Amazon recommends…

I’m a sucker for recommendations… most of the time. Most of the time, their clever statistical analysis manages to mail-merge some books, music or DVDs I’d really like to me. Today though, I was recommended something truly awful, so I clicked on the little “Why was this recommended to me?” link to find out why they thought I’d like it. Here’s the surprising connection I discovered: recommends recommends

Turns out, Calvinists who are into New Testament studies are flocking to buy The Shack… While Amazon presumably don’t distinguish between people who buy books because they like them and people who buy books to do a Robert Fisk style debunking of them, I was surprised that these books were statistically linked to The Shack. But perhaps the reason is that these books are all “Christian” books (and categorized as such by Amazon), and The Shack has sold many copies, topping the “Christian bestseller” charts.

I’m developing a theory about “Christian bestsellers”, to wit: The most read books are often the least helpful ones. The last time I actually went into a physical Christian bookshop (that of a well-known UK chain named after two theologians of stature) the ground floor was filled with dross – health-and-wealth titles, less-than-God-centred biographies, success manuals and Christian fiction. These were obviously the ones selling, by their places on the “chart”. In fact, you had to go to the basement to find theology books, bible study guides and so on.

I don’t suppose it’s entirely the fault of the booksellers, or the publishers who advertise and market books like The Shack (though I’d rather they promoted some popular-level edifying, biblically faithful books!) because part of the reason bad books sell well is that we like what they have to say. We find the challenge of biblically faithful books a bit too much to bear, so opt for ones which flatter our preconceptions and tell us that we’re OK as we are. Or perhaps we like how the prosperity gospel books offer us health, wealth and success. Or we feel our Christian lives are not where we want them to be, and instead of the slighty vague and always hard approach of going back to the gospel and working it out from there, we feel more comfortable with a bullet-point “How to…” guide of being suddenly awesome at prayer, or an expert at leading Bible studies. So maybe if we want to see better Christian books, we should start buying, reading and applying some good ones, rather than taking the self-flattering, easy options that don’t confront us with the biblical gospel and the living God.

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4 Responses to “Amazon recommends…”

  1. Phil Jackson Says:

    Shooting fish in a barrel..

    Equally though, the reason why we contribute to the christian-criticising-‘liberal’-christian cacophony of the blogosphere is because we like to flatter ourselves that we’re OK. Bounded-set tribalism and intellectual elitism do not endear a hurting world to a difficult gospel.

    The most read books are often the least helpful ones. … The Bible being the exception which proves the rule 😛

    • agyapw Says:

      Thanks, Phil – the Bible is indeed the obvious exception that proves the rule and fortunately remains the bestselling of all.

      I hope you don’t misunderstand me – I’m not trying to be intellectually elitist; my problem is that popular-level good “Christian” books are outsold by popular-level bad, misleading and unfaithful “Christian” books. Things may be different at the academic level (I don’t know) but I’d not be surprised if the same carries at every level. I’m not saying “Don’t read The Shack, read all 18 volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics” but “Read some books that are biblically faithful”. The kind of things I’m thinking of as “bad Christian books” don’t so much sugar-coat the “difficult gospel” pill as replace it with a placebo. These books don’t only come from classic liberalism but from all over the theological spectrum, including both Charismatic and non-Charismatic “evangelicalism”.

  2. PG Says:

    And that’s why I never enter ****** **** bookshops and always order from the Evangelical Bookshop Belfast – always theologically sound matter! And it’s cheaper than Amazon normally even with P&P to Notts! Ad over. Terms and conditions apply.

  3. étrangère Says:

    Ah, but Peter & Phil – if those who know which the good books are only order from distant shores or amazon, we leave the local bookshops unchanged, because no one walking in will ask for the better books. So we leave the average person, Christian or not, walking into a local Christian bookshop, to be afflicted with whatever’s popular. For building up the church, better to be there in the bookshop, even if it takes more time or money.

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