Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to Write a Great Book Review

How to Write a Great Book Review (Or at Least How Not to Write a Bad One)

There are many who write better, clearer, and more persuasive reviews than I will ever produce. But, as my byline says, my duties at The Gospel Coalition include editing book reviews. At some level, I have to be able to say to a review, “Yes, that works!” or “No, let’s try something different.”

But I know you are a demanding reader who expects more from me than simply how to write a review that works. You want to know the stuff that turns a review that simply works into a review that’s great. I want to ensure you that these mysterious “great” reviews do exist and not just in the world of Forms. There are excellent reviews that can shift the entire discussion on an issue much faster and more effectively than the book itself. Some reviews are thigh-slapping funny, much to the expense, unfortunately, of the authors. And then there are the reviews that when you are done, you say to yourself, “Yes! That’s what I needed to know!” So don’t assume that book reviews are only dull necessities.

But like every popular self-help book, where the title over-sells the content, I may not have the combination for greatness to offer. But let me give some suggestions that will certainly point you in the direction where greatness dwells.

(1) Forget everything you learned in seminary.

I could tell you horror stories of seminary students sending me the review they just handed in to their New Testament professor to see if we’d like it for publication. I’ll have more to say about this below, but Bible colleges and seminaries do not train you to write a readable, much less great, review. Chances are, their guidelines tell you to do the opposite of what you should to produce interesting reading. For there is a foul motive behind academic style manuals: to ensure the review never exposes that there may be an actual person behind the reviewer!

(2) Answer the question everyone is asking.

The obvious example is Love Wins. Is Rob Bell a universalist or not? That was the question, right? It won’t always be as obvious as Bell’s book. But you should try to find the key question people are asking about the book and, then, try to answer it.

And do not just answer the question of whether the author is right or not. That should go without saying. But ask the deeper questions. Here’s one more example. Christian Smith—you know, the “moralistic therapeutic deism” Christian Smith—is coming out with a book soon entitled, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Surely, he is talking about the fruit of the youthful “therapeutic moralistic deism” crowd from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers who are transitioning into adulthood. Just what is this “dark side”? What implications does this have for the family, marriage, or even the economy? Does Smith answer these questions?

(3) Don’t over-summarize.

If it’s not poor writing that kills a review, it’s often the misguided inclusion of too much summary. Here is another sour consequence from our seminary courses. Some forums, particularly academic journals, want more summary than we prefer on this site, while other publications have no use for them to all. But if you want to ensure that nobody finishes your review, then offer a chapter-by-chapter, detailed summary. Trust me, it’s hard enough for editors to not look for the quickest distraction.

Well, stop it! You are belaboring your readers for no good reason and working too hard in a strategy that produces no good fruit.

A review is close to greatness when the author minors on summary and majors on interaction and reflection. A good rule of thumb is to give your readers a sense for the book’s main argument and then include whatever context your interaction and reflection require. You don’t need to prove that you’ve read the book. Your readers will give you the benefit of the doubt, I promise.

(4) Show the consequences of an idea.

This is an important but dangerous point. It’s important, because ideas have consequences, and if a review is going to further the discussion, then the reviewer must show where the book’s conclusion leads. It’s dangerous, because in order to show consequences, the reviewer must make reasonable assumptions—stress on reasonable—and, unfortunately, reviewers don’t always have the logical equipment or forward-thinking ability to make this work. We should never be afraid to call a spade a spade, but many authors have foolishly been called heretics or accused of other egregious sins because of unreasonable assumptions.

Nevertheless, reviewers should warn their readers of bad and unfortunate consequences of ideas put forward in books.

There you have it. As I mentioned before, I don’t have the formula for greatness, but you should now have a sense of its substance. I am aware that there is probably more to be said, and what I’ve said could have been said more eloquently. But what many readers of reviews intuit I have tried to put into words.


Anonymous said...

Hi, can you tell me what's the difference between Moralist Therapeutic Deism and Pandeism? I've heard a lot of nonChristians talking about Pandeism lately. It seems to be a trendy thing. Should I be worried about it? Is it the same thing as MTD?

Reformation said...

Here's my sense of it:

1. Moral therapeutic theism is popular. It uses God as a tool or crutch to offer therapies, e.g. better family, better this or better that. An implied narcissim is present. While there may be some classical loci of theology admixed in the message, the goal is to provide therapy.

2. As to pandeism, that's a new term to me. Etymologically, it sounds like Deism in new clothes?

3. What is MTD?

Anonymous said...

MTD is the short form for Moralist Therapeutic Deism - is it Moralist Therapeutic Theism? I only heard it called as Deism, because it says God is not present all the time but is on call like a divine butler.

I am not sure what Pandeism is, but just recently when I have tried to I have tried to speak of Christianity with some people they have responded with a lot of "pandeism accounts for this" and "pandeism accounts for that." They were not really very forthcoming about what it is.

Reformation said...

1. I meant to write moral therapeutic deism, a term that arose in some sociological literature, but also popularized--as he does well--by Michael Horton. The butler idea helps.

2. I don't know about pandeism as a term. My guess is that it is deism with new clothes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I am still not sure what Deism is but I looked up what Christian Smith wrote and I guess it's kind of believing God is a servant who is on call to us instead of us being on call to Him.

Reformation said...

Classical Deism is this: God created the world with its natural laws and lets it run on those laws while bowing out or, in some versions, upholding those laws without any intervention.

The classic Christian perspective has a similarity with a difference. Here's the classic Christian view of providence, to wit: God normally, usually, works through the laws of nature, but is free to work without and against those means, e.g. miracles, resurrection, etc.