October 21, 2020

The Safest Place To Be

It’s a dangerous world out there. Lots of things to be aware of. So I think it best to identify a safe place, somewhere you can be assured of not being bothered by all of the bad in this world. And I have found just the place.

It’s your nearby local Christian bookstore.

Yes, you can find safety in your Christian bookstore. Nothing bad ever happens in the pages of Christian books. Life is nothing but an endless supply of cupcakes and roses. The sun always shines in Christian books. Every ending is a happy ending. No one ever sins, and if they do, well, they are really, really sorry about it.

You are always safe around Christian books. Every prayer is answered. Every person is blessed beyond measure. We all learn how to live to our fullest, experiencing life at its best. God is explained down to the smallest detail. Every Bible verse is understood in the one and only way it can be understood. And of course there is only one true understanding of each verse. Science is exposed in the light of faith. No more questions, for in a Christian bookstore all we have are answers. The right answers.

In the fiction aisle we find men and women who may encounter hardship, but they always come through it with their faith intact, their sicknesses healed, their lives fulfilled. At the end of each book is a nice red ribbon that is tied up neatly. The bad guy always loses, and the good guys always win. Just ignore the bad theology and poorly-disguised sermons masquerading as stories. Embrace the fact that the Amish are everywhere and are the perfect representatives of Jesus in our day.

Life in Christian books is nice and safe, just the way God intends for it to be.

Ok, look, I’ll admit I am being sarcastic as I rant against a system and a business that I have been in for many years but can no longer support. And I know there are still some good books to be found in Christian stores. But the whole system is broken beyond repair. I can no longer be a part of this system. And I have a personal reason why. Her name is Marsha Matto.

On July 4, 2007, Marsha and her three young children (6, 7, and 9) all climbed into Marsha’s brand-new Nissan Murano and went to celebrate our nation’s birthday at her ex-husband’s house along with her family and friends. She got there around 3 and went to work fixing dinner. She accepted a drink—vodka with a splash of cranberry juice—as she grilled some vegetables. That, and a sip of a Coors Light (the rest of the bottle was spilled when it was knocked over in a soccer game following dinner) was the extent of the alcohol Marsha drank. When she loaded her kids in the car to head home at 8 o’clock that evening, she was completely sober.

It was dark and raining on the five mile drive home. Marsha’s son John, sitting in the front seat beside his mom, took off his seatbelt. Why? Because he was a nine-year-old boy. But this upset Marsha, and she leaned across to refasten his belt, taking her eyes off the road for a brief moment. She crossed the center line and hit a cargo van at 40 miles per hour. John and six-year-old Morgan were killed. Marsha and seven-year-old Haley were taken to the hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut where doctors doubted they would live. But they did. After five weeks, they went home.

Marsha’s blood was tested for alcohol at the hospital, but not until after she had had her first transfusion. Alcohol did register in her blood at a level of .12, so she was charged with eight felony counts. For the next two years, Marsha faced the grueling task of learning to walk again (after she had been told she most likely wouldn’t walk) and preparing for her court case. I’ll make this short. She did learn to walk again, and today walks with hardly a limp. And she was acquitted on seven of the eight felonies. To learn how she did this, you will have to read her book. Only you won’t find it in a Christian bookstore.

Marsha is a Christian. She has one of the greatest relationships with God I have ever encountered. The first time I met her she told me, “I have no desire to be a ‘good Christian.’ That is far too weak for me. I want so much more from God.” Marsha told me she didn’t know if she really knew how to pray. “All I do is talk with God about everything. Everything. And then I listen to what he says to me. And because I love him so much, I do whatever he tells me to do.” I’d like to staple myself to Marsha just to experience the closeness she has with God.

So why won’t her story be found in Christian bookstores? Because it’s not safe. I was told by an editor this week that while he loves the proposal I sent, he loves the fact that Marsha is not your pre-packaged “typical Christian,” this story just would not fly with the Christian book-buying crowd. “They would never forgive her,” said the editor. “They would indict her for having a drink when she knew she would be driving her kids home.”

“But she wasn’t drunk,” I said. “How could one drink consumed five hours before make you too drunk to drive?” And I explained to him how that the jury found her not guilty, how a doctor explained why her blood level tested the way it did. The editor said it wouldn’t matter.

“The Christian audience would still think she was guilty. There is just no way we could publish that book. It would never sell in the Christian stores.”

And you know what? He’s right. It wouldn’t sell in Christian stores. It isn’t a safe book. And that’s something we don’t want, is it? A book that isn’t safe.

Marsha’s story is real. It involves pain that is not resolved. There is divorce and alcohol. Children die. Oh, and Marsha doesn’t go to church. And she cusses. And she’s a Catholic. There is nothing safe about Marsha Matto. But she is real. Oh, she is real. And reality is not safe. So her story will not be in Christian stores.

My first job was in a Christian bookstore. To this day it remains one of my favorite jobs. I got to meet many new friends and help people get books that could answer their questions, or at least help them to ask the right questions. It seems that in the 1970s there were a lot more real books available than there are today. Maybe I’m just imagining it. But I don’t recall books that told us just how God wants us to get prime parking spaces at the mall or how that our every need would always be met the moment we asked. There were books about how when one walks with God, it is a great adventure in faith that sometimes does not end with a red ribbon tied neatly. Oh, and we carried one book that definitely is not safe. It’s called the Bible. (But we’ll save that discussion for another day.)

Maybe, just maybe, the store I worked at in 1975 would have carried Marsha’s story. If so, those who bought and read it would have gotten a glimpse of a woman who has not given up on God. And, more to the point, a woman God has not given up on.

Life is not safe. At least real life isn’t. There is pain and sorrow and hard things. We screw up and God stays faithful. We do everything right and life falls apart around us. I have walked with the Lord going on 40 years and I have never once heard him promise me a safe ride. As a matter of fact, the longer I walk with him, the more I am convinced that he is anything but safe. Nor do I think he has ever intended to be.

You want safety? You’ll find it at your nearby Christian bookstore. You’ll find blessings and healings and prosperity galore. But you won’t find reality. You won’t find Marsha Matto. You won’t find me any longer. And, I suspect you won’t find God there, either.

And if our founder, the Internet Monk himself, were still with us, you would not find him there, either.


  1. I have a huge problem with the vapidity of evangelical subculture, but sometimes IMonk contributors and commenters have a way of making me want to go listen to Focus on the Family and read Janette Oke until my head explodes.

    • That’ll teach us!

    • “I have a huge problem with the vapidity of evangelical subculture, but sometimes IMonk contributors and commenters have a way of making me want to go listen to Focus on the Family and read Janette Oke until my head explodes.”

      I’m so confused now.

  2. For all the shortcomings and sins of the RCC throughout the ages I must say I just don’t find some of the issues that are so prevalent in the varied protestant – evangelical churches that are presented here. Yet, so many still like to throw “mud” at the catholic faith as though it is full of heresy and not part of the “real” church of Christ. The woman in your story , Jeff, would not be rejected or considered a bad christian because she had something to drink. Nor would her life as a child of God be questioned. Most communities would grieve with her and support her – granted to what extent would vary on each individual. The main point is that in the RCC failing as a human being, sinfulness, is pretty much expected – Jesus didn’t come for the self-righteous but for sinners.

    Does this mean everyone in the RCC is loving and merciful – gosh no and I can personally testify to that – but they are the one’s who don’t represent what the church teaches and strives to represent.

    I’ve been in various christian(non-catholic) bookstores as well as RCC ones. I can’t speak for fiction because I prefer other types of literature. Though I learned from a previous responder here that there is a whole genre of catholic science fiction… I will say, that in the majority of RCC bookstores I’ve been to, there is a mixture of content which includes volumes of the Fathers of the Church, books of Aquinas, Augustine, documents of the church on sacred music, the councils through the ages etc. The Catechism of the RCC and the documenst of the 2nd Vat Council are both filled with Scripture, writings of the Ancient Fathers and numerous holy men and woman who exemplified the christian life. You can also find classical sacred music from throughout church history along with more contemporary music.

    Now for to shock you – talk about a book on love, romance, sex, human ecstasy – Pope John Pauls book on Human Love in the Divine plan “The Theology of the Body” – or the 4 volumn series of Bernard of Clariraux on the Song of Songs (talk about sensual writing..) and also the writings of John of the Cross, who is considred one of the greatest literary poets of Spanish literature. His poems the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love are truly sensual love stories of the soul in love with God.

    I’ve also seen RCC bookstores with a good selection of non-catholic christian books….To find CS Lewis’ works would not be out of the ordinary.

  3. I got to the fifth sentence, “It’s your near by local Christian bookstore,” and cracked up. So true! You also won’t find him much in Christian movies. In Christian movies, everything is neatly wrapped up. You just know everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to – for faith-filled Christians, that is. The wife is going to get pregnant against all odds, the loser team is going to win against all odds, and – whoops! I’m giving away the whole movie here. (“Amazing Grace” is a welcome exception to the bad fare found in most Christian movies.)

    My husband once ordered a Navigators study in the Christian store for a guy at work whom he was discipling. He’d ordered them there a year or two back, but now, the worker had never heard of Navigators studies. When I could not conceal my amazement, she acted offended. Well, I shouldn’t have even been surprised, much less amazed. My husband found the study online and ordered it. I’m sure he received what he ordered in much less time than the Christian store would’ve gotten it to him. (Notice I said “received what he ordered.” That would in itself be really amazing at the C bookstore.)

    During the time of the first Narnia movie, I was looking for a particular book by C.S. Lewis. The C bookstore hardly had any, and they indicated they didn’t expect any more in. I went across the street to the evil secular bookstore and found a whole table and other section devoted to C.S. Lewis.

    Don’t get me started on the # of times I came in to pick up an order, and they couldn’t find it and expressed doubt that I’d ordered it, despite the fact that they’d called. One time, my order had been placed so long before that I was having trouble remembering what I had ordered. And someone in line ahead of me had the same trouble, so it wasn’t just me.

    Oh, and while I am ranting – I know, I’m bad – I once ordered a Bible study from an online Christian book source. They sent me an old edition. When I called and explained, the guy said to return it. When I asked if they had the current edition, he said, “Probably.” When I asked if I had to pay return shipping, he said, “I don’t know. Probably not.” (I did.) So, I returned that one at my expense, got on line on the evil secular bookstore’s site and received the current version in 2 days.

    I don’t go into that Christian store, or shop the Christian website, since then. I would say I’d have to be desperate to go either place, but then, I only ever get desperate when and after I’m in there.

  4. @Jeff: off topic, but I followed Meg Mosley’s post to her blog and skimmed the Oct.15th entry done by her daughter. The topic is what it is like to grow up with a writer for a mom, and some tips on writing . I thought it was very good stuff, so this is a FYI… the ‘title’ is “In Which Cindy Chen Guest Posts”. Enjoy.

    Greg R

  5. Don’t worry. Christian bookstores are quickly becoming a thing of the past. They can’t compete with Amazon.com and larger more diverse books stores. I think the reason they carry mainly ‘safe’ books is because they have to stock books that sell in large quantities to stay in business. And, face it, books like one about Marsha aren’t best sellers at any book store. Non-Christian book stores and publishers may carry and publish them because they have a broader selection and more diverse clientele. Books that sell well (which tend to be ‘safe’ books, or just plain junk) make up the loss from those that don’t.

    I think I understand Nathan Carpenter’s comment. You’re beating a straw man here and getting all self righteous about it to boot! Christian book stores may have served their purpose in the 70’s and 80’s when mainstream publishers and stores weren’t much interested in catering to Christian interests. Back then you had to order just about any book that you could easily find on the shelf in a Christian book store. The Christian book publishing industry grew tremendously during that time and other publishers and stores wanted that business. So Harper and Row bought Zondervan and Borders and Barnes & Noble have much larger selections of Christian books and better volume discounts with companies that publish them.

    Christian book stores have outlived their usefulness, that’s all. This hasn’t much to do with anything but the way the whole book publishing and selling business has changed in the last 15 years. What you see happening with Christian book publishing and selling are the symptoms of victimization of their past success.

  6. Jeff,

    The situation over here in the Netherlands is pretty much the same… I order my books through the dutch equivalent of Amazon (bol.com) and even my christian music.
    Nothing of quality is being sold any longer in christian book stores who have given up on their evangelical idealism and have turned into businesses who just want to survive economically.

    I do guess they have outlived their usefulness… Yet over here mainstream bookstores don’t sell christian books but only new agey stuff and yes some bibles and qurans of course.

    Then again, North Western Europe is post christian now unlike huge parts of the USA.

  7. the good thing about the Nissan Murano is that it looks very sexy and tough`”:

  8. the nissan murano is a bang for the buck car, i own one and i would have to say that this is a great car ;~`