps me to judge whatever else I’m reading to determine if it’s consistent with Catholic teaching.

On top of this (especially in our electronic age), I have recourse to the Scripture and the underlying Church documents (such as those produced by the various Church councils, papal encyclicals, writing of key theologians, etc.) on which the Catechism relies.  These also are tremendous devotional reading and aid in my discernment of truth in whatever other text I might be studying.[3]

Finally, there is the gift of the “nihil obstat” and the “imprimatur.”  For those not familiar with these terms, the “nihil obstat” is given by a person (the “censor liborum”) who is “appointed by the bishop of a diocese to examine before publication those writings or other media of communication that are subject to the Church’s supervision.”  After this is given, the bishop himself may also give his “imprimatur,” which literally means “let it be printed.”  As a consequence of this, I can pick up a book, look for the “nihil obstat” and/or the “imprimatur” in the first few pages, and at least know it’s been subject to review by the Church.  And, even though the presence of one of these “Good Housekeeping seals of approval” doesn’t mean that everything in the book is true and accurate, it at least means that someone with relevant training has looked at it and determined it doesn’t present anything clearly contrary to Church teaching.  And, when you think about it, doesn’t that just make sense?  Why shouldn’t the Church give ordinary believers this kind of help when we’re wading through the overwhelming amount of information out there that’s trying to get our attention?   

Yet again, my kids have pointed out to me the common-sense of the Catholic way of living life, even in something that seems as small as this.[4]  When my son was working on a religious education assignment a couple of weeks ago that required him to open up his Bible (an RSV-Catholic Edition), I pointed out to him the nihil obstat and the imprimatur at the beginning and explained to him what they meant.  In response, he said, “Oh, that’s there to help me not be misled.”  To which I can only say, “Exactly right, Charlie.  Exactly right.”

[1]               And, don’t get me wrong, I’d often learn a lot from the books I’d read.  More and more, though, I began to notice that the bottom line of all the books was the same–the call was always to a more “authentic” relationship with Jesus, to “radical” commitment, to being “sold out,” to “letting go and letting God,” etc.  I agree with all of that 100%, but, once I’m on board with the concept, how do I put it into practice?  On this issue, the books were long on inspiring stories but very short on practical advice.

[2]               This does not, of course, place the Catechism on the level of Scripture.  The Bible is God’s uniquely inspired Word, and, although the Catechism is full of quotations from and references to Scripture, reading it does not supplant reading Scripture.  To a certain extent, the Catechism is like a compendium of “notes” on the Bible.  So, if one opposes a Catholic’s use of the Catechism as a way of understanding his faith better, one also would need to be opposed to the use of “study Bibles,” such as Scofield and Ryrie, as well as Bible commentaries.

[3]               This includes blogs, of course, and I would encourage anyone reading our blog to check out what we’re saying against the Catechism and other authoritative Church documents.  The concern that blogs and other media can lead folks astray isn’t a Catholic-only concern by any means; Protestants get concerned about this, too, as the stories here and here show.  But with no visible, ultimate church authority to which to appeal, Protestants really can’t propose much in the way of practical steps for folks to follow to ensure that what they’re reading is reliable, other than to tell folks without the right “credentials” (such as a seminary degree) to defer to those who do have such credentials.  How do such Protestants determine, though, that having a seminary degree, in and of itself, entitles one to be listened to, but being the Pope, in and of itself, doesn’t?

[4]               It’s not small, though.  We all know that what we read, listen to, view, etc., has an enormous influence on how we perceive and live our lives.

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4 Responses to I’ll Never Be Afraid of a Christian Bookstore Again

  1. As a cradle Catholic, I find walking into a “Christian”, i.e., nondenominational Protestant, bookstore to be a nerve-wracking experience. I keep expecting the other customers to point their fingers at me and start screaming like the Donald Sutherland did in the 1970’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

    Concerning criticism of using a catechism, I just finished off Alister McGrath’s “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” and was surprised to find that notwithstanding the so-called doctrine of private interpretation, Protestantism was making full use of catechism, bible footnotes and commentaries for the purpose of making sure that Protestants didn’t get the “wrong” answer when they were doing their “private” interpretation. Here is my long, long review – http://www.amazon.com/review/R2U8JDVDGRPQGQ/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

    Bottom line, what is this thing called private interpretation, and how do Protestants square the fact that they think they are doing private interpretation with the reality that they aren’t.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment, Peter! In answer to your question, my beliefs as a Protestant never squared with my practice. That’s why I’m a Catholic now. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your observation. But I’m still curious.

    At the time, at least with respect to private interpretation, did you know that? Did you kind of, sort of suspect it and wonder why you were different than other people? Did you just ignore the problem?

    I knew a former Lutheran in one of my Catholic book groups who made an observation that stuck with me. He said that becoming a Catholic was a relief for him because he was always being told that he had to interpret the scriptures for himself and that he had to come up with the correct Lutheran answer no matter what he was actually reading in the scriptures. That sounds like quite a price to pay.

    Of course, I guess that the flip side might be true if the we are told by the Church that a text says one thing and we read it differently. But that doesn’t necessarily implicate that we have to place ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. We can tell ourselves that we must be somehow reading the text wrong, which, we should admit is entirely possible in light of the fact that we don’t know everything. We can, in a word, be humble.

    • Jason says:

      For most of my life, I simply didn’t recognize the inconsistency so didn’t realize there was anything that needed to be squared. I thought it was perfectly consistent to praise my “independence” from the authority of the Catholic Church and, at the same time, to appeal to the authority of “historic Christianity” (which, for me as a Protestant, covered the New Testament period and then leapfrogged over 1500 years of history to Martin Luther).

      You hit on the most fundamental issue at the end of your comment–at bottom, the Protestant position rests on the proposition that “nobody (except for my completely spiritualized version of Jesus) is gonna tell me what to believe/think/do.” It leaves no room for humility. And, if the meek are going to inherit the earth, that’s a big problem.

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