Perhaps if I had not had such a long layover between flights at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport this afternoon upon returning home to Houston from Spartanburg, South Carolina, I might not have noticed much about the “marketplace of ideas” at all. Having four hours to kill, though, I discovered that an airport is much like a shopping mall, with all kinds of eating places, shops, stores, and particularly newsstands and bookstores. Even the convenience stores sell books. And of course, with such a wide variety of customers, as all kinds of people pass through, and most are probably looking for something they can do on the plane, there are plenty of places to buy the written word.
I’m sure that an airport book store has an interesting time determining what books they will carry in a small space for a wide variety of customers. Obviously, they look for the best sellers, the hot items written by authors that everyone knows and loves to read. It is an interesting collection. I noticed every bookstore has a copy of Marley and Me. We have a golden retriever/lab mix who looks almost exactly like Marley, but I have neither seen the movie or read the book. Jimmy Carter’s new book on why he thinks peace can work in the Middle East also has some shelf space, among a couple of offerings from our new President, one pre-elelction, one post election. The political rantings take up two or three shelves in some stores, with a whole assortment of interesting titles designed to make the political position of the author really clear. There were also several Christian authors prominently displayed. Don Piper’s latest book Heaven is Real is getting a lot of airport and hotel gift shop display space, in Texas and in South Carolina. So were a couple of Rick Warren’s books. I guess that is an indicator of what the secular marketplace is interested in buying from Christian authors.
Competing in the marketplace of ideas is a phrase I have heard often in recent years. There are those who wade in enthusiastically with both feet, asserting that Christianity has lost its “predominance” in American culture in the postmodern world, and now it must compete for the minds and hearts of people like other philosophical views do. It must also compete from an entertainment perspective, it needs some kind of “hook” to grab someone’s interest and attention and with its message delivered in such a manner, waits for a response.
But I have to wonder what that does to the basic message of the Christian gospel, and whether this way of appealing to people for their attention and their eventual support is simply a response to the consumer-oriented culture in which we live and as a result, the presentation of the message distorts it to the point where it may not produce genuine faith in those who accept it this way. I think it is extremely important for us to be careful of the way we compete, and the message we send when we do.
Obviously, Warren’s books will catch the eye of people who have heard his name mentioned, not only as a result of his own popularity with The Purpose Driven Life, but as a result of the controversy over his selection as the pastor to deliver the invocation at the recent inauguration. Name recognition does sell books, which is what the booksellers are interested in doing, if not the authors themselves. Piper’s first book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, relates his own personal experience following a serious automobile accident after which he was pronounced dead, did not have a heartbeat for a full 90 minutes, and claims to have memories of visiting heaven itself before hearing the words to a hymn and regaining consciousness. Certainly it is obvious why his book would have appeal in the marketplace of ideas. People want to know if heaven exists and what it is like. And I would not suggest that reading either of these authors would distort the truth of the Christian faith.
But the idea that people have to be “attracted” to the Christian message bothers me. “What’s in it for me?” is usually the question most authors today are writing to answer, and self-fulfillment is the goal of most people in the secular marketplace. Self-fulfillment, however, is neither the means nor the end of faith as far as the gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned. It is not about you, it is about God. Redemption, forgiveness of sin and salvation with sanctification and justification by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ, and restoration of a right relationship with God are the ends of the Christian faith, with being the recipient of God’s grace as the means of it. Rather than pursuing your own life in the way that is best for you, becoming a disciple of Jesus and being reconciled to God involves a life of self-sacrifice, giving and obedience that comes out of gratitude for what God has done. That takes the convictional power of the Holy Spirit, not the appeal of the attractiveness of the end result, to get the process started.
It is not that the Holy Spirit cannot use the ideas of Christians who compete in the marketplace of ideas to bring about that conviction, but I really have to wonder if that is the direction many people would head after reading most of the books by Christian authors that find their way to the bookshelves of airport bookstores and other secular media outlets. How “attractive”, after all, is coming to a realization that you are a sinner whose life is an abomination before a Holy God and that you need not only repentance from that sin, but the sacrifice that Jesus himself made on the cross to cover your life and allow God to see you through Jesus.
Our message is one of transformation, not self-fulfillment.