Last week I reviewed Jerry Jenkins’ Writing for the Soul. Jerry Jenkins is the author of the Christian fiction “Left Behind” novels.
I’m not religious, and I really don’t like it when I feel that someone’s pushing their religion at me. I happen to think that there are a lot of negatives about organized religion throughout history. However, I do not believe that religion is inherently bad–it serves a valuable purpose in many people’s lives. Like most other tools, it can be used for great good or great evil. I also respect people’s right to follow whatever set of religious beliefs works for them–whether that’s a major religion, a minor religion, or none at all.
When I read and review a book, I strive to remain as objective as possible. What is the ostensible purpose of the book, and how well does it fulfill that purpose? The simple title “Writing for the Soul” makes it clear this book has an inspirational bent. Nearly anyone who picks it up is going to know (or find out by reading the description) that the author wrote the “Left Behind” novels, so they’re going to understand that said inspirational bent will have a Christian background. My job as a reviewer is to decide, within that framework, is it a good book? My job also is to decide: is IT a good book, irrespective of what I might think of the “Left Behind” novels or any other work the author has done?
I believe it is. I haven’t read the Left Behind novels (which I have been told are quite preachy; if that’s the case, I doubt I’d enjoy them), and to my mind the issue of whether this is a good writing book is totally different from whether those are good novels. “Writing for the Soul” is articulate, well-thought-out, and interesting. Jenkins has been a writer, editor, and publisher for decades, with a great deal of experience in the Christian market in particular, and he provides advice from those perspectives, couched partially in memoir and partially in instruction. I found the book to be an enjoyable read; obviously someone who isn’t at all interested in inspirational writing or who knee-jerk dislikes Christianity probably won’t want to read it–that should be obvious from the subject alone.
So it’s interesting to me that when I posted my review on a site where people tend to comment on reviews, it got quite a few responses that are difficult not to interpret as a knee-jerk negative reaction simply based on the author’s religion. One person said she thought the Left Behind novels were dreck, so she was completely skeptical of my having said this was a good book. Well, the novels might indeed be dreck in her opinion, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’ve sold so brilliantly–that argues that the author is indeed quite savvy, and if anything would pique my interest in his advice rather than making me skeptical. Another person basically said that there was no way to know that he hadn’t just ripped off someone else’s book–uh, wait a minute, when were reviewers supposed to start baseline assuming that authors were plagiarists? (That one particularly flummoxed me.)
Another person said they felt that if you stripped out all of my commentary on inspirational material, religion, etc., that I hadn’t said much about what made the book different from other writing books, particularly regarding the author’s writing style or the nature of his advice. Well, I feel that’s a little like saying, “if you strip out everything you said about what makes the book different, you didn’t say anything about what makes the book different.” (And, going back to re-read my review, because I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that I forgot to mention something, I did indeed say quite a bit about the author’s writing style. However, since his style is strongly intertwined with his religion, his memoir’s-eye view on things, and his writing for the inspirational market, I guess the commenter stripped that out with “the Left Behind stuff”.) I did add some more examples of the type of advice he gives, since two people asked for that; hopefully that’ll help folks.
Before you think I’m coming down on folks who don’t like being preached at or whatever, or who aren’t religious, remember–I’m not religious and don’t like being preached at either. However, I don’t see much difference between folks who have knee-jerk reactions based on their faith and folks who have knee-jerk reactions based on their lack of faith. It’s the same sort of “I’m right and folks who believe otherwise must be bad” kind of mentality. To my mind, you can’t really get mad at folks who push their religions at others if you’re going to turn around and push your lack of religion at others–it’s the same sort of thing. I never felt, while I was reading “Writing for the Soul,” that I was being treated like a lesser person for not believing in the author’s religion, and that kind of respect is what I look for when I read material written from a religious viewpoint.
Whenever I find myself tempted to react in a knee-jerk fashion to something overtly religious, I remind myself of my neighbor; she’s a Christian minister. I don’t agree with many of her viewpoints on various ideological things, but I adore her as a person. She never pushes her religion at me or makes me feel like she looks down on me for not believing. She never preaches at me, although we sometimes discuss issues that she feels strongly about. And she’s just the sweetest, kindest lady I’ve had the good fortune to live next to. If I had dismissed her or looked down on her because of her strong religious convictions, it would have been my loss.