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Do Christian Reviewers “Sin” by Overrating Books They Like?

Do Christian Reviewers “Sin” by Overrating Books They Like?

by Mike Duran · 25 comments

Christians love to posture themselves as “Going against the flow” and being “Not of this world.” We are a people set apart, different than the surrounding culture, with a unique set of values and sensitivities.

pinocchio1Except when it comes to reviewing Christian books.

Apparently cheer-leading for our favorite author, stuffing the ballot box, exaggerating, and even telling little white lies is okay… provided it’s a Christian artist we’re propping up.

Question: How are Christians any different than non-Christians in how they do book reviews?

I started researching and writing in the Christian fiction industry in 2005. Frankly, other than “externals” — mainly things like content guidelines — it is difficult to tell the two industries apart. Especially if you look at their fan bases. The pattern is usually the same. A Christian novel is released. Within a week the five star reviews predictably start rolling in. There’s lots of over-the-top praise. This is quickly followed by the review itself being rated – “20 of 20 people find the following review helpful.” So not only are we able to stuff the ballot box, we are able to publicly high-five those who do.

So I’m wondering, What is Christian about this? How is this any different than what a fan of Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey might do?

Let me anticipate some of the possible reactions and justifications to the charge that Christians could be sinning by overrating books:

  • “Dude, it’s just my opinion. Lighten up.”
  • “Christian fiction is at a disadvantage. I’m just tipping the scales in our favor.”
  • “You’re just bitter because you don’t have 50 5-star reviews and fanatical fans.”
  • “It’s all subjective. If I see it as a five, it’s a five.”
  • “I like this author. They deserve a bigger audience. I’m just doing my part to ‘get the word out.’”
  • “Book ratings have no moral value, so let’s drop the ‘S’ word.”
  • “Everybody else is doing it.”

Did I miss one?

I realize that the “S” word is loaded. Who am I to suggest that someone is sinning by just dishing out gushy reviews? Can’t a Christian reviewer regularly post five-star reviews and not be fudging?

The only reason I’m posing this uncomfortable question is because of this assumption: Christian reviewers are “Not of this world,” we are “Going against the flow.”  Christian reviewers should approach reviewing differently, right? I mean, it shouldn’t be surprising if non-Christian reviewers distort or misrepresent a book or author. They often have a complete different set of values motivating them. This is not to suggest that all non-Christian reviewers are liars or something. Frankly, sometimes I feel like I can get a more objective review of a Christian novel from a non-Christian reviewer than I can a Christian reviewer. But my point is, We should be able to trust Christian reviewers to not inflate their opinion of a novel. We should be able to trust a Christian reviewer to be honest. We should be able to trust a Christian reviewer to speak the truth in love. We should be able to trust a Christian reviewer to not be biased, to not seek to “tip the scales” in favor of Christian lit.

And at this stage, I don’t think I CAN trust many Christian reviewers.

Question: Should Christians be different than non-Christians in how they review books? How are Christians any different than non-Christians in how they do book reviews? Are we sinning by inflating our reviews of novels we like?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Samuel Choy November 20, 2013 at 7:09 AM

I rarely give five star reviews. If I’m going to give five stars, I want it to mean something. Each page has to make me drool at the beauty of its writing and dispair at my own writing skills.
Having said that, does a Christian sin wham giving a 5 star review to a book that doesn’t deserve it? I don’t know. I would say yes if they gave the review with the intent to deceive or haven’t read the book. But there are fans out there who honestly can see no wrong I their favorite author. There might be other issues there, such as making an idol out of someone.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I don’t own a sinometer that can measure sins in other people. I have a hard enough time worrying about my own to worry about other people’s sins.

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Samuel Choy November 20, 2013 at 7:41 AM

I think I’m despairing at my spelling skills too. Serves me right to do anything before my first cup of coffee.

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Jessica E. Thomas November 20, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Thank you for the laugh though. What exactly is a “sin wham”? LOL

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Jessica E. Thomas November 20, 2013 at 10:24 AM

(I can’t get past that sentence without cracking up! I just choked on my noodle soup. Okay, I will try to read the rest of your comment now.)

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Samuel Choy November 20, 2013 at 10:52 AM

In my defense, I had three things against me when I was writing my comment:

1. I slept poorly last night and woke up feeling exhausted.
2. I commented before I had my first cup of coffee.
3. I was thumb-typing on my increasingly persnickety first generation iPad.

So….there is the re-write.

I rarely give five star reviews. If I’m going to give five stars, I want it to mean something. Each page must make me drool at the beauty of its writing and despair at my own writing skills.

Having said that, do Christians sin when they give a 5 star review to a book that doesn’t deserve it? I don’t know. If they write the review with the intent to deceive or if they haven’t read the book, I would say yes, that is a sin. However, there are fans out there who honestly see no wrong with their favorite author. In those cases, they probably have other issues, such as making an idol out of someone they admire.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I don’t own a sinometer to measure sins in other people. I have a hard enough time worrying about my own sin much less other people’s sins.

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Kat Heckenbach November 20, 2013 at 8:03 AM

You’ve hit this topic before, so I’d give you a hard time about harping on an old subject–except it hasn’t gone away. And it’s something that really bothers me. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve witnessed this stuff first-hand. An author once posted on a *Christian* fiction Facebook page that he wanted people to go “vote down” negative review of his book and “vote up” the positive ones. I commented that I found that to be one step away from harassing the reviewers, and then the next thing I noticed his post was taken down. But I wasn’t trying to be mean to him–I meant it. It really bothered me that he would ask that, and that others would oblige without having ever read his work.

And a few months ago I got rather upset by a blog post by a Christian author who basically says authors have an obligation to never review books they can’t review positively. One of the commenters on that post said, “I agree that reviewers should not post 1 or 2 star reviews. When my book comes out, I hope that people will extend that courtesy to me.” I get that this refers to withholding negative reviews rather than giving falsely positive ones, but those things go hand-in-hand. There becomes an expectation. And while this comment and the blog post it was responding to refer to authors reviewing authors…well, let’s be honest. Most first reviews *are* from other authors. Close friends and family, too, but as writers most often our first reviews that come from people we haven’t known all our lives are posted by other writers.

(BTW–I blogged a whole big response to that post, but I don’t want to spam your blog. However, I do think it is relevant, and if anyone would like the link, just ask.)

Anyway, I do know that a lot of reviewers truly give higher star ratings than they think a book deserves–I’ve heard confessions right from the horses’ mouths–and I had one author friend point out something: that much of it is to try and give attention to Christian fiction, period. I understand what she’s saying–I really do–but the more I read of Christian fiction, the more I feel like it just perpetuates more mediocre work.

Which brings up another point: Many of these gushy, five-star reviews come from reviewers who truly love the books. That’s fine, in an of itself, but I’ve noticed a lot of them don’t read outside the bubble. So it’s like saying the books are the top of the class–but the class is only being compared to itself.

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Jim Hamlett November 20, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Kat,
Send me the link, please: jim.hamlett@gmail.com
Many thanks.

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Mark November 20, 2013 at 8:09 AM

I think Simon hit it on the head. Is the purpose to drive people to a book by inflating the rating? Or is it because the reviewer enjoyed the book.

I probably give out more 5 stars than I should. But I don’t sit and analyze every page or every word for flaws. If I really enjoyed something, I give it 5 stars. Sometimes, I’ll still point out flaws, but the flaws were minor enough for me that I don’t feel the book deserves 4 stars.

I really think the intent behind the rating of the book (good or bad) is more important. Could there be some “white lies” behind some of them? Yes. But some people might not have strict, critical rating systems in place because it is a hobby.

And believe me, I will call a spade a spade if I read one.

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Randy Streu November 20, 2013 at 8:24 AM

I agree with you. I believe Kat and I saw the same guy asking for those downvotes. I was disgusted by the practice then – and said so – and am still disgusted by it.

I will rarely give a 5-star review — and don’t REALLY like giving 4-star unless a book deserves it. Part of the trouble is that on sites with a 4-5 star rating system, you don’t really have enough play for all the nuances of a solid review. That’s why I refuse to simply give a star-based review and will only do so if I have time to give a full accounting in the form of a full review. On my own website, I don’t even rate books or films that way — simply do the review and let the reader decide from there.

We have this tendency in the Christian arts to give people a bit of a pass just for being Christian artists. As if working from the worldview of Jesus Christ is some sort of handicap for the arts. As a matter of fact, I believe we ought to hold them to a higher standard — because, unlike those who write from a merely human viewpoint, we take as our inspiration the Creator of the Universe and Savior of the World. We ought to be doing better. And we ought to demand better.

PS – I don’t think anyone could accuse you of merely being jealous of 5-star reviews when you’re specifically asking for honesty.

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Morgan L. Busse November 20, 2013 at 9:33 AM

I think the scaling system for people reviewing books is as varied as the people themselves. Some people read with a pen and paper in hand to record every little typo. Others rate by how they “felt” at the end of the book. I also think people are afraid of the author’s reaction. And some people write a review in order to “teach” the author something. Those are vastly different ways to review a book.

I write a review from the viewpoint of a reader. A real reader who knows nothing about the writing world, only that they love a good story, doesn’t care about pov, or the occasional typo, or that an adverb was used. They want to know if it was a good story. Look at the bestsellers and I’m telling the truth. The writing might be awful, but the story clicked for millions of people.

So that is how I review. Was it a good story? I’ve read perfectly written books, and the story flopped. I felt I needed to give a good rating because of the writing skill, but never felt good about that since I didn’t particularly enjoy the story. I’ve changed that now. I review if it is a good story. Good writing does not equal a good story. It can help, but doesn’t guarantee a good story. I review a book only if I really enjoyed it. Life’s too short to read meh stories.

I think it also helps that I have said I don’t read my reviews. I don’t. I think that gives people the freedom to write what they really think about my books.

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Teddi Deppner November 20, 2013 at 10:41 AM

So glad you pointed this out, Morgan. Every reviewer is approaching this whole review thing differently. There is no consistency. There are no baselines. No standards we all agree on. No class that you take to learn how to properly review a book.

The “average reader” (not that such a thing exists) is just sharing what they think and operating by what they think a review is for. There’s no accounting for taste. There are people out there who honestly think some really poorly crafted stuff is great. What Kat said: “So it’s like saying the books are the top of the class–but the class is only being compared to itself.”

As for whether it’s a sin… That’s really between the reviewer and God. If they’re doing it with intent to deceive, that’s one thing. If they’re doing it out of criminal ignorance (like voting for the President or your state senators without actually doing any research about who they are, what their platform is), that’s another thing.

If they’re doing it out of strong bias in favor of Christian artists, because they’ve been programmed by Christian culture to promote anything Christian over anything “secular”, that’s perhaps a problem to be laid at the feet of those accountable for teaching them.

If they’re just enthusiastic but don’t happen to share my taste in books or my standards of excellence… I find it hard to blame them.

I may scan book reviews just to get a sense of things, but I never trust them for whether or not the book is any good.

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Kat Heckenbach November 20, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Well said, Teddi. I think you and Morgan bring up good points. It’s so subjective–not just what readers like, but why they like what they like, and why and how they review those books. I’ve actually at times included my personal scale in a review I’ve written to clarify why I’m giving a certain star rating because my scale doesn’t match Amazon’s or Goodreads’ necessarily–how could it, when they don’t match each other? :P

I also know some reviewers compare books to other books to set their scale, so a light, easy, fun but nowhere near literary masterpiece gets compared to, well, literary masterpieces. I don’t happen to do that. If I read a fluff book and at the end I totally had fun reading it, I consider that “mission accomplished” and that book may get five stars. Not every book is Ender’s Game or Harry Potter or The Raven Boys, but not every book is trying to be.

That said, motive is key. I do know without a doubt that some people will just slap a five-star on a Christian book simply because it is Christian. Ironically, it seems those same people are often horribly offended when a non-Christian slaps a one-star on a book simply because it has a Christian message.

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Teddi Deppner November 20, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Yeah, I try and give some context in my reviews (whether overtly or just by how I phrase things) to let people know where I’m coming from. I make it clear if I think I’m biased (“I loved this book, but then it reminds me of _____ and I love anything along those lines…”).

I rarely give 5 stars, because that’s just how I rate everything — always save the “top” rating for the stuff that is stellar in every way imaginable, for the ones where I can’t stop thinking and talking about how awesome it was (whether a hotel stay, a restaurant, a book, it applies everywhere for me).

But if I give 4 out of 5 stars, you’ve done a GREAT job. And 3 doesn’t mean it was bad, but it wasn’t great, either. My comments then indicate the details of why I thought it was great or why it was “just okay”. I don’t know that I’ve posted any 1 or 2 star reviews. I’m still not sure whether to follow “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” or “I ought to warn others before they waste their money”. Heh.

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Jessica E. Thomas November 20, 2013 at 10:33 AM

I think the sin nature naturally comes through in anything we humans do. One would hope that within a Christian forum, it would show through considerably less, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to merely express itself differently.

As to whether we should nitpick and try to determine when an overly positive review (or an unfair negative review) is sinful, I think that’s a recipe for insanity. On judgement day I can’t imagine God is going to say…”and you told that white lie, and that white lie, and that white lie.” However, I can see him saying…”by the blood of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

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Teddi Deppner November 20, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Love that last paragraph, Jessica! Amen!

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Gwendolyn Gage November 20, 2013 at 12:19 PM

Love this post, Mike. I’ve seen the trend to be overly generous in reviewing Christian Fiction–mostly in writer circles–and I find it disturbing, especially when it offers non-Christians yet another reason to point and laugh at us. As a writer, I do find it a huge temptation to scratch backs, and a few burned bridges have caused me to back off from posting critical reviews under my writing identity. I have made a commitment toward honesty in all of my reviews, though I admit, I “grade on a curve” when it comes to the star ratings. Meaning, I’ll give five stars to an book that I wouldn’t list among my favorites, but found exceptional. Who said we have to follow Amazon’s or Goodreads’ rating guidelines? ;-)

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Becky Doughty November 20, 2013 at 1:37 PM

I struggle with this all the time, Mike, because I’m a reviewer for a few publishers and publicity companies, both Christian and General Audience. I recently read an awful bit of drudgery by a high-profile and extremely prolific Christian romance novelist. I’d not read her work before, but because she was so popular, I opted in on her book from the publisher’s roster, just to see what she was all about. I still gave it a 3-star rating. Why? Well, I explained in the review why I didn’t care for the book, and I explained in the review why I believed READERS (not authors, as Morgan and others have pointed out) of this particular kind of fiction would enjoy it, even if it didn’t resonate with me. In fact, I often give 4 & 5 star ratings specifically because I’m thinking of how readers will feel about the book, not authors. We authors can be a tough crowd to please – we like to shoot our wounded.

I have yet to give a 1 or 2 star rating to any book for two reasons, and both are pretty selfish/narcissistic/self-serving: 1) If I “hate” or “don’t like” a book enough to give it that low of a rating, I don’t want it linked to my name. Period. And 2) If a book is so terrible (something I usually know within the first few chapters), why on earth should I waste my time reading it, and then even more time hunting it down online to slam it? I have a TBR pile a mile high – it seems more like the Tower of Babel at times – so I simply move on to the next one.

That being said, even when I don’t care for a book (such as the one I mentioned above), as an author myself, I KNOW that the task of writing a book to completion and selling that book and marketing that book and exposing that book to critics is a bold and courageous and valiant and humbling achievement, regardless of which market you’re in. I know that to write a second or third or thirtieth or ninetieth novel is a bit like giving birth (and who wants to give birth NINETY times without some kind of recognition?) every time, and so, IF I’m going to post a review, even when I don’t love a book, I’m going to give that author the credit that I feel is due them just for being faithful to the calling in their lives (again, Christian or not), even if I have to explain my rating in the interview.

So your question of whether or not it’s “sin?” Maybe that’s too broad of a question. Or maybe I’m too analytical about this whole thing.

Either way, another thought-provoking post, Mike. Thanks.

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Heather Day Gilbert November 20, 2013 at 1:40 PM

I totally agree w/some above that the star ratings mean different things for different people, so there’s no consistency (even though Amazon/Goodreads tell you what the stars mean). I might love a plotline but not the writing style, but still give it 5 stars because I HAD to read through to the end. For me, five stars reps a book I might want to read again–pretty simple. I confess I’ve overrated some books (not having READ the Goodreads star rating system). But I think the key to ALL reviews, from 1-5 stars, is to be thoughtful. Thoughtful reviews shine, no matter the rating attached to it. They show the reader has truly delved into the story and tried to get what they could from it. At this point I am truly thrilled with ANY reviews on my book. I’m waiting for that first one-star and hoping it’s thoughtful, at least. AND I refuse to respond to it, tempted though I might be to justify myself…that might be the MORE un-Christian thing going on–those vehement author responses on Amazon.

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Jill November 20, 2013 at 4:15 PM

The Christian writing community is a small, tight community where most people know each other or run across each other at some point. You might be forgetting the part where other writers are reviewing their colleagues’ books. As in the general market, many authors will bloat reviews for fellow writers as a method of self-preservation. It’s just slightly more obvious in the smaller Christian community. In the Christian spec-fic community, which is smaller still, it’s going to be even more obvious.

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Not In The Clique November 20, 2013 at 9:55 PM

I personally scrutinize Christian literature. I don’t give any Christian author a “free pass” just because they “claim” they’re “Wholesome God fearing Christian Pillars of the Community”. I learned the hard way that there are many (NOT ALL) people in the church who “claim” Christ Crucified” who will be more than happy to “endorse” an author while wearing a blindfold. They will literally “campaign” for this author’ books eventhough the books are blasphemous. When you call these people “out” by questioning them about why they would support such an author and even show them evidence in the authors book along with opening up the Holy Bible to show the contradiction the authors book has with God Jesus Christ Holy Spirit, you are automatically “blackballed” in the church.

Before I buy any book “claiming” to be Christian, I review the book for red flags. The first and biggest “red flag” in a book is the version Holy Bible that is used. I have found over and over and over again that if KJV is NOT used, then there will be gross twisting of the word.

ALL BIBLES ARE NOT ALIKE !

There is ONLY ONE Holy Bible and if you’re going to turn to a version that was written and published due to society’ demand for a Bible that doesn’t “convict” because society is tired of being convicted, that alone should be screaming that the authors book is a book of lies if it is not KJV.

THERE IS ONLY ONE HOLY BIBLE…………….NOT TEN !!!

The church I use to attend. We had a Bible Study group and this was before I became so “obsessed” with scrutinizing authors “claiming” to be Christian. I took the word of the leaders in the church and I looked at the inside cover but nothing else before I ordered the book and its companion question and answer book. I think I got as far as Chapter 5 out of 13 chapters before I had to stop because of the gross perversion of God Jesus Christ Holy Spirit’ word. This was a contemporary author who used every version in the book EXCEPT KJV. The very few verses that this author “claimed” was KJV, was in fact NOT . The racism, profanity, endorsement of pedophilia, child abduction claims, endorsement of domestic violence, endorsement of abandoning ones wife if she develops breast cancer, and on and on and on. Both the book and question/answer book were intimidating and psychologically abusive towards any population that was not a white man. Extremely violent books…………….

and this was a CONTEMPORARY author who used every version EXCEPT KJV.

So, if the book uses ONLY KJV, the next “red flags” I look for are the examples or “antidotes” the author uses to make a point. Is there profanity, does the authors “words of wisdom”/antidote/etc. contradict God Jesus Christ Holy Spirit’ Word? What about the author’ philosophy concerning child abuse/child abduction/pedophilia/etc. The example I gave above about the Bible Study are all red flags that have there root in one thing: HATE, and hate is NOT of God Jesus Christ Holy Spirit.

Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 to beware of all the false prophets and to not follow them. This includes ALL the writings of ALL false prophets. We as Christians are commanded to stay away from all blasphemy from “others”. I think it was Paul who chastised the first century Christians about “how soon are ye removed” and if any preach a word that is not the true gospel “let him be accursed”, and about “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:”

If we are going to claim Christ Crucified, then we need to start OBEYING God Jesus Christ Holy Spirit, but we can’t do that if we are reading the false prophets books of blasphemy.

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Randy Streu November 21, 2013 at 4:15 AM

Hi, anonymous.

1. The word you’re looking for is “anecdote.” Not “antidote.” The former is a short, personal story. The latter counteracts poison.

2. re: there is only one bible.
You don’t seem to understand how translation works. First, you do understand that the Word of God wasn’t actually -written- in Olde English, correct?

What we call Scripture is, in fact, multiple documents, written at different times, and compiled together. The books of the Old Testament, for example, were written by several individuals: prophets, historians, and kings. They didn’t know, when they wrote them, that the books would be put together with other documents to form Scripture. Of course, God in His plan, DID know — and in fact it was exactly as He intended. But I mention this because Scripture was originally written in several different languages, among them Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

KJV is one of several English-language TRANSLATIONS of those original documents. It may surprise you to know that translations in OTHER languages were not translated from the KJV, but also from those original documents.

3. While I don’t know the book to which you are referring, I feel it necessary to point out: recording does not imply endorsement. Indeed the Word of God records many of those instances you rightly call sin… but does not endorse them.

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D.M. Dutcher November 21, 2013 at 9:21 AM

I’m tempted to claim Poe’s Law on this.

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D.M. Dutcher November 21, 2013 at 9:22 AM

Ugh, hit enter too early. By that I mean on clique there.

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Jill November 21, 2013 at 2:01 PM

I’m pretty sure Mike is mostly speaking of fiction, in which case, the Bible version should be contextual to the work of fiction. It would be a little odd to find KJV used in certain cultural settings, such as a Catholic baptism, or maybe even an old German-speaking Amish community, which might be more likely to use a Martin Luther Bible.

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D.M. Dutcher November 20, 2013 at 10:42 PM

I think as long as the believer is honest to themselves and doesn’t aim to deceive, you cut them slack and leave the review to stand. It’s when they aren’t, and they buy reviews or give them without regards to the quality of the book that it’s an issue. Usually if an individual rates a book too high, someone rates it too low, and we get parity. It’s only when it’s a concerted effort to deceive that the system gets warped, and the burden on that is usually on the author or publisher.

I think we do need to have more discussions on Christian art that don’t say “Boo, Christian art is bad and I’m going to do secular art!”

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