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When a Good Guy Writes a Bad Book

This blog has introduced a challenge to my life that I hadn’t expected. It demands that at least part of my life—or thought life, at any rate—is lived out in public. This blog, like most others, is a place where I am able to think out loud in public and this affords every reader the opportunity to agree or disagree with me. This is well and good. Part of the joy of blogging is the measured exchange of ideas and opinions. But the surprise has been that people would not only agree or disagree, but would also assume motives, and publicly declare their understanding of why I do what I do and why I say what I say. I am accustomed to having people challenge my beliefs and ideas and enjoy it even, but don’t think I will ever grow used to having them assume my motives.

The other day I followed a link on Twitter and found a web site where various people were discussing something I had written. Have you ever had to read a long back-and-forth discussion where the subject is you? It is an odd and uncomfortable feeling (though, honestly, it didn’t devastate me; I felt very much like an outside observer). I had recently penned a book review and some were expressing disgust with me, telling others that I am merely a patsy, someone who is just a pawn in a greater agenda, answerable to some higher authority. Some were suggesting that I am desperately trying to curry favor with the Christian bigwigs, trying to ingratiate myself with the decision-makers. A couple dissented and defended me. But that discussion, and a few others I’ve been made aware of, tell me that there may be value in a quick word on book reviews.

One of the challenges of being a book reviewer, and especially a Christian book reviewer, is knowing what to do when a good guy writes a bad book or when a bad guy writes a good book. Of course the categories of “good guy” and “bad guy” are not very helpful since they are far too broad, but they can at least give us a starting point. Book reviewing is easy when D.A. Carson releases another exegetical masterpiece or when Benny Hinn releases another absolute trainwreck. But let’s imagine for a moment that Joel Osteen suddenly releases a book that is really, objectively good.

One day a book shows up at your door that has Osteen’s name and picture on the cover. As you flip through it, you see that this is a book about the gospel. The contents are a long and powerful defense of the good news of what Christ has accomplished. He calls sinners to repentance and closes with a plea for Christians to plant themselves in a healthy local church. How would you review a book like this one? Somewhere you would likely want to express that the book is objectively good but that some caution is still in order. You would want to make it clear that a good book does not immediately validate an entire ministry. You would want to express that this is a good book, but that his other books are just plain awful.

Now imagine that your favorite good guy author releases a book that is objectively bad. It may not be full of heresies, but it still seems to move perilously close to being dominated by law instead of gospel. The gospel is assumed instead of declared and some ideas just seem a little bit off. How would you review a book like this one? Somewhere you would want to express your concerns with the book even while being cautiously optimistic about the author himself. You would want it to be clear that a bad book does not immediately invalidate an entire ministry. You would want to express that this is a poor book, but that his other books are much better.

From those extremes of really good guys writing really bad books and vice versa, let’s look at more realistic scenarios. I have recently read and reviewed new titles by James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll. These are not entirely and objectively bad guys despite what many of those watchbloggers would have you believe. These are men who have very clearly had important ministries and who have been used by the Lord to impact many. Yet these are men whose ministries have at times given Christians very valid reasons for concern. Some readers noticed that in my review of one book I made reference to the man’s wider ministry while in the other I stayed narrowly focused on just the book. Let me explain why I did that.

There are times when I think it is wise to review a book and at the same time to comment on the author’s wider ministry. I did this with James MacDonald’s Vertical Church, critiquing the book and also referring to some of MacDonald’s other decisions and associations, such as his endorsement of the ministry of T.D. Jakes. And then I reviewed Mark Driscoll’s Who Do You Think You Are? and made no comment about his wider life and ministry, and this despite expressing some of those concerns in the past. Why the difference?

In my mind it essentially comes down to the book’s audience and, therefore, to the people who are most likely to read my review. As much as I want to review books from a position resembling objectivity, I am also aware that my reviews will be read by varied audiences and I think it is wise to keep that in mind as I write. There are some discussions that are good for Christians to have, but perhaps not so helpful when non-Christians or very young Christians are looking on.

Vertical Church is a book for pastors and church leaders and it is being marketed to that crowd. The people who are mostly likely to type “Vertical Church Review” into Google are those pastors and church leaders. As I wrote my review, I was considering them and thinking about what would be helpful to say to them. This would include reference to some of those wider concerns such as The Elephant Room and the association with T.D. Jakes. I trust that these readers will largely be mature Christians who have a pretty good knowledge of the Bible and who can engage on that level. Meanwhile, Who Do You Think You Are? is a book that may appeal largely to new Christians and that will be marketed to them and even to unbelievers. It has a wider audience and one with less knowledge of the Bible, and for that reason I was very happy to commend it as a book that is solidly biblical and genuinely helpful. I am glad to have this kind of person read the book and I don’t want to dissuade them by expressing those wider concerns. A review, like a book itself, has both content and an audience, and can be tailored in a way that is appropriate.

It really is that simple. I realize that this may sound like pragmatism, and perhaps it comes close. I hope not. I hope that it is an expression of wisdom, an attempt to consider not only the book itself, but also the potential audience for both the book and its review. That is my heart and my motive in this and I am sure there are varying degrees to which I succeed and fail.