If you’ve lived at least as long as I have, you’ve seen the rise and fall of a good idea: the Christian bookstore. Now, I’m not exactly sure whom it was who first got the idea to open a store offering a wide variety of books for Christians. Probably if someone approached me way back when and said “I want to start a store specific for the enrichment of the Christian community by making a wide variety of helpful books available,” I would have said, “What a great idea! Just think of the possibilities! You could offer the finest books: Biblical commentaries, apologetics, Church history, books on spiritual growth, different Bible translations, etc.” While there are certain parts of the world in which it is a crime even to have a page of the Bible, God has allowed us the freedom to have entire stores dedicated to the Christian faith! If Christians really want to learn their Bible, there is no shortage of material available in America.
What some of the younger folks might not realize is that way back in the 1970’s Christian bookstores had primarily books (maybe also some bumper stickers, records, and 8 track tapes). But over the years, most of the Christian bookstores eventually began to offer less reading material and more merchandise: artwork, coffee mugs, home decorations, clothing, toys, Candy (“Testamints”- I’m not kidding) and a whole bunch of trinkets deemed “Christian” by affixing Bible verses on them. Eventually, many of the Christian bookstores even ceased using the word “bookstore”. Books are out, merchandising is in. With the Christmas season approaching, many may be pleased with the change in merchandising at the Christian bookstore: mom or dad might not be avid readers, but they certainly could use a new coffee mug!
Now, it’s easy to get cynical over the change in merchandising. I can’t help but think there is something inherently sinister about slapping Bible verses indiscriminately on trinkets for profit rather than focusing on Biblical material to help believers grow in the knowledge of the truth. Within the last few years many of the larger Christian stores are now open on Sunday. I’m guessing their corporate office realized the profit potential in opening on Sunday. But sometimes what we think is really appalling doesn’t seem so bad when something worse happens. Let me explain.
A year or so ago I scheduled to have lunch with an assistant pastor of a church that has a fairly good bookstore. He was running a little behind, so the secretary told me I should probably visit the bookstore while waiting. Indeed, there was an excellent selection of God glorifying books. My interest in apologetics prompted me to look through their selection, and I was surprised by what I found. They were selling a book by a fairly well known Roman Catholic author. Now, simply because the author was Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he can’t be a good apologist. But what one has to keep in mind is that this Roman Catholic author is also defending his church as the true church. I am convinced the Roman Catholic Church denies the gospel, so I would never promote this author’s work in a church bookstore. I pointed this out to the pastor over lunch, and he had no idea that his church was selling a book by a Catholic apologist. Now you may be thinking, “Ok, Swan, big deal. You found one book. This isn’t anywhere near as bad as profit-driven Christian merchandising.” I hate to resort to a cliché, but this experience was only the tip of the iceberg.
A new Christian store recently opened. Actually, it had been a Christian bookstore with an excellent selection of books. For reasons unknown to me they appear to have changed owners, and thus revamped the entire store. I saw the “grand opening” sign so I figured it was time for a visit. The store had dropped the word “bookstore” from their title, so I expected a small selection of books and an increased selection of trinkets. I was prepared to be disappointed. What I found in that store simply stunned me.
Indeed, there were much less books than previously, and an increase in merchandise for the “Christian life.” They did though have a small apologetics section, with some of the more popular titles. I happened to glance at the section next to the apologetic books, a section they titled something like “Roman Catholic.” I initially thought, “How odd…they have an entire section of books dedicated to exposing the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Wow. Maybe the selection of books here is better than I think.”
Within a second I realized what I was looking at: a complete rack of books by Roman Catholic apologists. I was familiar with many of the titles. These weren’t simply books that could maybe “slip in” like the one I had found in the previous bookstore. No, these were books with explicit attacks against Protestants. These were books that stated specifically that salvation is not by faith alone. These were books that stated Christians shouldn’t rely on the Bible alone for God’s words, but should find them also in the Papacy. These were books that taught only the Papacy can interpret Scripture. These were books that espoused the worship Mary, and encouraged people to pray to her for intercession. There was even an entire set of books dedicated to the testimonies of former Protestants who found their way “home to Rome.” As I looked back at the apologetics section, I realized they had no books dedicated to refuting the claims of Roman Catholicism.
Many of you probably don’t realize Catholic apologetics has exploded in the last decade. Primarily, the authors writing these books aren’t the “Father Flannery” type; they are the works of former Protestants who converted to Roman Catholicism. Some were Protestant ministers. Some were Pentecostal youth workers. One man even worked for Family Radio. Some graduated from Westminster Seminary, a bastion of Reformed theology. Their books are very popular, and they have embraced the marketing strategies of the Christian merchandising industry. Their books sell because they are able to write in the language of the evangelical community.
The target of the Roman apologists is sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). While Protestants might grasp that we are saved by faith alone and God communicates to us through the Scriptures alone, we’ve been quite negligent in defending these essential truths. When was the last time you read a book on sola fide or sola scriptura? “Why should I? I understand these doctrines” you may reply. Ok, here’s a simple test: Can you explain what James means when he says, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)? Can you explain what Paul means when he says, “Stand fast and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thes. 2:15)? Can you explain why these “traditions” aren’t purgatory or the bodily assumption of Mary?
Catholic apologists have seized this weakness in our inability to defend these essential truths. They present arguments that say basically, “Hey we’re Christians just like you. We believe we are saved by faith in Christ, and we also believe the Bible. We have a different way of doing things, but we all worship the same God. We consider Protestants fellow believers, why not show Christian love towards us and do similarly?” They can make it sound quite good. Sometimes it’s not what is said, it’s what isn’t said. Never will they use the word “alone” when describing their adherence to faith and Scripture.
To have books in a Christian store that explicitly denies the gospel and the sole authority of the Scriptures is far beyond the problem of trinkets with Bible verses. It is basically denying Christianity itself. It is the opposite of Christianity. It is saying that the work of Christ is not sufficient for your salvation, and that the Bible is only part of God’s truth. Some may think that defending the faith is not so important. It was this attitude towards faith alone and Scripture alone that brought Catholic apologetics to the Christian bookstore. As Reformed Christians, these truths must be defended at all costs. We can begin by buying our Christmas coffee mug for dad somewhere else, and maybe stopping by the local Christian store to share the Gospel. We could explain to the Christian storeowners why it’s not faith and the Bible, but faith alone and the Bible alone.