/ Gravity & Gladness / Stephen Steele

This & Tat in a Christian Bookshop

The following is a guest post, written by Rev. Paul Levy, minister of International Presbyterian Church, Ealing, London.

Whilst on holiday I clocked a Christian bookshop as we were driving through a little town. I had a spare hour at one point, so escaped from the family, and went in to browse. 

I was welcomed very warmly and even offered a cup of tea. There was a vast amount of what can only be called ‘Christian tat’ ranging from mugs to coasters to rulers and bouncy balls all arrayed with suitable, and not so suitable, bible verses on. There were three walls of books, which sounds encouraging until you looked at the content of the shelves.

If you want to lose weight, cast out demons, pray in tongues, have a great family, or understand the end times, there were endless books addressing these subjects. A whole shelf devoted to the Devil and demons and territorial spirits. I searched in vain for anything written before 2000 but I did want to encourage them to stock something decent and found a book I could buy in good conscience. All the time the soundtrack of what sounded like 1990s worship songs on the pan pipes was playing in the background.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, there were two conversations which I can’t forget. The first involved a young mum who brought three young children into the shop. She was from the area but had moved away. The kind and welcoming lady behind the counter asked her ‘do you go to church?’ ‘Yes, sometimes’ was the hesitating reply. ‘What’s church like kids?’ asked the mum. They all replied in unison: ‘boring’. The mum carried on, ‘There’s nothing for kids there and I'm just hoping the new vicar is better than the last’. 

I obviously don’t know the church, nor the old vicar. It just struck me as terribly sad that the mum had joined her kids in calling the worship of the living God boring. The truth actually is she found it boring and so her kids followed suit. As the parent so goes the child. I fear that the words “it’s boring” said more about the lady than the church.

The second conversation started off more encouragingly. A lady came in and asked the friendly counter staff if they had anything on forgiveness which is not an unreasonable request for a Christian bookshop. The shop worker, in a slight panic, said: ‘I don’t think so’, scouring shelves that were full of advent reflections. She pointed at me and said, ‘This man might know’. 

I said to her, ‘A good friend of mine has been really helped by Tim Keller’s book on Forgiveness. I don’t think they have it in stock here though but you’d be able to order it’. She replied with, ‘How long is it?’ I said I thought it would be about 150 pages. ‘Far too long, I wanted a booklet – 20 pages max’. It was at this point – for the sake of my blood pressure – I gave up and went back to browsing, the lady moved on to looking at promise boxes and coasters.

Now, I suspect my sermons are probably too long and lots of Christian books could certainly do with being shorter. Jesus warns about using many words in prayer and the book of Proverbs makes reference to the danger of multitude of words and excessive speech. There is nothing virtuous about being long winded. There can be also a horrid superior attitude that people can have in Reformed Churches like ours when looking at other Christians. 

The issue I think with my visit to the bookshop is the issue of God’s weightiness. The Christian gospel is gloriously simple and joyful and yet it is not light and weightless. God is our Father, yes, but he is also in Heaven. His glory should weigh heavily upon us. The bible is wonderfully clear but there is also a glorious depth to it. We mustn’t be content with a superficial understanding of our faith. Jerome famously said, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom.” So many Christians tragically spend their lifetime paddling when they need to be swimming out of their depth.

A surface understanding of God and his Word means we will not be able to cope when the trials and difficulties of life meet us. We need that sense of the grandeur and majesty of God. The calling of the Christian life is to know him.

It’s easy to stand in judgement on these two women in the bookshop, my danger obviously is thinking is I know better and I wouldn’t fall into their mistakes. The bible clearly warns those who think they stand to take heed lest they fall. However, it did make me think what have these ladies been taught over the years in their churches.

When it comes to the issue of worship, the opportunity that we have to gather with brothers and sisters every week, to hear his word, praise his name and pray is surely the highlight of the week for believers. Our children should sense our expectation, preparation and excitement in gathering to worship. It is the very opposite of boring. There is a real sense that coming to church is both exciting and dangerous. One of the joys of having our children in worship is that they get to see their parents listening, confessing their sins, pouring out their hearts, being moved as God speaks through his word by his Spirit. On the surface, for those without the Spirit of God, it might appear boring. But that couldn’t be further from reality.

On the issue of forgiveness, it is not easy to address, and you can’t do it adequately in 20 pages. Some of you reading this have struggled and do struggle with forgiveness. Trite, superficial answer are not adequate. If it is going to take what the bible teaches seriously and do justice to the question, it’s going to be relatively lengthy. There are difficult issues to grapple with. The kind of thinking that thinks ‘I can only cope with a booklet’ means that we won’t sufficiently grasp what the bible is teaching.

It is why the regular diet should consist of hearing the preaching of God’s word, coming to the Lord’s Table, working your way through the Psalms. I think one area where our generation is particularly weak is spending time meditating on Scripture: there are too many distractions, too busy a schedule. It’s a discipline that we (I) need to rediscover.  Reading the works of those who have drunk deeply in the well of Scripture is so vital, that we give God the glory that he is due. 

The reality of who God is must weigh joyfully and heavily upon us.

This article was originally published on Paul's blog.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

Read More