Review of Christianity Today's Book Reviews

John R. Muether
Tuesday, August 7th 2007
Sep/Oct 1997

As “people of the Book,” American evangelicals have also been people of books. In order to take the Word of God seriously, they have taken seriously the words of others, recognizing the vital importance of stimulating reading in the development of godly minds.

In 1956, Christianity Today was founded on the premise that conservative Protestantism was not obscurantist, but rather capable of an intellectual defense against all the challenges of the modern world. Persuaded that the “basic solution to the world crisis is theological,” the magazine’s opening editorial promised to expound and defend the “basic truths of the Christian faith.” (1) Though not specifically mentioned, the importance of reviews could be read between the lines. Christianity Today desired to nurture its readers in the best of Christian literature, past and present, and to engage in debate with mainline authors as well as the best in non-Christian thought.

Above all, Christianity Today would review books because that is what the Christian Century did. The comparison with the Century weighed heavily in the minds of Christianity Today‘s original editors. Christianity Today would do everything that the leading organ of Protestant liberalism did, only better.

And so reviews were important, with the pattern being set in the very first issue. In reviewing B. B. Warfield on Calvin and a new edition of Luther’s writings, Christianity Today saw itself joining in a great conversation. Reviews of Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich ran in the first year, and thus would Christianity Today keep up with trends in contemporary theology. Editors regularly solicited prominent reviewers, as well as enabling younger scholars to break into print, such as R. J. Rushdooney and James Packer. Reader response was positive: letters of appreciation for the new evangelical voice included gratitude for the book review section.

Publishing at a steady rate of six to seven reviews per issue, Christianity Today kept the subject of its reviews in careful focus, with particular stress on Biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history. Characteristic of this emphasis was the “Year in Books” summary that appeared in a 1962 issue. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, F. F. Bruce, and Edward J. Young surveyed church history and doctrine, New Testament, and Old Testament, respectively, each offering masterful bibliographical essays on the state of their disciplines.

The Perils of Populism

Historians of the magazine have noted that after Carl Henry left, the direction shifted from reaching pastors and scholars to courting a mass readership. Accordingly, the review section changed in both length and depth, and the percentage of academic contributors declined, from more than half to less than a third. The number of book reviews declined as well, to today where there are less than three reviews on average per issue.

But more was at work here than a shift to lay readership. At a deeper level was a changed understanding of the laity and their reading habits. As early as 1967, Christianity Today gave advice to lay readers on building up their theological literacy, with a reading program consisting of twenty books. This remarkable theological primer set included the daunting 900-page Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Hoeksema. (2) It is unimaginable that any magazine today would place such expectations before its lay readers. (3)

In contrast, the populism that now characterizes Christianity Today‘s approach to theological literature is reflected in its annual book of the year award, begun in 1990. Originally these awards included both “readers’ choice” and “critics’ choice” categories, and the effect was to blur academic achievement and popular success. Thus the pop novels of Frank Peretti and an inspiring autobiography of Dave Dravecky ranked alongside John Stott’s commentary on Acts. Chuck Colson on The Body would outdistance F. F. Bruce on the canon. After five years, Christianity Today dropped the reader’s poll and restricted its survey to “evangelical leaders,” producing a single top-25 list. The results are now more high-brow (Cornelius Plantinga’s study on sin was a recent winner), and serious works in biblical studies are reemerging, though not at the levels of dominance found in the best-books list of the magazine’s first decade.

Of course, some things have not changed in Christianity Today. There has always been a strong emphasis on missionary biographies (beginning with Elizabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendour) and primers on evangelism (Hearst was not the only journalist to “puff Graham”). Science and evolution have been a focus since John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ Genesis Flood. And nothing has been a more constant feature in Christianity Today reviews than what Martin Marty called its “overworked C. S. Lewis wind-up doll.” (4) Scarcely has the magazine let any work in the field of Lewisiana go unreviewed in its pages.

Throughout its history, Christianity Today reported proudly on the resurgence of religious publishing. One article, entitled “Published in Grand Rapids,” lauded the “remarkable advance” of Baker, Eerdmans, and Zondervan “to the forefront of religious book publishing.” A later piece congratulated New York publishers for getting religion. But these reports generally lacked a distinction between financial success and publishing excellence. Another measurement employed to gauge evangelical scholarly industriousness was the proliferation of Bible translations and paraphrases. Although it gave a cold reception to the Revised Standard Version in two 1957 reviews, Christianity Today always greeted later arrivals warmly, including the Berkeley Version (1959), Living Bible (1971), New International Version (1978), Eugene Peterson’s The Message (1993), and finally the New Living Translation (1996). In almost every case it was oblivious to the marketing interests that drove these works into print and kept them there.

There are other ways in which Christianity Today conflated editorial and marketing considerations in its treatment of books. In recent years the magazine has included an annual “Bible Update” supplement insert, where articles about new books and reference tools are wrapped around publishers’ adver-tisements. The result is a print version of an “info-mercial.” (I once declined an invitation to write for a similar supplement-for another magazine-after I was carefully instructed which publishers would be major advertisers and whose books would thus be appropriate to highlight.)

At other times, Christianity Today‘s marketing and editorial departments were at curious loggerheads. In a 1983 issue, it published a “speaking out” column that critiqued several anti-New Age authors and labeled these heresy-hunters a “new inquisition.” Ironically, one of the books under scrutiny, Hunt and McMahon’s The Seduction of Christianity, was featured later in the same issue in a full page ad, with glowing endorsements from several evangelical luminaries.

From Fosdick to Pinnock

Beyond a populist impulse that has increasingly characterized the magazine, the changing direction in Christianity Today‘s reviews can be seen in the theological assessments found in them. Early reviewers were quick to identify modernism when they found it. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a subject of several reviews, may have been “immensely readable” but “not edifying.” Reviewers charged him with denying the essentials of historic Christianity by making experience the ultimate test of truth. “Who knows,” lamented one reviewer, “what might have happened in Protestantism if his great mind and influential voice had been on the side of evangelical Christianity?”

Similarly, early Christianity Today found Norman Vincent Peale appalling. “This is neither religion, moralism, medicine, or anything more than self-help baptized with a sprinkling of devout-plus-medical phrases,” wrote a 1957 reviewer. Another reviewer, a decade later, bluntly concluded that Peale’s work on Sin, Sex, and Self-Control was “not Christianity.” But recently the magazine spoke more cautiously. A review of Peale’s biography, while questioning his legacy, suggested he was a devout Christian who offered a simplified Gospel in tune with his times.

In contrast to the certainty of earlier days, there is an ambivalence in Christianity Today‘s evaluation of renegade theologian Clark Pinnock. On the one hand, Harold O. J. Brown labeled his views “unjustifiably hostile to historic Christianity.” On the other hand, Stanley Grenz called readers to listen to this “gadfly,” while offering no rebuttal to Pinnock’s abandonment of sola Scriptura and propositional revelation. Pinnock himself was given the platform to provide a positive view of John Wimber’s Power Evangelism in a 1986 review. “I know from personal experience,” he wrote, “that one [incident of healing] can be worth a bookshelf of academic apologetics for Christianity.”

More recently Pinnock’s pilgrimage into the charismatic movement was treated to a favorable review by Roger Olson in 1996. Olson assured conservative non-Pentecostals that they could “safely walk onto” the bridge that Pinnock was constructing, and he applauded Pinnock for avoiding “another dry-as-dust, scholastic summary of all propositional truth, many of which already crowd the shelves of theological libraries and used-book stores.”

Self-styled post-conservatives, Professors Olson and Grenz have become the chief theological reviewers for CT in this decade, and they do not accord all gadflies equal treatment. In his review of David Wells’ No Place for Truth, Olson charged this “gadfly” with “crankiness,” and challenged Wells’ analysis of the crisis in evangelical theology: “Many will question Wells’ elevation of theology to the status of being central to the Christian faith itself.” Better for Olson is a balance between Wells’ academic approach and the practical, lay-oriented method of Robert Banks, whose book, Redeeming the Routines, he also reviewed.

No Place for Theology?

While Olson was not prepared to go all the way with Banks in jettisoning academic theology, Christianity Today‘s review policy may seem headed in that direction. In a 1981 article, Walter Elwell polled 40 evangelical leaders on books they found most influential, and the results were heavy in doctrinal theology and lightest in the social sciences. Further, academic books outpolled popular titles by a wide (8 to 1) margin. (5) However, a special book section three years later highlighted six new books on fiction, history, and public policy, with no titles in theology or biblical studies. (6)

To be sure, Christianity Today cannot bear all of the blame for the disappearance of theology from its review section. After all, it cannot review what is not being published, and so its review section is to some extent a mirror of the confused state of evangelical publishing at large. Academic theology is a hard sell in an age of Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll.

But on this very point, a curious irony emerges. During its early years, when Christianity Today was reviewing academic books and putting scholarly titles on its “choice” book lists, it was expressing its concern over the lack of good titles from evangelical presses. “Better books are needed,” a contributor urged in 1963. (7) But today, when less scholarly material dominates Christianity Today‘s best books lists, an opposite sentiment dominates. The magazine frequently suggests that conservative theological publishing has come into its own. “Evangelical output in systematic theology has been massive and challenging,” opined one observer. (8)

But can that conclusion be drawn by a current magazine subscriber? In recent years, a review of a theological title is an exception, and a biblical commentary a rarity. Reviews since the seventies focus far more on sociological concerns, practical issues in ministry, and on “contemporary issues.” In 1993 the magazine admitted that the latter had become its “bread and butter at least in terms of what we review and excerpt.” (9)

Christianity Today‘s recognition of the importance of books led its parent organization recently to found Books and Culture, a bimonthly newspaper dedicated to recovering the lost mind of contemporary Evangelicalism through lengthy reviews, interviews, and book excerpts. But even here theology plays a secondary role to science, history, literature, sociology, and popular culture, and the masthead includes fewer professional theologians (Cornelius Plantinga and Thomas Oden) than the two dozen found on the early Christianity Today mastheads.

It would be wrong to conclude that changes in Christianity Today reviews have been ideologically driven. But still it seems fair to track in its reviews the odyssey of a magazine. Moreover, in its heightened social and political engagement and its concurrent decline in theology, the review section tells the story not only of a magazine but of the evangelical movement that it seeks to serve. In following that pattern, Christianity Today may have settled for being a monitor of trends, and less than the shaper of evangelical thinking that its founders had envisioned.

1 [ Back ] "Why 'Christianity Today'?" Christianity Today October 15, 1956, 20-21.
2 [ Back ] Robert L. Cleath, "Read Your Way to Theological Literacy," Christianity Today, September 15, 1967, 32-34.
3 [ Back ] This is true. As far as we can remember, the longest book MR has recommended to its lay readers in the last year has been Louis Berkhof's 784-page Systematic Theology. -The Editors.
4 [ Back ] Martin E. Marty, "The Marks and Misses of a Magazine," Christianity Today, July 17, 1981, 49.
5 [ Back ] Walter A. Elwell, "Books of Influence: The Choices of Church Leaders" Christianity Today, January 23, 1981, 24-25.
6 [ Back ] "Choice Books," Christianity Today, September 7, 1984, 29-38.
7 [ Back ] Donald T. Kauffman, "Of the Making of Christian Books," Christianity Today, September 27, 1963, 3-4.
8 [ Back ] Roger Nicole, "What Evangelicalism has Accomplished," Christianity Today, September 16, 1996, 31-34.
9 [ Back ] Michael G. Maudlin, "1993 Book Awards," Christianity Today, April 5, 1993, 27.
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