Christian Bookstores and the Joy That Keeps Me Awake

Last week one of my students asked me to lead a Bible study. There was one particular book which she wanted to go through, written by a local youth pastor’s wife. With play rehearsals on top of senior thesis grading on top of the rest of my job, it wasn’t until today that I got around to finding a copy to read. First I went to Barnes and Nobles, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I called my dad. I asked him what other big bookstores there were in town. He told me none. So then I asked him where that Christian bookstore was, and let him tell me, although I already knew. And then I went.

From the moment I pulled up, I was, as my pastor during college would have said, profoundly uncomfortable. I am a follower of Christ and I have spent my whole life in Christian community. I love walking into churches. I love books. Quite obviously, I think it is a good thing to read and write about Jesus, and I know full well that if the contents of this blog were ever to be really published, that is the sort of store that would sell them. And yet.

There were posters of smiling women all inside the display windows, and when I walked in it smelled like potpourri and both cashiers shouted hello.  But potpourri doesn’t bother me, and I am definitively in favor of smiles and people who give them to me.

I was probably inside for a total of three or four minutes. I can find books very fast when I want to, and they had the one I needed. It was just past the Christian board books section, in the women’s section, where most of the covers were pink or had pictures of rushing water on them.

When the lady rung me up she asked for my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. I wanted to say, Please don’t send me things. I don’t want your things. You have an entire wall devoted to Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury is displayed with your “Best New Reads,” and your open sign is shaped like an ichthys. Why can’t it just be shaped like an open sign?!? But instead I told her my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. Then I walked out with a bag which said “Biblical Solutions to Life” on the side. I drove away and tried to figure out why that had been such an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes I lie awake at night because I have too many thoughts. They don’t  have time to be thought of during the day, so once I turn out my light they tumble around and around in my head, delighted to have my attention at long last. Sometimes they are angry and bitter thoughts. More than once this year I have decided with great certainty that whoever dreamed up the idea of teaching as an actual career is a sadist, on level with Rasputin or Iago, and ought to be taken out and shot.

But other nights are different. Other nights joy keeps me awake. Joy that I bought stickers at Target to put on a rough batch of tests, joy that high schoolers like to laugh and like to laugh at themselves, joy that I have people I love enough to miss, joy, to be honest, that students want me to lead a Bible study. This is the sort of joy that makes me feel very small. Small and loved and promised and clean. The greatest lesson I have learned in teaching is the hugeness of my own inadequacy and and the irrelevance of that inadequacy in the face of God’s abundant grace.

I think that there are fair and wise criticisms to be made of the idea of a Christian bookstore or of a Christian culture in general. But I don’t think I am the person to make them. I walked into that place this evening as a female teacher at a Christian school with plans to lead a Bible study for teenage girls. I knew I was their ideal demographic and I resented it. I did not want to think they might have anything to teach me. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that no, of course, he would never have come to a place like this. I was prepared to remind myself that he was my God and not theirs.

But the God of small joys, who pries open my fingers and teaches me to hold my palms out empty before him, is far wiser than I. If he can change me through cheap princess stickers and flubbed blocking in a high school drama rehearsal, it is faithless of me to claim he cannot be present in books that cry out his name on every page. Perhaps I will lie awake tonight thinking about that.

You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.

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