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Discernment and “Dangerous” Books

“Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). One of the products of that reality is that there are a lot of bad books available to Christians. They range on the doctrinal spectrum from “too shallow to get your feet wet,” all the way to “an ocean sized riptide of error and confusion.” In this article I would like to do two things. First, I want to give you some guidelines for how to discern what is a helpful book and what is a potentially dangerous book. Second, I will offer some insights into why dangerous books can be so appealing.

How to Discern between Helpful and Dangerous

The most important means of discernment is to be first and foremost reading the Scripture regularly and carefully. Only a firm grasp of the truth through regular Bible reading ensures you will quickly and effectively recognize error.

"A book is not necessarily good just because it stirs you."

A second way to assess the potential dangers of a book is to look for indicators the author believes they receive “special messages” from God. Some may be so bold as to call them “prophetic words” or “revelation from God” (like Joyce Meyer), while others will be less assertive. Phrases like, “God has shown me the secret to…,” or, “this book will be the breakthrough to…” are usually indicators that the author is going beyond the truth of Scripture and is touting something extra-biblical.

A third way to discern if a book is dangerous is to take note of what the goal of the book is. God’s highest aim for us is to manifest His glory through knowing and worshiping Him. Goals like success, happiness, fulfillment, self-awareness, or self-image (and many other similar expressions) are often either wrong, or perhaps only secondary goals. Is the aim of the book pointing you to know and worship God above all else? Or is it focused on earthly or self-focused goals?

Another way to pursue discernment in reading is to ask if the main teaching of the book just “sounds strange” or is “too good to be true.” If you are filling your mind with the truth of Scripture, this is often how discernment operates. It just doesn’t “ring true” in your heart and mind. If that is the case it is likely time to move on.

Why Some Dangerous Books Are So Appealing

At the risk of stating the obvious, most authors know how to write. They understand how to appeal to the senses, stir the emotions, use vivid concrete language, identify with your suffering, or draw you into their story. While this is an element of good writing, it also provides a caution.

"Discernment demands we not let our emotions overshadow our minds."

A book is not necessarily good just because it stirs you. I read The Shack, by William Young a few years ago, and cried three times while reading it (once in a crowded restaurant). I cried as a response to the story even though the book is full of blasphemous characterizations of the godhead and subtle denials of the true gospel. When we are stirred emotionally we tend to drop our mental guard and embrace what they say with reckless abandon. Discernment demands we not let our emotions overshadow our minds. Recognizing that this is often why “dangerous” books are so appealing may help prepare us to read with more discernment (and perhaps decide to not read it at all).

Having said all of this, I do want to caution everyone from being overly critical and judgmental of those who might choose to read a book that you might not. There are many reasons to read a so-called “dangerous” book. It may be to develop discernment or help others you know who are being influenced by them (which is why I read The Shack). Don’t jump to conclusions. Ask others why they might be reading the book, what pointed them to consider it, and what they are thinking about it before you jump to having a judgmental spirit toward them.

Conclusion

While all those tips are great, there is one other one that we are enjoined to consider by the Apostle Paul. He says, “whatever is commendable…if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). One of the best ways to know if a book is worth the time and mental energy is to read books that have been commended and praised by those you know and trust. Any of the leaders at FBC would be happy to help you find good books on important topics. One way we do that is through recommending resources available at the book counter in the Connections Room, where you’ll find solid materials on lots of topics. If you have questions about other books or authors don’t hesitate to ask us.

A version of this article originally appeared in Thrive Magazine