I let it go and then Aquila Report picked up Tim Challies’ recommendations for how to find good books. In the context of debates about safe spaces on university campuses and some students’ desire to avoid the dark and less encouraging parts of human existence, Challies’ advice sounds familiar:
Who wrote you? Familiarize yourself with trustworthy authors. As a reader you should have your list of favorites, the short list of people you regard as especially influential and trustworthy. I believe there is a lot of value in tracking a few authors through the course of their career and reading—or at least considering—every one of their books. This is difficult with an R.C. Sproul since if you begin today you are 100 books behind, but much easier with younger authors who have a shorter list of works. Don’t know where to begin? Then ask a friend or pastor. Or ask me. I’d try people like H.B. Charles Jr., Kevin DeYoung, Gloria Furman, Russell Moore, Andy Naselli, Barnabas Piper, or Jen Wilkin—people like that. They have each written a few books but not so many that you’ll need to spend two years catching up, and they are all likely to write quite a few more. Find “your” authors and read what they write. But then also track who endorses their books, who speaks at conferences with them, and so on. Start to look for connections.
Who published you? You should familiarize yourself with Christian publishers and learn which of them are especially trustworthy. There are quite a lot of excellent publishers whose books may vary by quality and secondary theological issues but which will never fall outside the conservative Evangelical stream. Learn to trust these ones. Among them are Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, Crossway, Evangelical Press, Matthias Media, P&R, Reformation Heritage, Reformation Trust, The Good Book Company, (and, I hope, Cruciform Press since I was involved in founding it). If they publish it, you can be quite confident in it. Other publishers publish a much wider range of titles and, depending on the company, the imprint, or the department, their titles may range from very good to quite concerning or from very good to outright heretical. For these you will need to exercise a bit more caution. Here I refer to IVP, Eerdmans, Multnomah, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, as well as the faith or Christian imprints of large mainstream publishers (Harper Collins, Penguin, and so on).
Two troubling aspects of this counsel stand out. One, it assumes that Christians are readers who only look for books that agree with their own outlook. This is a big difference between New Calvinists and Neo-Calvinists. The latter read widely, try to learn from the best scholars in a variety of fields, and have confidence that challenging reading material will not destroy a reader’s faith. In other words, Neo-Calvinists understand the merits of the Pulitzer Prize. New Calvinists cultivate a safe space shelf of books.
The other problem is this: Challies’ advice explains how the Gospel Coalition and celebrity pastors happen, or Jen Hatmaker for that matter. Readers who want trustworthy authors and publishers, and learn to associate certain names with edifying material, are not going to be critical or discerning of the books on the safe-space shelf. Instead of iron sharpening iron it’s pillow softening pillow. And it does become an echo chamber that is so far removed from the mainstream that I’m surprised Tim Keller is part of the enterprise. He seems to aspire to Big Apple relevance but has a following in a pietistic ghetto, or TKNY’s urbanism should scare off those who seek reassuring authors and publishers.
I give New Calvinists credit for not portraying themselves as the smartest Christians in the room, though their attachment to Jonathan Edwards shows a bit of intellectual ambition. But how in the world are Christians going to operate in a world where the most respected newspapers, magazines, and publishers are places where believers will not tread for fear of being challenged? And people think the Left is responsible for the polarization of our society. Challies provides just one more way for Christians to isolate themselves.