Many of us have come to see the reality of something called “Big Eva” and the way in which it seems to shape much of our modern church culture. You might think this is mostly a problem for Baptist and broader Evangelical churches, but something very much like it can be present in Reformed Church culture too. There are different collections of magazines and parachurch ministries which seem to reach a consensus on the acceptable boundaries of theological discourse before the actual elders of the church have a chance to interact. There are even predictable networks of leading “pastor-theologians” and conference speakers who endorse one another and seek to set the tone for what counts as the mainstream. This tone (and its content) may or may not be consistent with the larger Reformed tradition.
Much of this is but an inescapable aspect of human social grouping and marketing. Calling it a “deep Church” would surely be too much. But still, this is our reality and it does often control which books and speakers receive a position of priority in the broader Reformed ecclesiastical culture. It can even lead to new items on the agendas of presbyteries and general assemblies. This raises the natural question. How does one receive the privilege to say worthwhile things for the church?
Are all valuable writers today ordained ministers? No. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Rosaria Butterfield’s work and my wife is reading Nancy Pearcey’s book, Love Thy Body. I’m not a prophet, but I predict that Rosaria will never be Pastor Rosaria. And yet she has an important message for the church today. But, to be honest, unlike some authors (both men and women), she has earned that right to speak, both on a personal and intellectual level. She has earned the right to be taken seriously.
Writing for the church is a solemn privilege and should ordinarily come at a (significant) cost to the author. Usually one starts out with humble beginnings, doing a lot of grunt work and hoping to catch a break with an article for a journal or a fairly well-known website. It takes time to prove yourself.
Many young scholars save their money to travel to conferences and write papers that possibly may only be heard by a few people. These papers are sometimes subjected to scholarly scrutiny and, with some luck, are published in a journal that the average Christian doesn’t know exists. Starting out as a Christian writer is usually painful and humbling. Few, if any, make grand entrances.
Writing valuably for the church will come at a considerable personal cost. The author produces a carefully researched book, but most readers don’t know that such a book came at the cost of eye strain from staring at a computer into the wee hours of the night/morning. Many authors develop neck and back pain. In addition, God usually brings trials to his servants in the midst of writing: as the author is doing his or her work, God is doing his work in the author. Talking about spiritual things shouldn’t ordinarily come from a position of comfort and ease. Think of Calvin dictating his commentaries from his sick-bed. Few readers know what sacrifice can go into a book that blesses their souls.
To continue to write one has to read and read and read. One may have to learn certain languages other than English, though perhaps even English-speakers need to learn English. One has to study ideas, concepts, languages, etc., outside of their comfort zone. One has to subject their work to critical feedback, and eat the humble pie that never tastes good at first but saves the author from future embarrassment. One has to be prepared to pitch book projects to publishers, sometimes getting rejected because, for example, “blind” readers say the book is rubbish. One has to make decisions: watch Downton Abbey or re-read Owen or Cocceius?
There’s a lot of bad books out there, even in Reformed circles. We can blame the authors for not having the requisite skill-set to be able to tackle their chosen topic with the care and aptitude needed, but Christian publishers also need to do their job and not give platforms to those who simply have not earned the right to write for the church.
As a reader of books I think it is fair for me to ask: why should I listen to this author? Why should I invest time in their work? Writers may need to ask themselves: Why should anyone listen to what I have to say? Consider these words from John Owen, whose own early work, A Display of Arminianism, was really very poor by his standards:
It has been the presumption of some, and especially of youths who profess to have dedicated themselves to this study but who have hardly gone further in evangelical studies than the reading of three or four volumes, to behave as if they alone were experts, and to consider that they are deserving of a glorious reputation among the great scholars. Such arrogance! Better it would be if such Suffenuses did not also go on to despise those who are truly endowed with the wisdom that they so foolishly boast of having attained to. (Owen, Works 12:320)
People love shortcuts. That’s why authors sometimes plagiarize or write generally shoddy work. That’s why some think they can publish because they’ve written a few blog posts. It’s crazy. Writing for the church should not work that way. Writing for the church demands both aptitude and sacrifice, and hopefully some accountability for what is written. But it also demands a love for one’s neighbor and the Lord. Do you love your reader enough to not waste their time? Do you love the Lord enough to write for his sake first and foremost? Judging by the state of much Christian literature today, these are questions that authors and publishers need to revisit or take more seriously.
When I read a poor book put out by a Christian publisher, it grieves me. I wonder sometimes: at what cost was this book brought into the world? We all wish writing books was like the process of making a child, but if the good authors are to be believed it is much more like giving birth to and raising a child.
This also shows us the value of good book reviews and similar commentary. Many sorts of liberalism use appeals to decorum and tone as a means of rigging the conversation. Those critics who can see that certain material is not an improvement upon prior material are often marginalized and said to be mere troublemakers. We should push back against this coercive politeness and instead insist that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Do the ideas and arguments pass the test?
Forceful debate is therefore a good thing. Just as competition helps us get better, dialectic is a discipline which improves the thinking of the church. All aspiring writers should welcome it, and current leaders of the church should model it appropriately. This will require a certain robust mental and emotional constitution, but it is surely best for the church as a whole. Charitable argument carried out in the open is much safer than a monotonous artificial consensus.