A reader of this site recently asked me to explain how I determine whether a book is good and worthy of recommendation or whether it is not. That is a fair question and I was surprised to find that I had not addressed it in the past. I will take on that challenge today. It will be helpful to assume that the book in question is meant to address the Christian life, falling under the broad categories of Christian Living or Spiritual Growth or something similar (I would have very different questions to ask of a general market book or of a Christian biography).
Here are five questions, plus a bonus, that I ask myself as I read.
Does It Draw Its Truth from Scripture?
First and foremost, a good book will have a heavy dependency upon Scripture. Whatever truth it seeks to teach will be ultimately drawn from God through the Bible rather than from any kind of human wisdom or experience. In the Bible God gives us the great privilege of seeing the world through his eyes and seeing life from his perspective. Therefore, whatever we teach about living the Christian life ought to depend heavily upon his wisdom.
This is the key difference between Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven–the first is utterly dependent upon Scripture while the second ignores Scripture in favor of experience. It is the great difference between Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart–the first teaches manhood from Scripture while the other teaches it from human wisdom and experience. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing right or good in 90 Minutes in Heaven and Wild at Heart; however, they are innately inferior because they do not consistent lead the reader back to God as he reveals himself in the Bible.
Is It Faithful to the Bible?
Of course not all books that attempt to draw truth from Scripture do it well, so the second criteria is that the books are consistently faithful to Scripture. There are many books that attempt to show what the Bible teaches but do a poor job of it. The authors do not handle the Bible faithfully or they look too narrowly, depending upon isolated verses rather than the grand sweep of Scripture. Consider The Purpose Driven Life, a book that contains a good deal of wisdom but which draws from Scripture haphazardly, and compare it to Sinclair Ferguson’s Taking the Christian Life Seriously. Both are guidebooks to life, but one is far more consistently faithful to Scripture than the other.
Does It Have a Gospel Focus?
Many books written by and for Christians teach how to live the Christian life under law instead of under grace. Instead of teaching true Christian living, they teach law and moralisms. A good book will be dependent upon the joy and freedom of living as those who have been set free from law and will ultimately point people to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from which we gain the desire and ability and power to live this Christian life. Stephen Artberburn’s Every Man’s Battle is grounded in morality, not gospel; it may be that following rules may help a man overcome an addiction to lust and pornography, but it is far better to point to the gospel, which is exactly what I attempted to do in Sexual Detox.
Does It Lead To Other Sound Teaching?
There are times when an author has good, wise or helpful things to say, but does so while depending upon teachers who do not consistently draw truth from Scripture and who are not consistently faithful to Scripture. I tend to hesitate to recommend the works of such authors. Books are not isolated literary islands, but are part of a wider, ongoing discussion; any book will inevitably lead its readers to the people who have influenced its author. By definition, if you identify with an author and love what she teaches, you will want to find out who has influenced her, perhaps not knowing when those influencers are unsound. Here I would list Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline, a book containing much that is useful, yet which shows a dependence upon the Roman Catholic mystical tradition that may prove unhelpful and even dangerous for those who go looking for his mentors.
Is It Well-Written?
The Lord is honored not only by our expression of ideas, but by the skillful expression of those ideas. For this reason, I place far more value on books that display literary merit over those that are purely utilitarian. When an author expresses profound truth through a skilled grasp of language, he has combined two very different skillsets and has glorified God in both of them. Here is part of the reason I value writers like Carl Trueman and Russell Moore, authors who combine powerful content with a powerful pen.
Let me add one bonus question; this is not a question that separates good books from bad, but it may separate a book that is worth reading now from one that is not.
Does It Advance a Discussion?
In general, a good book will not simply repeat what others have said before, but it will somehow advance the discussion, either by bringing truth to bear in a new way or by taking into account contemporary issues or emphases. For example, there have been many good books on marriage over the church’s history while marriage itself has not changed one bit. A contemporary book can be especially useful if it engages some of the underlying contemporary beliefs and assumptions on marriage that the church has absorbed from the culture around it. If a book does not advance a discussion, but simply restates truth that others have taught, you may do better to read the older book or to read on another topic.