(I apologize in advance for the length of this essay. I am not trying to fight the ever decreasing attention span of readers, but as Spurgeon told the lady who criticized his humor in the pulpit, “you would think better of me if you knew how much I left out.”)
It should go without saying that pastor’s read. Some read more than others and some read better than others; the ones that aren’t as good aren’t illiterate, sometimes just blindingly uncritical. Books are the tools of the pastor, because for both preaching and everyday pastoral ministry, the effective pastor must have a wide range of material at his disposal.
Recently, I’ve encountered two of the worst book reviews in my experience. One so-called “review” was little more than a screed on social media. The apparent point was that since author was theologically unsound, this book must be malicious and the denunciation of such a book (whether the reviewer had read the book was debatable) was a service of inestimable value to the church. The main “proof” offered was the title of the book and a couple of publisher quotes that would have appeared on the dust jacket. The subsequent commenters, who also hadn’t read the book, took their cue and joined the condemnation. The other was an attempt at a formal review; however, the reviewer ignored even basic principles that make for a good review. It was factually flawed and was little more than a vehicle to disparage anyone who disagreed with the reviewer’s views on the subject. As Lord Peter Wimsey said, “there’s nothing you can’t prove if your outlook is only sufficiently limited.”
What do book reviews have to do with reading? Everything! Even if you have no intention of ever writing a formal book review, the principles of proper reviewing are identical to the principles of proper reading. Critical interaction with a book, even if it is only a mental process that never sees you put pen to paper (an expression which obviously shows my age), is vital for the pastor. As factotum in a local church the pastor is also the chief reviewer for the congregation. Congregants, for better or worse, often take their pastors’ positive or negative opinions, about books, authors, and even current events, as fact. The more critically you read the better “reviewer” you will be for your church.
The listed author usually has written the book, article, blog entries, essays, or whatever. Usually, but certainly not always. Ghostwriters abound in the world. Noteworthy persons may have an “idea” for a book, but they lack the writing skill, research ability, or simply the time, to actually compose a book. A famous case of this was then Senator John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (Harper Brothers, 1955). It was a fabulously well-written and compelling book; I remember reading it for the first time when I was about 10. It won a Pulitzer Prize and started Kennedy on his way victory in the 1960 presidential election. The problem was he didn’t write the book. It is now well established (and admitted) that Theodore Sorensen, his longtime speechwriter and aide, wrote the book, albeit taking Kennedy’s original idea with the senator adding an edit here and there. Sometimes a less ethereal ghostwriter will be identified (if a book is by “X and Y” both are equal, but if a book is by “X with Y” then Y is the ghostwriter). Sometimes an academic will use his graduate students to produce material. There are some famous and well-published authors, even many in the Christian world, who probably have never written an entire book by themselves.
Beyond authorship within parts of the evangelical culture an informal Index Librorum Prohibitorum often operates behind the scenes. Authors and titles that evangelicals are not “allowed” to like or recommend. Of the 300+ book reviews I have published a few have bumped into this unseen wall. One I remember well was a review of a Sacra Pagina series commentary. While describing its weaknesses, I concluded by recommending it as a top-quality work, noting that others in that same series were worth consulting. Afterwards I received a couple dozen notes roundly criticizing me with various adjectival descriptions for daring to commend a Catholic book or series. Another time, in class of doctoral students, I recommended a book with the caveat that, despite being an excellent work (and on the shelves of a few of my colleagues), some might be offended by some sections. But naturally, one student, apparently determined to be offended, bought the book, was predictably offended, and complained to the president about my corrupting influence.
There are naturally some authors that you just won’t like. I recall John Piper saying that if you had read one of his books you have read them all, and after reading one of his books I took him at his word. Just be careful your individual preferences don’t become the standard for recommendation. I recall an amusing group conversation where a participant heartily recommended a book by X as being “the best.” X is certainly eminent, but this particular book was pretty awful. When the others had left I asked the person more about his thoughts on the book he recommended and discovered he had never actually read it! It was what I call a “jelly recommendation.” “With a name like Smuckers it has to be good.”
All of this to say that it is vital for the pastor to read widely and carefully. You are bringing the text of Scripture alive to a congregation week after week. Illustrations, examples, applications of the text to real life are essential to the sermon. Reading widely, being well informed, is a vital part of pastoral ministry. Your congregation relies on you and your words more than you might be willing to admit. You should neither naively recommend books by someone you admire; nor should you simply reject, out of hand, books written by someone you are sure is a heretic.
I developed a book review methodology and created an evaluative rubric for academic book reviews. For what it’s worth that material, especially the rubric, are currently used by a few academic journals. I’ll summarize the pertinent points.
Read the Book with Comprehension
When reading the book, make notations for yourself. Some people (myself included) don’t like to write notations in a book itself, which is fine as long as you have some other method that works. Don’t rely on memory to remember a particular quotation or passage, remember you may need this book not next week, but rather a decade or two from now. This will save you a lot of wasted time skimming through page after page looking once again for the one paragraph. This becomes increasingly important for the busy pastor. You also have to read critically.
By “critical” I don’t mean to “criticize,” looking for every little flaw to exploit. Critical means examining and evaluating the material objectively with depth. A good book review is not a publisher’s press release, nor is it a “book report,” that is, a simple summation of the contents. The reader/reviewer’s job is to evaluate the material and make judgment calls as to whether or not the author has achieved their goals and made a cogent presentation and contribution. Here are some important things to look for:
- Does the author have a clear and comprehensible writing style? If you have to read a sentence several times to try to figure out what he is saying, other people probably do too.
- Does the author treat those he is writing against fairly? Does he try to make straw men out of his opponents?
- Does the author avoid fallacious reasoning? Is there a logical flow to his presentation?
- Does the author use good primary sources or is there too much dependence on secondary material?
- Does the author demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the current state of the issues involved?
Pay Attention to the Author and Publisher
Normally a book will have at least some information about the author. This is worth more than a glance. Who is the writer? What is their educational background? Why is the author (or perhaps isn’t) qualified to write this book? What is the author’s current occupation? Be alert for his academic credentials! When listing his academic background be certain to see if a degree was actually awarded.
Next, who published this book? Is the book self-published or published by a “vanity press”? Self-published books can sometimes be hard to spot because an author may create his imprint (it’s not hard to do) with an impressive sounding name; however, when you check, the “publisher” has actually only printed one book oronly a few books by the same author! While a self-published work may be an excellent contribution, it is nonetheless an important question to ask, “why didn’t a standard publisher take on this work”? Because, trust me, they tried to get an established publisher to take it!
Pay Attention to the Front Matter:
One of the most important places to examine for a book review is the front matter. That is any introduction, preface, foreword or such. This is the place where the author should answer to some important questions:
- Why did he write this book?
- What is he trying to accomplish with this book?
- Who is this book directed towards?
- From Where has he drawn his information?
- When did he write the book, how current is his research?
A key part of critical reading is identifying the purpose, intended audience, and reasons for writing; determining whether or not the goals were accomplished. You may not like a book or anything about it, but if the author achieved the intended purpose, the book should be commended at least for that.
I’ve listened to many sermons and read various articles critical of the NIV for not rendering this or that passage “literally” and chastising the creators of the translation for this or that serious breach of translation principle. The problem is, that this criticism is nonsense and is quickly dispelled by reading the preface of the translation where it is stated clearly that the translators were “striving for something more than a word for word translation.” You may not like their translation methodology, but it is disingenuous to criticize them for not doing something they never had any intention of doing in the first place.
Pay Attention to the End Matter
Check the bibliography of the book. What works has he referred to? Are there important works in the field that he has ignored or overlooked? Does the book have good useable indexes? Our opinion is that every book should at least have a good Subject Index. A Scripture Index (for Biblical and theologically oriented books) and an Author or Person Index is also quite helpful. The better the indexes the more useful the book will be to you in the future.
Books are the pastors’ tools and most pastors, especially in America, have an abundantly full toolbox. But how one uses the tools is important. The brand of the tool is often a great guide, but it’s not infallible. The ironclad warranty of Snap On or Craftsman is nice, but useless if the tool itself was badly designed and even with the best companies that happens. And every so often an off-brand tool will be just what you need. A congregation normally views their pastor as the expert on tools, work hard not to disappoint them.
 Just a note, authors rarely create the title for their books. They may offer a suggestion, but titles and cover art of the purview of the publisher’s publicity department.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body (London: T. Fischer Unwin, 1923)
 Bill O’Reilly’s horrible series of “Who Killed” books is a good example of this.
 The American scholar of Judaism Jacob Neusner, with more than 950 titles to his credit, is a good example. However, he also helped propel the careers of an entire generation of scholars.
 The reviews of fiction are an entirely different matter with a whole different set of evaluative criteria. However, good fiction writing and good non-fiction writing possesses a similar quality: good writing.
 Publishers are much easier to check now. The ISBN number (International Standard Book Number) you can be checked to get more detailed information about the publisher.
 Even a reputable publisher like University Press of America is somewhat problematic in that they will publish books for an author who pays to have it done. Although this practice has faded in recent years, in the past an important individual or institution would pay an established publisher to produce a work so as to give the work more credibility. Robert Van Kampen’s egocentric eschatology presented in The Sign (published by Crossway) is one example. University presses, such as Oxford University Press, will occasionally publish a book for a guaranteed fee that otherwise would be outside of their editorial interests.
 I’m using “he” as the old-fashioned generic pronoun in English. I find the modern compromise practice of switching randomly between “he” and “she” to be intolerably annoying. Frankly, I think Rex Stout, via Nero Wolfe was correct; the English language needs more pronouns. And, women authors should not be ignored simply on that account.