The theological student is required to write book reviews. This paper is designed to give structure and guidance to the student in this vital pursuit. The goal is not merely technical, however. Instead, the author lays out a plan of reading and responding that takes the student into a more in-depth discovery of the given book for pastoral application and ministry.
What is a critical book review?
There is an art, if not science, to the academic pursuits of reading. No one has summarized this activity better than the late Dr. Mortimer Adler in his essential work, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. In the course of your theological-higher-education-learning-experience, you will be asked, repeatedly, to conduct a review of a selected book and to write a report. This white paper is prepared to help you to write that paper.
The critical divisions of a Critical Book Review are observation, response, conclusion.
Using the tools of Adler’s How to Read a Book will guide you in this necessary first-stage of a Critical Book Review. The essential variables of a critical book review include at least the following:
- Locating the proposition or thesis of the book.
- Ascertaining the author’s intent.
- Learning about the author and his or her relationship to the subject of the book.
- Considering the chapter flow of the book.
- Identifying the genre of the book.
The gathering of all of these facts about the book is only the first step in conducting a critical book review. The second step involves you, your experiences, and your response to the book. The essential elements of this response include:
- Critical thinking about all or part of the facts of the book.
- Theological reflection about the book.
- These steps should help you to provide your conclusion or a practical or pastoral application of the book.
Let’s think through each of these three elements of response in a critical book review.
Critical thinking involves questioning.
Critical thinking involves what it says: careful consideration of the factual elements that you located; and your response, supported by examples or references. You are making a case as to whether the author achieved some measure of effectiveness in the book (according to your perception of his or her own goals of writing the book). Critical thinking involves questioning. Thus, questions related to the factual elements of the book would include:
“Is the thesis clear in this book? Why or why not? Provide an example.”
“Can we appropriately ascertain the author’s intent in the book? Did she clearly state that intent? Did he state the intent but failed to achieve his mission?” You are evaluating the factual elements, in this case, as it relates to the author’s intent for the book.
“Is the subject matter familiar to the author?” Or, to put it another way, “Is the author a subject matter expert on the topic of the book? How so? How did this interplay with the other factual elements that you located?”
“Did the chapter flow of the book unfold the author’s ideas?” “Get the chapter flow of the book support or detract from the premise of the book? How so? Provide support for your answer.”
Critical thinking leads to theological reflection on this book you are reviewing.
Theological reflection is a high cognitive-level activity that seeks to connect the relationship(s) between your observation of the factual elements of the book with the more abstract notions about God, humanity, life, work, and so forth.
Theological reflection is one of the most important disciplines to cultivate during your time at university or in seminary. Theology and religious studies students who become either members of the clergy or a faculty will use theological reflection daily. Indeed, theological reflection is an expected area of the Christian life. Theological reflection is a high cognitive-level activity that seeks to connect the relationship(s) between your observation of the factual elements of the book with the more abstract notions about God, humanity, life, work, and so forth. Or this exercise might lead to appropriating the thesis and flow of the selected volume with some point in Biblical history or human existence. All theological reflection necessarily begins with formulating diagnostic questions:
“Did you locate a common theological theme that tied the chapters of the book together into one larger theological narrative? What is that theological theme and give an example of your reflection.”
“Did you discover numerous theological themes and were they connected? Was there a sense of disunity? Where the theological themes concealed within the text, or were they apparent? Provide examples for your response. Was this effective? Why or why not?”
“Relate the story of the book to the meta-narrative of Scripture. Where does the thesis of this book lie in the covenant of God and the mission of God in the world?”
You have read and researched the book before you so that you have located the factual elements of the book and given a response. Your response has involved critical thinking, theological reflection. Now, it is time to move to the final step in a Critical Book Review.
Your Conclusion (s)
The third and final division of a critical book review is the conclusion. This conclusion is not a rehashing of the author’s findings. This conclusion is your own. As a result of observation and response, you prepare yourself to apply critical thinking and theological reflection to bring about final comments on the book. A proper conclusion seeks to connect the book to some area of life, work, or ministry.
You have made a critical assessment of the factual elements of the book. You have located and interacted with theological concepts in the book. Your questions about the book in both accurate observation and theological reflection have led you to your conclusion or conclusions. Your Critical Book Review started with observations. It moved to a place of questions. Your review now ends with propositions. For example, your findings may include statements such as these:
“In summary, the author not only achieved her stated goals in writing the book but introduced the reader to questions about God’s grace in the midst of suffering. Indeed, this book will be of practical help to Christians going through times of affliction. This work will also be a solid pastoral resource for the practitioner.”
“By the end of my consideration of both the factual elements of the book and my theological reflection on the book I must conclude with these observations:
I did not find the book ‘practical for the Christian life’ for the pastoral ministry, in the way that we usually mean. However, the book is more about an examination of theological concepts and abstract ideas. To the degree that the author intended to cultivate thinking and discussion, perhaps there is some robust application after all: the use that I bring from the book is to take the time to meditate upon Biblical truths without any pressure to immediately apply them. Is there not virtue is merely thinking? Beyond the utilitarian approach to that requires implementing some lessons of a book, I believe there is an opportunity, here, for reflection. In this, the author has succeeded. There is, after all, spiritual benefit from meditation”.”
The conclusion fuses observation and response with the bonding agent of reason.
A Critical Book Review is a research paper that demonstrates the student’s experience of learning during interaction with a selected book. This exercise in research includes observation of factual elements of the book, a response to the book with critical thinking and theological reflection. Both of these steps lead to a conclusion where the student can make application to some area of human existence or even provide thoughts on something altogether different from that which we might call “practical.” The conclusion is always “the student’s conclusion.” From the professor’s standpoint, the conclusion fuses observation and response with the bonding agent of reason.
A critical book review aims to actuate “deeper learning” in the course by interacting with the ideas of others. The critical book review goes beyond Mayor reading — an exercise wholly worthy in its own right — and moves to a place of connecting a person with an idea and allowing that person to respond. In this, we trust there is a genuine experience of learning.
Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised edition. New York: Touchstone, 1972.
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RESOURCES FOR THE JOURNEY
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