Apologists, Christian Bookstores, and “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven”

qrhmhm1bh7hqxye4wtiyThis week was a bad week for fans of the book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.

Alex Malarkey, son of author Kevin Malarkey, issued a brief but brutal retraction of the events that took place in The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, a book which has sold very well along with other books in the “heavenly tourism” genre. The publisher, Tyndale House, has agreed to take the book out of print, and Lifeway has begun returning the copies of the book back to the publisher (1). While this is a good step in the right direction, it’s the first step of many that needs to be taken in order to reverse an entire frame of mind, one that has had detrimental effects on apologists and their efforts within the Church. John MacArthur, in his book The Glory of Heaven, says this of the genre:

“For anyone who truly believes the biblical record, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that these modern testimonies—with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God—are simply untrue. They are either figments of the human imagination (dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worst cases, deliberate lies), or else they are products of demonic deception.

We know this with absolute certainty, because Scripture definitively says that people do not go to heaven and come back: “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” (Proverbs 30:4). Answer: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, emphasis added). All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people. And even visions of heaven are very, very rare in Scripture. You can count them all on one hand.” (2)

It’s not a secret that, for the most part, apologists tend to not frequent the big Christian bookstores. When you walk into one and find the newest emotionally charged, mentally fluffy, and spiritually hollow trend being pushed in your face from every degree and angle, it is hugely discouraging. While apologists try to disciple and train Christians to love God with their minds and equip them to give a reason for the hope they have in Christ, Christian bookstores (perhaps unintentionally so) make it harder when they promote and sell books that undercut the value of our work. Why get to know the Word of God better when you can just digest a daily paragraph from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling? Why learn about the resurrection of Christ and cultivate faith in His work when you can read Heaven is for Real (or watch the recent film produced by prosperity teacher T.D. Jakes)? Why study theology, the history of the church, or the defense of the faith when you can get books from pastors and teachers who claim that those things are not necessary, perhaps even harmful, to your relationship with God? Christian bookstores may not intentionally want to see these detrimental effects come about, but they cannot have it both ways. They can’t sell the product without reaping the side effects, whether good or bad.

That’s not to say that I haven’t purchased good books from Christian bookstores. Many books on my bookshelf have come from Lifeway and Mardel and other bookstores. But, getting those books from those stores were not easy. In many cases I had to dig for them in an obscure corner of the store, or had to dig in the bargain bin for them. While shoving copies of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith or Douglas Groothuis’s Christian Apologetics on the first table of the store might not make sense business-wise, there is something to be said about relegating the meaty, rich, and truly life changing books to the parts of the store that only the deliberate seekers frequent.

Christian bookstores are in a unique position to either strengthen the church or weaken the church based on the content that it promotes. The books we consume affect the ways we live before our God and neighbor, and when Christian bookstores promote books of the heavenly tourism genre, prosperity gospel theology, or of the Jesus Calling variety, they do so to the harm of the average believer and hinder the work of those who are trying to disciple the minds of Christians. Sure, you can buy apologetics books from Christian bookstores, but Christian bookstores are not doing much to help promote the discipleship of believers when it peddles material of the lowest common denominator. These bookstores have a significant influence, and in light of Alex Malarkey’s recantation, that influence has led to the damage of believers, not their growth or blessing. Rather than challenge believers to dig deep into the Scriptures, they promote Jesus Calling and other books that compete with the Word. Rather than stretch Christians to study the resurrection of Christ and have faith in His work, they promote Heaven is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and other books of a suspect and lucrative genre. Rather than help point Christians in the direction of books and authors that will help them connect with this history of the body of Christ, they point them in opposing directions. It doesn’t have to be this way, but at the present moment, it is the status quo.

In short, good on Tyndale House and Lifeway for pulling The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. It’s a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Certain books need to be removed, and certain genres need to be pushed. Christian retailers have the chance to drastically change the game when it comes to discipleship, and hopefully this will start the domino effect to that change. One book down, an entire frame of mind to go.

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Why Christian Discipleship Is Critical to Christian Survival

DiscipleshipJust before leaving the disciples, Jesus gathered them together and commissioned them with an important task. He told them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus understood the importance of discipleship (the process of making disciples). In fact, it was so important, He made sure it was His last directive to those who followed Him. What precisely is discipleship and why is it so important? Is it simply a matter of making converts? No, it’s much more. The process of making disciples is often misunderstood and neglected in the Church today, and as a result, we are in danger of losing our identity as Christians. Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.

Even secular dictionaries recognize discipleship as something more than simply creating “members” or “converts”. Dictionary.com describes a disciple as “a person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another.” Webster’s online dictionary defines a disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” At least one aspect of discipleship involves learning the doctrines of a particular system or teacher. This intellectual aspect of being a disciple is affirmed in the Bible. The Greek word used for “disciple” in the New Testament is “mathētḗs” and its root, “math-“, means the “mental effort needed to think something through“. Disciples are “learners”, “scholars” and followers of Christ who “learn the doctrines of Scripture and the lifestyle they require”. There is an important connection between doctrine and behavior. It’s not enough to simply follow Jesus’ moral teaching related to behavior, true disciples must understand the doctrines of Christianity. What does our worldview teach, theologically or philosophically? How are we to make a defense (1 Peter 3:15), hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this teaching (Titus 1:9), recognize a heresy when we see one (Titus 3:10), and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14)? Becoming a disciple means becoming a learner.

Sadly, many in the Church have neglected this important aspect of discipleship, and their hesitancy to celebrate the life of the mind continues to put the Church in great peril. History demonstrates the importance of discipleship and the life of the mind. In the early 19th Century, the lack of discipleship resulted in the rise of several heretical religious worldviews. From the 1790’s to the 1840’s the movement known as the “Second Great Awakening” spread through the young American nation. This Protestant movement was wildly successful in gaining converts, but not nearly as successful in discipling new believers. The Second Great Awakening was facilitated by a number of charismatic preachers (Charles Finney was perhaps the most famous). These preachers were excellent communicators and their camp-style revivals were designed to solicit responses from the people who heard them. These same preachers, however, were less than effective in establishing a discipleship process for the new Christian converts. In the wake of the revival meetings, new converts were left largely on their own; local churches were not ready to teach and mentor those who were now interested in learning the truth about Jesus. As a result, a number of groups emerged simultaneously: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Seventh-day Adventist Church (from which Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually appeared), and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were all the result of rapid growth followed by inadequate discipleship. [Read more…]

Identity Crisis: Should We Use the Term Apologetics?

skeptical guy pulling down sunglasses

Do you get blank stares when you mention apologetics? Should we drop the term and find another, like case-maker? Having tried apologetics as well as other terms, I think the problem is deeper. What can we do, and what might we learn from others who share a similar identity problem? [Read more…]

Articulating One’s Beliefs Can Be A Challenge

images-11Introduction.

Despite the fact of my not posting since the beginning of the month, I have not lost sight of the mission. Working with the people I work with, some of them being some of the most profane people that I have ever come across, I have not lost sight with how I am “wired” and the ministry mission. Even though where I am (on my job) during a good chunk of the week, I know the presence of the Lord and the conviction of His Holy Spirit, even while I “occupy Mordor” and pray for a change.

Thankfully I still do get to enjoy a day off during the week, and I am going to be protecting that day in the coming weeks for specific reasons, that I will not mention here. In spite of all the demands of my job, this week was a wonderful day off and allowed me to speak to a repair man for one of our appliances, and a handful of students at the Germanna campus.

What was the nature of these conversations? They were spiritual in nature, and I would like to share here some thoughts on what I learned about these conversations.

The Need for Articulating the Christian Faith

One of our appliances stopped working and we needed some outside assistance. Even though I was able to unstop a bathroom sink and our bathtub drain (thank you YouTube), I was not able to work this task.

The appliance repair company “rep” that came and assisted us is a Christian and attends a large local Baptist church regularly and adult Bible fellowship on a regular basis.  How did I know he was Christian?

Thankfully he shared that with my wife and me, by sharing the message on the back of his business card. When I asked him his understanding of his message, he started sharing with me a basic message of salvation and how Jesus died  for our sins on the cross. Of course I was happy to see him start there. However when I continued with him on his understanding at a deeper level, he started struggling. Why was there a struggle?

Allow me to share my concerns, as they are very similar ones that I am hearing in other conversations. [Read more…]

Why Does Opposition to Apologetics Come From Mostly Within the Church?

Apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that helps give reasons for the truthfulness of the Christian faith/worldview. The word “Apologia” means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15). The apostles approach to spreading the message of the Gospel is characterized by such terms as “apologeomai/apologia” which means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15); “dialegomai” which means “to reason, speak boldly” (Acts 17:2; 17; 18:4; 19:8), “peíthō” which means to persuade, argue persuasively” (Acts 18:4; 19:8), and “bebaioō ” which means “to confirm, establish,” (Phil 1:7; Heb. 2:3). [1]

Over the years, I have the privilege to collaborate with many others who are involved in the apologetic endeavor. One thing is for sure: Most of the opposition to apologetics comes from within the Church itself. But why is this? After all, though Jesus didn’t run around calling Himself an apologist, he did offer reasons and evidence for His Messiahship. As I just said, Paul and the apostles did apologetics on several occasions. I have written about more about here. Recently, I sent an email out to several ministry leaders about the need for apologetics in the local congregation.  Keep in mind, the list had about 100 people on it. I did get one response which led to a radio interviewRobin Schumacher discusses a story about his friend who sent a similar letter to ministry leaders. [Read more…]