One of the aspirational values of the team that I lead is “trustworthy.” We work as bookmen and bookwomen, so trustworthy extends in a few different directions:
- Trustworthy books (theology and argumentation)
- Trustworthy authors
The nature of trust is conventional—it takes both parties offering good will for trust to work. Not only must book publishers offer trustworthy books in the future, but readers must offer charitable readings for public discourse to work.
I fear that one unnecessary consequence of our cancel culture is forming readers to read, as a default setting, uncharitably. We—including our own staff—struggle not to read with critical, undue cynicism. Rather than reading what the author is intending to say, we try to read motive into the text. Public discourse, a ministry of books, is untenable without charitable readers and trustworthy publishers. We must try to understand, and give the benefit of the doubt, to arrive at genuine criticisms.
One question we get with increasing frequency is, “How can I know a book is trustworthy?” This is a framework I hope will answer the question.
HOW CAN I KNOW A BOOK IS TRUSTWORTHY?
Because reading books is part of the public discourse, it’s good and right to begin by considering the role of community. Christians can’t be members of the Body in isolation from the other parts. There is a corollary between ecclesial connectedness and human flourishing. Therefore, a helpful place to start is, “How does my community of faith assess this book?”
How Does My Community of Faith Assess This Book?
Let’s start with what this does not mean. We do not mean to organize trustworthy or untrustworthy books on the basis of tribalism. The difference between a tribal assessment and a more helpful communal assessment can usually be discerned on the basis of how we seek the information. For example, reading a keyword search on Twitter and finding out what self-identified Christian strangers are saying about a book or author is dissimilar to asking your local pastor or small group leader how they assess the trustworthiness of a book. What we mean, instead, is that an assessment of a book or resource is conducted in a local, trusted, embodied community of people with mutually shared doctrinal foundations and missional aspirations.
How Do the Ideas in This Book Square with the Bible?
This criterion is not disconnected from the first—communities who interpret the Bible together interpret the Bible better. In order to establish a baseline of trust, the ultimate arbiter of truth cannot be the community alone. After all, communities often err. The Bible must be the foundation on which a Christian community is built. And a Christian community built on the authority of Scripture will assess trustworthy books together better than a Christian community built on something else (doctrine, tradition, or affinity of some kind).
How Does Our Community’s Theological Framework Square with the Ideas in This Book?
Again, building upon the idea that Christians who build community on the foundation of the Bible will assess resources better than those who don’t, the theology that arises from biblical interpretation will serve as a trust filter. Now, this will inevitably raise the question, “What about _______’s theological blindspots?” This is a wise question. Every theological tradition has blindspots. However, we do not discount theology because it is imperfect; we humbly employ theology in service to striving for faithfulness.
WHAT ABOUT _______ AUTHOR?
This is where things get personal (pun intended). A contemporary impulse is to categorize authors into trustworthy or untrustworthy lists. While the impulse is rational, it is not sustainable.
Authors are dynamic, and oftentimes would move between such lists over time. What is static, what is permanent, is a published book. A book cannot be unpublished. So really, when we speak of trustworthy authors, we must either talk about a) the books that they have published in the past or b) encourage people to anticipate books that they might publish in the future. The former is more certain than the latter, in this case. Perhaps it would be better to judge authors based on what they have written, rather than what they might write in the future. A friend of mine once told me, “I only trust dead authors.”
As we have seen now in many surprising cases of public moral failure, authors may drift from the reputation they have earned. And though many people may say, “I saw that coming!” the truth is that we, nor oftentimes even they, know what will come in the future. Authors are now judged as trustworthy (or not) based on a live stream of written content on social media for years between books, and moved by the court of public opinion from list to list. This practice, and “cancel culture,” have made it more difficult, not easier, for readers to assess the trustworthiness of a given author, especially if the author discloses points of disagreement with their readers on a range of issues (e.g. politics, entertainment, current events, etc.).
Publishers and literary agents try and track authors’ personal and theological trajectories like a missile defense system. But not even the most sophisticated system in the world can anticipate the dynamic nature of human beings. Readers, and publishers, need a hefty supply of both discernment and charity to sustain the continued relationship between authors and their audience. The ministry of publishing cannot become a means of cancel culture.
Sufficient Versus Beneficial
What is the ultimate aim of Christian publishing? Expectations for Christian books should not rise to the level of Scripture. Devotional books should not replace devotional Bible reading, for example. The Bible alone is sufficient for Christian living; Christian-living books cannot replace the role of the Word of God in the lives of Christ followers. Therefore, the role of a Christian book is to be beneficial, not sufficient.
To me, as a publisher, this helps right-size our expectations in the midst of a warring cancel culture. For example, I find books like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be beneficial. I do not find either book as sufficient for everything a Christian would need in their discipleship journey. A Baptist or Presbyterian might find an Anglican or Lutheran author, as is the case with Lewis and Bonhoeffer, out of alignment with their theological framework. Christians from all traditions, however, have found the apologetics in Mere Christianity and the radical call to discipleship in The Cost of Discipleship as beneficial to Christian living.
Part of the aim of finding trustworthy books is to continue to read charitably, especially if a book or author may not be trustworthy in the ultimate sense. Nobody, save Jesus Christ, can be trusted ultimately. The Bible alone is trustworthy in that way. Instead, what we mean when we aim for trustworthy books and authors is to find books that point toward Jesus Christ in a beneficial manner. This way, we don’t make too much or too little of the ministry of Christian books.