How not to write a book review

This still amuses and annoys me. An old Amazon review:

“Although the events in The War in Heaven are fictional, the invisible world of spirits in describes is not.” This sentence, from the author’s note at the end of this novel, illuminates the difference between [X] and other writers of fantasy. Mainstream fantasy authors like George R. R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Piers Anthony and the like all understand that the mythical concepts they create for their novels are just that, mythical. [X] does not. If religion constitutes the ultimate confusion of fantasy and reality, then that confusion sees its purest expression in religious entertainment.

I’ll admit right off the bat I’m an atheist. So why, you may ask, am I reviewing this book at all? I was sent free promotional copies of The War in Heaven and its sequel The World in Shadow by publisher Pocket Books so that I might review them for a different website I write for. After determining that site wouldn’t be the appropriate venue for reviews of these books, I couldn’t help wanting to post SOME kind of commentary after reading things in The War in Heaven that profoundly offended both my sensibilities and intellect.

The War in Heaven, for the most part, reads like a poor episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer written by a Christian fundamentalist. Sure, there are some entertaining passages, but it is sheer folly to claim, as one other reader did in his review, that the book isn’t preachy. The book preaches throughout its length. Characters pray everywhere. Now it’s not as though that sort of thing would be unexpected in a Christian novel; [X] is dutifully giving his audience what they want. But unlike mainstream fiction, Christian fiction is of course MEANT to evangelize. Otherwise, what’s the point? You might as well write a secular novel.

But what really irked me were passages in the aforementioned “author’s note” that I found so wrong-headed that they deserved comment. They indicate the difference in perspective between rationalists and the religious with crystal clarity.

[X] writes that “a rational, post-Enlightenment world has a difficult time admitting evil’s reality.” On the contrary, rationalists simply reject the notion that evil has a supernatural source. To claim that someone who does bad things does so out of demonic influence is not merely irrational but irresponsible. People who do bad things should be held accountable for their actions. “The devil made them do it” unjustly absolves those people of being held accountable and clouds the real reasons behind why someone might do a bad thing. Blaming imaginary beings for real problems solves nothing.

[X] then gives us a brief bit of autobiography where he describes his pre-Christian life as, apparently, a hotbed of “sin” and debauchery. “I could feel my mind slipping away with the shards of my morality,” [X] writes of himself, “as I became less and less interested in anything but sin.” Well, how nice for him, but I can say that as an atheist, my own life looks nothing like this, nor am I headed “straight for self-destruction.” Nor does [X]’s past reflect the lives of any of my other atheist friends either, all of whom are hard-working, upstanding, family-oriented people. If [X]’s past really was as irrational and self-absorbed as he claims it was, it’s no surprise religion was able to hook him when he was at his most vulnerable.

[X] also makes an attempt to defend the Christian doctrine of Hell by claiming that “in my experience, it is not God who sends us [to Hell].” I don’t know if, by referring to his “experience,” [X] is implying he has personally checked out Hell, but I can say that the scriptures do indeed make it clear that it is God’s wrath that determines who suffers eternal torment. Every Christian loves John 3:16, but try reading John 3:18 or 3:36 sometime. A God who says, in effect, “I love you, but if you don’t love me back, you’ll be tortured for eternity!” cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called good or loving. To do so strips the very word “love” of any meaning it could possibly have. As long as Christianity holds to the doctrine of eternal punishment for simply not being Christian, it will never be able to lay any legitimate claim to being a moral belief system. If you want a good example of evil, I say “belief in Hell.”

Finally, I was disgusted by [X]’s remark that “Hell is our natural destination. Each of us is drowning in a sea of self-destruction.” Such a profoundly misanthropic statement reveals that, at its core, Christianity has a deep loathing of humanity and life itself. It is diametrically opposed to the positive, humanistic outlook most atheists subscribe to. I ask you, honestly, which is the heathier, happier outlook? You know, there just might be something to a rational, post-Enlightenment worldview after all!

I suppose it’s a small step forward to base your book review on the afterword instead of the cover. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with disliking a book or slamming it based on your opinion that it is boring or poorly written, the characters are cardboard cutouts or the plot makes no sense, this is not so much a review of a novel as an assault on a rival worldview.

And as such, it is also more than a little nonsensical; since when do Christians absolve people of responsibility for giving into temptation? I was always under the impression that “the wages of sin are death” was a fundamentally Christian teaching. For a religion with a deep loathing of humanity and life, it’s interesting to note that Christians are the one’s holding up the birthrate in the West, it’s post-Christian Europe and the atheist-leaning Blue states that can’t be bothered to procreate and raise children.

In any event, it’s hard to get too worked up over the opinion of someone who gave a Peter Gabriel CD five stars. The horra, the horra! Anyhow, if you happen to have read WAR or WORLD, I’d encourage you to review it on Amazon. People do read those things, including publishers, and they do make a difference.

I also vehemently disagree with the reviewer’s statement that all Christian fiction must evangelize, although many in the CBA would probably take no exception to it. What is the point otherwise? As Umberto Eco, among many, many others, have demonstrated, the Christian worldview is a rich and deep treasure trove of metaphor, symbolism and even plot devices. Regardless of whether one believes it or not, it can make for an excellent foundation around which to tell a story.