A few days ago, my wife and I found ourselves browsing in one of the big chain bookstores. That, in itself, doesn't happen that often, largely because I try to keep myself out of bookstores too much in case I want to buy the store. For someone who enjoys reading as much as we both do, book stores can be a little too tempting. Still, we're going on a trip on Saturday and we decided some reading material would be nice.
I should say here that I have a 'hit and run' style of book browsing. That is, I hit the areas that I'm particularly interested in, browse carefully and run. That way I'm not as tempted by my old habit of convincing myself how essential a book is to me. Believe me, given the convoluted reasons I've used to convince myself to buy books, hitting and running is a positive financial necessity. Don't give me a chance to decide why I need a book. I'll come up with one.
So, the first section I hit on this visit was the Christianity/Religion section. My visits to this particular section have always been something of the triumph of hope over expectation. I have found some excellent books in the big box bookstores, but these stores are not my primary stop for good sound Christian books. Still, I find it fascinating to stop in this section because they are an index of where the book-buying public is in this subject area. Or, at least, of what the book-sellers think the book-buying public want. So, we get an interesting mix of a few sound evangelical books mixed with a large number of anti-Catholic, liberal and radical takes on Christianity; all promising that they are the best approach to Jesus.
The variety is amazing, if bewildering. I recall as a new Christian being very bewildered by the vast array of books in front of me, not knowing how to choose helpful books. Over the years, I've learned what to look for and what to avoid. I do worry a bit about the message that many of these books give, but I think it is enlightening to see that these are the books that are on offer.
Yet I found myself worrying on that visit. What really set off my worry is that increasing number of heretical gospels are being published. We're getting editions of the Gospel of Thomas, or of Philip or the Gospel of the Nazarenes showing up in the Christian sections of these mainstream bookstores. Or we're getting Beliefnet guides to Gnosticism as if this was a viable option for Christians. Heresy sells, it seems, and I find that worrying.
I am an unapologetically orthodox Christian, so I am not going to apologize for saying that I find this trend to Gnosticism to be pernicious. I also have to say I'm puzzled by it. Given the widespread caricature of traditional Christianity as condemning matter and insensitivity to the natural world, I just don't get how anyone could argue that Gnosticism (a dualist heresy which identifies matter with an evil creator distinct from a good, immaterial God) could possibly offer a better alternative. Nor can I understand how people, who argue that the Gospels could not really give a clear sense of Jesus' earthly ministry and teachings because they were written within 60-80 years after Jesus' death, can accept Gospels which are one to two centuries older yet. If this is not the 'itchy ears' which Paul talks about (2 Timothy 4,3), I don't know what is.
I'm not saying that we should censor these books or these bookstores. I think that would be counter-productive and unrealistic. We can't dig our heads in the sand. These "gospels" (for instance) are out there and we have to deal with that. I've tried to do that. As part of that effort, I have read those heretical gospels and found them unhelpful in the extreme. Whatever good they have is derivative from the Gospels. Wherever they are original, they express a concept of the world which I think is just flat out wrong. Jesus did not seem to die; he died and was raised on the third day. There is not one God and a evil angel who created matter; there is one God, the Creator. Yet these books are there and, as distressing as it is, I think we'll continue to deal with these ideas. And we need to be ready for that.