The Good Book and Good Books
I’ve learned any number of things since leaving school for the “real world.” If you’re out of school, you’ll probably say the same for yourself. If you’re still in school and haven’t yet discovered this truth, I’ll break it to you gently: You never really get out of school. Every day brings new learning, and many of the tests are much more serious.
Not all of the information is earthshaking. Some is common sense; much is mundane. For instance, in all my years of college and seminary, no one ever taught me that a shovel is an essential item for the pastor’s study. It took months of being buried by offers from This, That, or The Other Company before I got a handle on the mail.
The ministry is a reading-intensive calling. However, I find some publishers wanting to push that intensiveness to intensive care. I mean, just carrying the printed ads and catalogs home is enough to put me in the hospital. Commentaries, Bible studies, sermon helps, and more — some people seem to think that I can’t preach or teach without their latest offerings. What they don’t realize is that my trash can often ranks right behind the Bible as a tool for effective ministry.
Still, there’s plenty of good reading to be found. Separating this wheat from the chaff brings us to this week’s question.
Q: The Christian book stores and catalogs are full of choices. I’m looking for devotional reading and for help with some of the difficult parts of the Bible. How do I find something that’s right for me?
A: Not too many years ago, few people would have had this question. Pastors and lay people alike would have gone to their church bodies’ official book catalogs, ordered what they wanted, and been done. Now, Christianity is “big bucks,” and countless publishers are competing for your devotional dollars.
Along with the blessing of having real options come some problems. First of all, there are often too many choices. For a given topic, there may be several adequate texts. As Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
With the glut in publishers and their products comes also the problem of wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are warned about false prophets — and Satan can utilize the printing press quite well. Many cults and Christian fringe groups, as well as people completely removed from Christianity, have produced materials that seem to be solid, Biblical, and orthodox. Only close study reveals some of their errors.
In my own congregations, I recommend first those devotions, studies, and commentaries published by our church body’s Concordia Publishing House. Then, I keep my eyes open for quality works from others. If the saving work of Christ is not central, then I’d say, “Avoid it.” If Scripture is used as a springboard for human speculation, again I’d say, “Avoid it.”
As you seek to build your own Christian library, start with what you know — and with whom you know. If a publisher or an author has previously been a good read and has stayed true to the Bible, assume the same for current works unless proven otherwise. Ask people whom you respect what they read and what they got out of it. Most folks enjoy being consulted as experts.
In picking devotions, personal preferences are probably more important than in other works. Private or family Bible study and meditation needs to fit your personality, your age, and your station in life. If you have a chance, read a bit of what you’re considering buying before taking it out of the store. However, Christ’s work for you should still be the central theme of any good devotional series.
Concordia Publishing House (CPH) of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod is one good source for devotions, Bible studies, and study Bibles. Portals of Prayer is an excellent series of daily meditations published quarterly and the new Lutheran Study Bible has outstanding resources both for learning and for devotions.
If establishing a stronger, more formal personal or family devotional life interests you, see what I wrote concerning The Why and How of Home Altars.
You also mentioned wanting to work through some of the more difficult to understand parts of Scripture. To this end, I recommend William Arndt’s Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions. It is printed by CPH, and you can order it online through most Christian and secular book stores. Also quite helpful is the Hard Sayings series from InterVarsity Press.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Revised and updated from newspaper column #20