Just because an author is a mature Christian, doesn’t mean they are immune from writing something containing shaky theology. In an effort to craft compelling phrases and stories, orthodox theology can sometimes be a casualty of creativity or even carelessness.
Most often it is entirely accidental. I referenced this issue in a post over a year ago.
A significant function of a traditional Christian publisher is to act as a theological accountability partner to their authors. Of course, some publishers have a very distinct theological bent to their books, while others will have a wider theological spectrum in which they operate. As agents, we spend quite a bit of time sorting out those differences, which can have a significant effect in how we deal with an individual publisher.
Suffice it to say not every publisher would agree with whatever theological stance you might take.
With a traditional publisher, your theological position or main point could even be strongly challenged by an editor. It is part of the collaborative editorial process.
My primary concern with self-publishing for Christian books is whether the book has been reviewed by a trained theological eye for possible error or if was truly “self” published in every sense. After all, many Christian books deal with serious issues.
Of course, some traditionally published books contain weak theology at times, but at least someone else reviewed it and agreed.
If you are a self-published author and do not submit yourself to some level of theological review, you might unknowingly take a stroll into theological left field. Every pastor has some trusted friends who challenge their teaching, so you should as well.
Here are some common traps resulting from not submitting to a theological review: (a couple are applicable to every book, Christian or whatever)
- Attribution – This applies to all books, but especially troublesome for Christian non-fiction. Someone else’ idea expressed without giving credit to the originator is troubling. “Someone once said” is not an attribution. A good editor would challenge you to find the original source or delete it. Also, never, ever quote a Bible verse without giving the specific reference. And quote it perfectly, giving the translation used in a footnote or somewhere obvious.
- Improper references – some verses from Scripture are not intended to explain others. There is context and flow to Scripture proven over the centuries. Don’t violate it. Random scriptural “mash-ups” are dangerous theologically speaking.
- Shallow reasoning – taking one obscure teaching out of context and building a massive theological structure on its foundation is a real problem. Prepare to be challenged at the proposal stage on this one.
- Error – Someone once said (I loved typing this) when it comes to theology, if it is new, it is not true and if it is true, it is not new. If you claim to have a new spiritual insight, make sure it is simply new to you, because if it is true, it is not Ever. The challenge for a writer of Christian works is to communicate bedrock eternal truth in a new way, not find new truth. If you truly believe you found something new, there are publishers for you, but not in the evangelical Christian market.
- English words – If you are going to explain a passage of Scripture and drill into the specific wording, get some sort of authoritative commentary, which can illuminate the original language text and intent. Placing too much weight on potentially inadequate English words can be dangerous. Greek and Hebrew are where it’s at. (Sorry for the poorly constructed sentence done for effect.)
- Unoriginal thinking – this falls under theological accountability but also could be a broader author faux pas as well. I am not speaking about anthologies. I am speaking about a book where the sum total of your point is to reference other author’s work. Books about books only lead to books about books about books, which are really uninteresting.
To be clear, your theological accountability partner should be someone who can tell you, “This is not right,” and you won’t be offended or defensive. Most often, this person is not a relative or close friend. They won’t be hard on you when it is necessary. Choose your TAP’s wisely.
This is a great point, and a great list to look out for. I think it goes even further than books, but blogs and other information generated these days. I know that I’ve had to check myself after writing a blog post–to be sure that my creativity didn’t take over my logic and spiritual discernment! Those creative juices can be tricky! Thanks for the post.
We expend so much energy, sweat, and tears making sure we get it right with query letters, transcripts, agents, and publishers, but I never thought about this important accountability partner.
“A significant function of a traditional Christian publisher is to act as a theological accountability partner to their authors.”
Better to have one book written right than 35 published wrong!
J S Rogers
Thank you Dan. I think the temptation to mold scripture around the context of a writer’s idea is a real danger. Great points throughout!
Dan, early in my writing days I submitted a short piece to the magazine of a well-known preacher. The editor sent a very nice rejection letter, saying that their panel felt I’d misinterpreted the Scripture on which my work was based. Thanks for reminding us of that possibility.
As a novelist, I’ve been warned that if I submit my work to such-and-such a publisher, the novel should include a conversion scene, a marriage, and certain other criteria must be met. How true is this in your experience?
Every publisher of fiction has a slightly different set of requirements, which makes it challenging for an author. So, it is complicated from publisher to publisher.
The greatest difference between publishers seems to be how to portray the “pre-Christian” life of a character. Once a person accepts Christ, their life changes and so do their actions (hopefully), but it is the non-Christian and their actions that, if filtered too much diminishes the apparent effect of a new life.
It’s a tough one for sure.
This is an interesting post and I agree with most of it. It does give rise, however, to an obvious question. Orthodoxy according to whom?
You stated, “In an effort to craft compelling phrases and stories, orthodox theology can sometimes be a casualty of creativity or even carelessness.” Isn’t it true that orthodoxy is defined differently by various Christian sub-groups? Next year is the 400th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his thesis on a church door. At the time, his theology was considered by most Christian leaders to be an creative innovation, a departure from centuries of established orthodoxy. I agree that God’s truth is not ever new. But surely we must allow for the possibility that a new and better understanding of that truths\ may still be before us, waiting for that minister, teacher or writer to who thinks outside the box just enough to develop a corrective to long-held, established misunderstandings of truth. I have no such work in progress and am inclined to views such claims the same way you do. But is it possible? Every evangelical must logically say it is. Our entire belief system was once viewed as a creative innovation, one which was a dangerous departure from orthodoxy. Truth may be static, but orthodoxy certainly isn’t.
Orthodox belief is expressed in its essence in the apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Every statement in the creeds is supported by the Bible. That’s a solid starting point.
Thank you for suggesting the two creeds. You are correct that most Christians of all persuasions can recite them with sincerity as a reflection of orthodox faith. I do believe, however, that the question ventured still stands. For example, when the Nicene creed speaks of one Catholic and Apostolic faith, the formulators had something very different in mind than what any Presbyterian or Southern Baptist would agree with. They meant the succession of bishops, not just the original twelve. In both creeds there are a number of places where Christians speak the words and mean something very different from their neighbor in the church down the street, and both groups believe their perspective reflects correct orthodoxy and is biblical. If that is the case, would not the problem still remain? If we recite the same creeds, yet mean something quite different when we do so, then uniformity regarding orthodoxy is a facade and the term becomes meaningless. I’m not advocating that writers run amok and go crazy. I am suggesting that theology is not, nor has it ever been, a static enterprise. For example, there are three main categories of belief in the Protestant community regarding Communion. All three were quite innovative and each of the developers were uncomfortable with the other three. Why should Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli be the only three guys we should ever consider? Maybe all three were slightly off. Perhaps in two hundred years some African theologian or an Asian female fiction writer will offer a nuanced fourth view which will become the norm for all Christians. Who knows?
Every Christian publisher has a theological framework in which they work. Some are very distinct, like denominational publishers, but many use the statement of faith provided by the National Association of Evangelicals as a unifying theology. It is pretty broad and summarizes their stance well.
If a publisher doesn’t agree with a theological direction of a book, they won’t publish it.
Dan, I like the way your agency has presented its statement of faith complete with references to some Scriptures supporting each statement. If the folks who follow you haven’t checked it out under the “about” tab, I would recommend they take a look.
D, I agree there is always the risk of taking denominational interpretation and execution and treating that as the one true faith. We know that isn’t the case.
Regarding the differences between the Reformation theologians, their focus on the details of what happens with the bread and wine during communion did nothing to change their mutual understanding that Jesus’s death paid for their sins and reconciled them with God. What Jesus did by his atoning death and resurrection is where our faith lies.
The key word with catholic and apostolic is “faith”. The succession of bishops is an organizational construct, not the faith. (I come from a denominational background where the apostolic succession of bishops is intact, but there are many where it’s not that are equally orthodox in their faith.) Catholic means universal, not Roman Catholic. Apostolic means consistent with the teaching of the original apostles as they received it directly from Jesus and the Holy Spirit and transmitted it forward in the Greek original of the New Testament. I find that a rock-solid basis for my own faith.
You’re point about basing your theology on an English word study without checking in the original languages is so well taken. There are online resources like the Blue Letter Bible, which includes many English and Spanish translations and an interlinear option where the English NASB is presented side-be-side with the original Hebrew and Greek. It makes it so simple to check whether you’re drifting away from accuracy.
One popular word play that grinds my gears (I drive a stick) is saying “atonement” is becoming “at one” with God because “at one” is embedded in “atonement.” The Greek word translated “atonement” in the NIV (Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17) isn’t the same Greek word in the Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew, such as in Lev. 23:38 , which is about Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The word “propitiation” is the translation used in King James, Spanish, Latin, and the other English word-for-word translations.
I guess that just shows how vital it is to compare several English translations to make sure you’re not missing or twisting a point. It’s even more important to remember God’s perfect word is in the original Greek and Hebrew, not in any one English translation.
Love this! Good insights and advise.
Excellent points, Dan. Authors can be more concerned about their plots and punctuation than their theological accuracy.
As someone once said, “Thanks for for sharing this!”
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Thanks for the reminder that we need to be accountable! Someone asked me to edit her devotional books and I said I would, but that I was editing for grammar and punctuation, not anything the referred to Scripture. She got our Sunday school teacher (the former president of Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary) to look over the actual content.
Great post Dan! I agree completely with all points. And that’s rare 🙂
Dan, while I appreciate your concern for both Scripture and theological issues, and I agree that a review is to be preferred, I would personally put more of the emphasis on each Christian reader mastering their own theological basics. Once accomplished, the individual, with the help of the Holy Spirit, become largely immune to doctrinal drift.
I prefer this approach because peer reviews have allowed such materials as “The Shack”, or authors such as Joel Olsteen, Oral Roberts and Robert Schuler to flourish along side of Billy Graham and Chuck Swindoll.
As is often pointed out, publishing is a business and not all editors are either theologically qualified or willing to dismiss a lucrative project due to theological variances such as name it and claim it, prosperity gospel or positive thinking.
Once published, It could even be argued that publishing companies give questionable works a legitimacy they would otherwise lack if “self-published”. Certainly, they are given a wider marketing and distribution.
Frankly, what Satan can’t slip through the traditional publishing nets, he will self-publish. We all need our theological armor polished to get by in these days of constant information. As the ancient Romans advised, Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware.)
Spot on, Brad. Bank tellers train to identify counterfeit bills by studying the real thing so well the fakes leap out at them. We should do the same.
Thank you, Dan. Your comments on theology are refreshing. I’m finding way too much unbiblical theology in self-published fiction. It hurts my heart. In fact, I’m wondering if we can ever get back to where good theology is important. Hang in there and don’t let it happen to Laube Agency books.
This is a great post, Dan. I wonder if there are any theological “editors” out there. This might be a nice business idea for someone! I self-publish Bible studies and books on the renewing of the mind and one of the most helpful things I do to check theology is to lead Bible studies and/or study groups with the books. The women in my classes give feedback and I’ve changed my opinion and writing before from their Scripture based opinions. I definitely agree with one writer though that publishing houses aren’t immune from books with bad theology. One of the main reasons I self-publish is to be able to have control over what I put out, but I can definitely see the advantage of having someone official checking your work to make sure it’s theologically accurate! I always feel relieved when a pastor tells me he likes one of my books. 🙂
What an excellent idea, Barb. Much better than relying on the theological soundness of a single editor or commercial publishing house.
Great list Dan. I would add one about avoiding raising an issue to a level that is inappropriate for it, in effect treating a hobby horse as if the very existence of the faith is dependent on people following a writer’s point of view.