Let’s be honest. There are some really awful Christian books out there (as pictured above). That’s probably not news to you. It’s probably not news to you either that many of those books end up being best sellers. And the reason that’s not news is because when that happens, someone you know reads the book, loves it, and then recommends it to you. Then you just might read it yourself, and experience something between mild horror and outrage and wonder what to say to the recommend-er.
To be clear, by the way I’m using the term, an “awful” Christian book is a book that teaches either doctrine or practice contrary to Christian orthodoxy. It might not be outright heretical, but it at least represents something that all the centuries leading up to modern American evangelicalism would have shunned. I realize you can’t speak of Christianity as monolithic leading up to the 20th and 21st centuries, but let’s say an “awful” Christian book is one that would have prompted every major theologian to write a scathing refutation. The Shack is case in point since I can imagine Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin (or pretty much any theologian who is called by a single name) having a field day with the book (not to mention the one I had with it). By that light, when I say “awful,” I don’t necessarily mean awful in literary quality. It’s a book that’s not necessarily poorly written, but is perhaps what we might call “theologically impoverished,” or “pastorally incompetent.” In short, it’s awful by sound doctrinal and practical standards.
So why people like these books then?
It is too simplistic to say that people just have poor taste. Also, that’s insulting to the person who recommended the book to you (so don’t say it). Most likely, and here’s what you need to keep in the forefront of your mind, people like it because it impacts them in some significant way. People will recommend books that they simply enjoyed reading, but they will enthusiastically recommend books that impacted them personally. Often they may feel like God used the book to teach them something new, and here’s the other thing to keep in mind: He very well might have.
When that happens with a particular book, people like it in a much more intensive way. A person will like a book in a significantly different way when it impacts them at the spiritual level (i.e. they felt like God worked through it to show them something), than if they just thought it was doctrinally accurate or practically helpful in the abstract. Many times if they are recommending it to you it’s because they want you to experience something similar to what they did, not necessarily because they see it as a bastion of sound doctrine. That is something to probably keep in mind when someone you know and/or love recommends a book to you that you think (or know for certain) is awful (based on my above definition). If they didn’t care about your spiritual growth, they wouldn’t be recommending the book in the first place.
I suppose we could dig deeper, but when it gets down to it, people like books that impact them. If the book impacts them, it is hard to accept after the fact that it might be an awful book. Even if a person does, they may concede it has its problems, but they will still like it. Maybe we could call this is the loser boyfriend phenomenon. You know the story: A girl who has fallen in love with a guy can write off many (if not all) of his flaws as they are presented by her friends. The friends are a bit more objective and so have no issue seeing problems. The girlfriend, having the emotional connection (i.e. personal impact) is reticent to concede the guy might be a loser. He may in fact be a loser, but he also may really love the girl, and this clouds things considerably.
This is similar to what I think is going on with some (but certainly not all) instances of Christians who should know better liking books that are a doctrinal nightmare. If the books are well-written and engaging, they will, like a well-dressed charming guy, be liked by a lot of people. They will also, if their readers let their guards down too far, be very formative reads. And you, as the semi-objective observer, need to reckon with this whole process so you are not a jerk when someone recommends one of these gems to you. I learned this the hard way (and that’s perhaps the subject of another post) and now will usually decline to read the book, but will ask follow up questions about why the book was liked in the first place. Where I can affirm, I try to affirm, and in general I try to avoid being critical. Just like the friends don’t get anywhere telling the girlfriend everything wrong her man, you’re probably not going to get anywhere giving unsolicited criticism to someone’s reading choices, awful or not (and you might alienate a friend in the process).
Now, if they ask for you opinion, that’s a different story entirely, and a fruitful dialogue might be on your horizon. But, that doesn’t happen often, which I take to mean you shouldn’t be the perennial book critic often either (unless publishers are sending them to you for that purpose). I would just try to rest content that God can and does use books that are perhaps an embarrassment to Christian theology to teach and instruct his children. That shouldn’t be encouraged, but if God can communicate to Balaam through the mouth of an ass, He can speak to your friends through a book like The Shack.
And if you really don’t like the the fact that awful books keep making the best seller list…then write something better.