When another volunteer decided to step down after many years, I offered to collect used books in our area for Christian Salvage Mission. I’m in the book business after all, so I believe in the power of Christian literature to transform lives. I haven’t been as successful at this as I could be however, because we now also have a Christian-operated thrift shop in town. Still, I try to inform customers of things we can take that the thrift store might not.
Sometimes the books that people drop off are excellent collections. I immediately recognize the authors or the publishers, even though the books may have sat on home library shelves since before I was born. Others are more recent; titles I would easily recommend.
But sometimes, in the middle of a great grouping of books there is the odd Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh Day Adventist title. (I recognize that some readers will sense my concern about the first two, but not necessarily the third.)
How did those books end up on these peoples’ shelves? Was a friend persistent? Or did the individuals not realize what they were getting into?
At this point, as a matter of full disclosure, I should point out that I have a copy of The Book of Mormon somewhere in my library. My parents got it in a hotel room while as a family we were in Salt Lake City. I have read some small sections of it. If I die tonight, and someone is going through my collection, they might well ask the questions I am asking here.
Generally, though, I worry that the average, church-going, pew-warming, tithe-giving Christian may not have sufficient filters with which to process the origins of some books, and thereby see the books through a more finely-tuned discernment lens. Do people check to see what the publisher imprint is? Which group claims copyright? Where follow-up pages (with phone numbers or websites) lead?
I should say that I have an unfair advantage. I’ve spent so much time in the industry that when I see Pacific Press®, Deseret Book Company, or a reference to the Watchtower Society, I immediately know who I’m dealing with.
But it’s not just the publisher imprint. Many of the books out there use a similar style of artwork; even the titles themselves sometimes are just a plain giveaway, especially the outreach materials which are produced for giveaway…
…At first, I had no specific conclusion to this, other than to say that this is a reality and people need to be more careful what they allow to come into their homes.
But then it occurred to me that while I didn’t write this with any agenda, Christian bookshops offered — and continue to offer — the type of vetting process that is needed. One pastor once told me, “You and your wife are gatekeepers for the people in our town.” That’s an honor. It’s also humbling. It’s a huge responsibility.
As long as the Christian bookstore owner, or manager, or buyer knows what they are doing, they can insure that only titles of the highest orthodoxy are presented for sale. Even if they don’t, the distribution networks for such stores simply don’t carry materials from marginal groups. And the Christian publishers generally don’t produce such products in the first place.
To the contrary, when you buy a book online just because the title looked interesting, or it was “recommended for you,” or because “other customers also purchased,” or maybe just because it was in the religion section and you liked the price; you really, really don’t always know what you’re getting into, unless you are savvy about publishing.
When a Christian bookstore closes, a local faith community loses a certain level of discernment; we lose some badly needed filtering.