The Meaning of Book Endorsements
Why buy a particular book? We answer that partly by finding who wants us to buy the book (besides the author). We check the endorsement, which are found in one or more places: front cover, back cover, and opening pages. Some authors do not need endorsements, since they are industries in their own right, such as Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. Lesser mortals court endorsements. But what should we make of this practice? What does it really mean?
Book endorsements are both reviews and benedictions. Generally speaking, the greater endorses the lesser. Thus, I was elated that my first book, Unmasking the New Age (1986), was endorsed by Walter Martin, the father of the counter-cult movement in America and author of the classic, The Kingdom of the Cults.
The endorser briefly sums up the book and wishes it well: “This book deserves a wide reading,” for example. The endorsement is meant to help the book along its literary way. It works this way:
S endorses P for reason Q.
The endorser (S) should be in a position to give a competent judgment (Q) concerning the book (P). To do this, S should have some expertise in the subject matter of P. Thus, I asked philosopher and mathematician, William Dembski, to endorse my book, Christian Apologetics (2011). It was a high honor that he did so. However, no one has asked me to endorse a book by Dembski that is filled with mathematics, since I am helpless in that. However, I did endorse his book The End of Christianity, since it fit my areas of expertise.
Endorsements go awry when S endorses P when S is incompetent to endorse P. This is akin to saluting a flag of a country about which one knows nothing. I have seen it too often. These endorsements may have the opposite effect of what is intended, since empty praise from an ignoramus is worse than faint praise from a professional.
Yet experts may fail to give adequate grounds for their recommendations. This is akin to cheerleading. S is an authority on P, but S gives no reason for endorsing P. For this, we take it on trust: S knows his stuff, so we trust him on P. Maybe so, but we must appeal to S’s raw authority about P apart from the authority’s justification (Q) for his judgment.
Notoriety matters, too. If S is a maven on P, but few know this, then P’s endorsement will not win many people over, unless they accept P’s title or accomplishments as giving them credibility. The best combination for an endorsement is, then, notoriety and expertise. For example, if a book on New Testament theology received an endorsement from N. T. Wright, the author would be rightly elated and the potential reader would be rightly impressed.
However, the concern for notoriety can go afoul. Consider again N. T. Wright. One of his books was endorsed by Rob Bell. This is akin to an ant saluting an elephant, since Bell is no scholar; in fact, he is not even a serious thinker. Bell was solicited, no doubt, for his undeserved popularity. But one may be popular for the wrong reasons. As Jesus said:
Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6:26, KJV).
He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight (Luke 16:15, NIV).
And consider Moses:
Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd (Exodus 23:2, NIV).
I would not have Donald Trump endorse one of my books; and, I would not accept an endorsement from Lady Gaga.
Taste matters for endorsements as well. Jesus prophesied that “the meek will inherit the earth.” Meekness is not weakness; it requires that we be understated and humble. If an author piles up a mountain of endorsements, covering several pages of text, it is unseemly. Some publishers may push for this against the author’s wishes, however. It is better to wait for the book reviews—which would likely be more fair-minded—for this volume of commentary. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Cronyism is a creeping plague in book publishing as well as in politics: think crony capitalism. A crony is a groupie who wants her share of the action. A crony does not give praise where praise is due, but who gives praise to receive favors in return. Cronies are favored for reasons other than merit. Some endorsements exude an odor of cronyism. X endorses Y and Y endorses X. It makes one wonder sometimes. Is this a legitimate endorsement or a mutual admiration society? I became cautious of this after a notable Christian writer said he would not endorse my book if the book was also dedicated to him. It had to be one or the other. (I was going dedicate it to him and two other heroes.) He said, “You have to avoid anything that smacks of cronyism.” Indeed, you must.
In some cases a reliable expert in an area wrongly endorses a book. For example, Eugene Peterson, a superb writer on pastoral theology, endorsed the idiosyncratic (at best) novel The Shack. However, it is unlikely that several solid references will all err in recommending a book, although it happens. Several evangelical luminaries endorsed Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry by Gregory Alan Thornbury. Despite the noble endeavor to laud and emulate Carl Henry, the author was not up to the task, and egregiously failed to address Henry’s epistemology.
Lastly, if one person endorses many books, the currency declines. It looks promiscuous, as when an inebriated patron keeps ordering rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar.
The final test for any book is not who endorsed it, but its objective worth. If the book imparts knowledge about that needs to be known to glorify God, to advance his Kingdom, and to turn back the powers of darkness, then God himself endorsed that book. May we read and recommend these books.