It’s a question I hear daily. A customer comes in or calls and asks for a book on a certain topic. It’s a fun question and sometimes a challenge. Let me explain.
There’s no greater satisfaction than finding the right book to match the customer’s need. But every now and then I get that odd request. For example, someone might ask me if I have a book on the breastplate of the high priest. Before I answer my mind is rolling through 38 years of my own experience. Blank, nothing comes to mind. I tell them I can’t think of anything and I try to do a search on my computer. This is frustrating because my system can’t do a subject search. Something like “breastplate” has to be in the title. Strike two. Next I do a Google search. I might find some online articles but still can’t find a “book.” Now at this point some customers begin to question my abilities. “There has to be something on it,” they claim. I answer that there probably is but it will probably be a chapter within a larger volume dealing with related issues. Or, there is probably an unpublished thesis on it which I can’t access. I often suggest they try a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. I tell them that there is often a bibliography at the end of the article which will offer some suggested sources but I tell them these are often journal articles, other encyclopedia articles or technical works that may be hard to get. Some leave satisfied. Others leave frustrated.
What made me think of this as a post? In reading D.A. Carson’s book Jesus the Son of God and Lee Martin McDonald’s Formation of the Bible I found some apt examples of what I’m talking about. Carson begins his book by referencing where you can find discussions on this topic—Jesus the Son of God. He begins by talking about “works forged within the discipline of systematic theology.” (14) These books discuss the “Son of God” within the discussion on the Trinity. Secondly, he points to “a handful of works are specialist volumes focusing not on the categories of systematic theology but on slightly different lines.” (15) For example, “Sam Janse traces the reception history of Psalm 2, especially the ‘You are My Son’ formula in early Judaism and in the New Testament.” (15) Finally, he notes “two spirited controversies” surrounding the issue—namely the complementarian/egalitarian debates and the translation difficulties posed by this phrase in Muslim contexts. Here again he points to books which treat this as part of a larger discussion. Bottom line—nothing for the lay reader that directly addresses this topic in a book of its own.
In McDonald’s book he writes, “Not long ago when I was a visiting scholar and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was asked by one of the biblical professors if I knew of any book on this subject [canon of Scripture] that was written for laypersons. Her question stayed with me and I have decided to address it in this volume. At that time, there was nothing I could point to that was well informed and responsibly written for the church that could also address some of the critical questions related to the origin of the Bible.” (xii) Notice something important that McDonald says, he couldn’t think of anything that was “well informed and responsibly written.” That’s very important. With the glut of self published works now being produced you might be able to find a book on the breastplate of the high priest but how competent will it be and how well will it be written? As a seminary graduate I can often think of books on a topic that is on the topic the customer is seeking but more often than not it is too much for them. I learned this early on in my retail experience as I put book after book in a customer’s hands only to have them give it back. “This is too technical for me,” they would politely say. I still see it today with some of my coworkers who are seminary students. They aren’t thinking about the fact that this customer is probably not interested in a seminary-level text book.
The most important thing about this is listening and asking questions. I need to carefully listen to what my customer is looking for and I need to craft questions which will help me know what level they would be happy with. This past week I was talking with a customer who wanted to read something on apocalypticism to help with the class he was teaching on Revelation. After several questions I told him about a new book from Baker Academic on this subject but cautioned him that it was an academic text. The book was Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World by Frederick J. Murphy. As he scanned through the book he said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” It was a perfect match. He and I were both happy. Lesson for the day—not every subject has a well informed and responsibly written book written for the lay person. But far too many ignore the rich material found in a good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.