There’s a line I shared in my little eBook on how to write book reviews that goes like this:
“Brothers and sisters, we are not to be sycophants. Don’t write a review that sounds like it was written by one.”
I want to take a bit of time today to expand on that a little more.
One of the mistakes I see less experienced bloggers make—which, by the way is a really bizarre statement to make (when did I become one of the more experienced bloggers??)—is always writing positive reviews. They seem to be wowed by every single book they read!
Now, I know there are some bloggers who only write reviews of books they like, and that’s fine, if your genuine, heartfelt conviction is you only want to talk about books you unabashedly love. But honestly, I can’t go there. Why?
Because critical thinking is good for your soul—and it’s a skill we sorely lack in our culture, Christian and otherwise. The Bible calls critical thinking “discernment,” which is referred to as both a discipline and a spiritual gift. Basically the idea is being able to identify truth from error, and doing so requires effort. It’s like exercising. The more consistently you do it, the stronger your muscles get, and the more your endurance increases.
So what do you need to do? The best way to know how to identify truth from error is to know the truth really, really well. So you read your Bible, you study it diligently. You work hard at this.
But then you need to put it into practice. There are two ways I do this: the first is I periodically read books I know I’m unlikely to align with theologically (such as A Year of Biblical Womanhood or Love Wins). This allows me to both test my own assumptions as well as think through the arguments and implications of other works. The goal, particularly when reading a book like this for review purposes, is to develop a balanced, helpful critique.
The other way I put it into practice is by, as I explained in the eBook, treating the author as secondary to the message. This is especially important when reading someone you like. Because you’ve got your own biases at work, you’ve got to be diligent to push through and not assume—whether because the author is a personal friend or an influential figure you admire from afar—what’s being written should be given a pass. Doing so is both dishonoring to the author’s intentions[1. Assuming, of course, his or her intention is that you actually do think critically about what’s written, of course.] and damaging to you as a Christian. Thinking critically about the material from trusted sources has allowed me to dig into my own assumptions in a way that even reading opposing views doesn’t.
This was certainly the case when reviewing Why Cities Matter, which actually helped me to focus my views on urban ministry a little more definitively (in that I’m now far less comfortable saying we should focus on urban contexts at the expense of rural ones in order to “reach the culture”). Driscoll’s new book helped me work out my views on video preaching and think about the implications of a teaching pastor divorced from the body.
Finally, moving beyond the personal, there’s the benefit to those reading the review: when you read a critical review, you’re seeing a model of how to think critically. When I write a critical review, I don’t want you to just know what I think, I want you to see how I got there. I want you to see how I think and use what’s helpful in your own thinking.
Obviously I’m not advocating slamming books for the sake of slamming them. And I don’t want anyone to feel bad about writing predominantly positive reviews. What I am advocating for is careful, consistent, thoughtful discernment. A little good ole fashioned critical thinking is good for the soul, both your own and your reader’s.