[As an aside, some of the best advice I got on book reviewing was to make sure your positive review had "bumper stickers"--phrases that could be cut and used for future editions of the book! One of mine ended up on the paperback version of Brooks Holifield's Theology in America--a truly fine book. Really. Anyways, I digress...]
My example is Guy Waters' new book, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology. Leaving aside the relative merits and demerits of that particular book, what is striking are the book reviews. Look at them--no subtlety here:
- On the "pro-" side: "Waters does an excellent job proving that though the concerns of this group may be valid at points, their answers are inadequate at best and dangerous at worst. He is to be commanded for undertaking this task with such an irenic spirit and yet with an equally powerful commitment to the truth of the gospel, which is in danger of being blurred in the hands of the Federal Vision."
- Also on the "pro-" side: "For those frustrated by the doltish petulance and delinquent arrogance of so-called Federal Vision people just see it like this: they are exposing themselves as those within the camp who were never with us to begin with. They are with the kingdom of Satan, and so be it. It's good when heretics and non-believers finally come out of the their closets."
- On the "con-" side: "I wish I could recommend this book, but I cannot because it is so full of mischaracterizations and exaggerated claims about the men and positions being reviewed. Apparently the author did not read his opponents charitably and with an open mind. Consequently, I believe he failed to follow the first commandment of scholarly debate, which is to try to understand and appreciate what one's intellectual opponents are trying to say before attacking them from a position outside of their own circle of presuppositions and theological commitments."
- Also on the "con-" side: "His analyses are based upon exegetical assertion (of the Scriptures and the Westminister Standards), employ quite a bit of question begging, create false dilemmas, and don't account adequately for the qualifications and nuances given by the men in question (though he records many of those qualifications and nuances). Waters may win many people pre-disposed to being against these men, but by just a little closer scrutiny the reader will find that he employs poor argumentation."
After all, the Amazon.com book reviews are supposedly written by lay people who are interested in books, people "like you and me," who want to share their off-the-cuff reactions to a book. I think this is the intent because the "professional" reviews (NY Times Book Review, for example) are generally bracketed off and supplied by Amazon themselves. And what better way to attempt to influence than to present yourself as an interested reader or (in this case) an interested pastor who reacted to the book, either pro or con.
What is also interesting is how little recorded "influence" is occuring. This can be gauged by the "was this review helpful" numbers. The positive reviews only were "helpful" to between 4% and 16% of the responsdents while the negative reviews were "helpful" to 86% of respondents (that number was consistent across the board). That suggests to me that the majority of people visiting that page (and perhaps purchasing the book) are already disposed to view the book negatively. In addition, it suggests that they are agitated enough to "vote" whether various reviews were "helpful."
In the end, those responding also desire to participate in influencing the way people perceive this particular book. By agreeing overwhelmingly with the negative reviews, these people are trying to send the message that this is a REALLY, REALLY BAD book. And this, of course, is equally unnunaced and inaccurate. Even more importantly, it indicates how polarizing this issue and this book is, how badly people desire to influence the way people think about the issues involved (which should itself raise questions for critical thought). Above all, I think it demonstrates how Amazon book reviews can be used in a political way, even to influence debates in denominations, such as my own.