Reflecting On The Worst Christian Book Covers of 2013!

The Englewood Review of Books‘s list of the Worst Christian Book Covers of 2013 went live last week …

Although this list has drawn a huge amount of attention, laughter, and sharing on social media, it also has had some critics.

I thought therefore that I would write a bit here about how and why we have done this list (as it has some continuity with John and I’s Slow Church project), and hopefully address some of the concerns that critics have raised.

One common misconception is that the list is primarily about design. Yes, design is one key piece of our evaluation, but this project is primarily about Christianity and marketing, about covers as a representation of the full book (including titles, concept and categorization of the book, as well as design). This is why Amish Vampires in Space topped our list. Yes, of course, by any technical specifications, it had a professional and relatively well-designed cover (and especially in contrast to some of the other books here that decidedly did not).  But what drove this work to the top of our list was its mere existence, the absurdity of the way in which it baldly mashed up popular genres in a single book.

What we were critiquing  was certainly not the authors, or even the designers, but the marketing of the product. (Although as one astute commenter pointed out, we probably crossed a line in picking one book whose cover was intimately tied up with the author’s personal story, blurring the lines between person and product. Lesson learned.)   A recurring theme on this list is the Christian romance novel (and sub-genres including Amish, and … who knew?… Oregon Trail).  Why do Christian Romance Novels even exist? Yes, I know the textbook answer to this question is that there is a market for them, but really, what do romance novels have to do with following Christ? Seriously… If someone could offer a thoughtful and careful theological justification for their existence, I would certainly publish it in the ERB, but I am highly skeptical that this task is possible.

Throughout modern history, as Willie Jennings has pointed out in his important book The Christian Imagination, since our culture and economies are no longer tied to the places we inhabit, our imagination is left to be shaped the “invisible” forces of the market.  These market realities have, Jennings explains in great detail, wreaked much destruction: racially, ecologically and economically. It’s a tricky game, of course, (the Slow Church book is, for instance, coming out from a Christian-market publisher), but at the very least, we should name these instances — and have some fun — when the marketing forces spin wildly out of control. The shared life of our churches is dictated to a large extent by the forces of the market, from the songs we sing and the curricula we use, to the perhaps more insidious philosophies of the Church Growth Movement. Slow Church is in large part a reaction to the effects of marketing culture on our churches, a call to the long and un-sexy work of forming deeply rooted and distinctive local congregations in which the ebb and flow of Christian markets have little effect.

View a sampler of some of the Worst Christian Book Covers of 2013

(Or view the full list on the ERB website…)

Cover Thumbnails:


Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Ken Wytsma – The Grand Paradox [Patheos Book Club]
Alexander Schmemann – Lent is a Time of Slowing Down
Worst Christian Book Covers of 2014…
Two Slow Church-related ebooks on sale now!
  • Jon M. Sweeney

    I don’t know, I don’t read them, but isn’t questioning the existence of
    Christian romance novels kind of like questioning why Chesterton made
    Father Brown a Christian solving crime?

    • erbks

      I don’t read ‘em either, but it seems like we’re talking apples and oranges, or apples and elephants (two COMPLETELY different sorts of things). It’s been awhile since I read the Fr. Brown mysteries, but if I’m not mistaken there’s a good deal of social commentary/criticism in them in typical Chesterton fashion. I’m not opposed to entertainment, but I can’t see much value in romance novels — “Christian” or otherwise — beyond titillation.

      • E. Stephen Burnett

        I dislike romance novels too, mostly because of the stigma attached to them. But if we are to judge other Christians’ works or enjoyments based solely on majority perception or stigmas, we’re all in trouble.

        • Tom

          We are. However, there is an opportunity to point people to something more than what they are currently experiencing, and I think that’s at the heart of what Chris is on about (as far as I read it, and read his other posts). Christianity needs to be more than a secular substitute.

  • Bob Lacki

    I’m thinking the title “Worst Covers” means the worst covers. You’re saying there’s a “misconception” that anyone would think that means design? Really?

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    what do romance novels have to do with following Christ?

    Yep, this shows a fundamental flaw in how you’re approaching pretty much everything. Turn this around, for consistency’s sake: “what does blogging have to do with Christ?” You’re reading the words of a hostile witness. I personally dislike romance novels, finding the separated genre unappealing. But that is a personal preference. In acting as though your own preference against either romance fiction or an “absurd genre mashup” is somehow unnecessary to defend, you’re setting yourself up as an unfortunately thoughtless critic. Better critics fault what the artist was trying to do and whether he achieved it, rather than artists for trying at all. If the goal is to oppose certain genres period–e.g., what’s inside the book–shall we be honest about it rather than feigning to critique covers?

    • E. Stephen Burnett

      Moreover, your view seems to approach that of a mythical, never-was “high culture” that is entirely unattached to such nasty, worldly things such as “market forces.” See Ted Turnau’s important book Popologetics for a gentle yet firm rebuke to the wrong assumptions behind this view.

      • erbks

        I don’t believe in what you call a “high culture.” Pre-modern cultures had their socio-economic problems, no doubt (crusades, rigid economic classes, etc), and I have no desire to return to/recover this culture. BUT one thing they did have in their favor was that generally speaking identity was formed primarily by place. I’m sure that market forces played a role to a certain extent in that age as well, but I don’t believe that they were the primary means of identity formation. Note how today one of the key pieces we want to know about a new person we meet is what he/she DOES (ie, work/economic activity). Where that person is from is of considerably less interest to us. I suspect that 700 years ago these values would be flip-flopped. The problem when market forces reign supreme (determining identity, etc), is that economic judgments tend to trump ethical/aesthetic ones. My questions here were intended to set aside the economic realities for a moment and raise the ethical and aesthetic questions. Let’s have a conversation about what is good and redemptive in the Christian romance novel as a medium. It seems to me that relegating these questions to the realm of personal preference is just as dismissive as writing the whole genre off as unredemptive (as you have rightly intuited that I am tempted to do, but I could be convinced otherwise, which is why I raised the questions I did…)

        • Guest

          The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…

        • E. Stephen Burnett

          What a merry topic to take up. Thanks for the chance. And thanks for your clarification about “high culture.”

          My earlier objection remains, however, to what is ultimately a baseless (and extra-Biblical) defense of a (mythical?) higher/better culture that as you say “was formed primarily by place.” What is the Kingdom if not an attempt to transcend such a concept? Where is the moral (for it must be moral) basis, founded in Scripture, for such a concept? Is it not a secular concept, at best a “good idea” that could add to “mere Christianity”?

          Lest this seem overdoing it, over-spiritualizing: Well, you first based the objection to the book cover (actually the genre) on what is in the end a moral argument: “it is not redemptive.” And ultimately we must carefully evaluate all Things based on how they glorify God and help us worship Him in His beauty and truth. That, and not even culture-formation, should be our core purpose here.

          Finally, your own blog proves both the inability and your own (accidental!) incongruity of insisting on a culture based on region, without regard to “market forces” or, presumably, common interests. My charge of unwitting hypocrisy would only be overthrown if it turns out you (and other commentators) also lived in central Texas. But more likely, you’re also “creating culture” that transcends these “idyllic,” artificially imposed limits. :-)

          Let’s have a conversation about what is good and redemptive in the Christian romance novel as a medium.

          Can’t follow you into that assumption that we must have this conversation first. :-P Instead, isn’t it your task to prove that this genre — all of it — is not redemptive? Any conversation should start there.

          Mind you, I am not a romance fan. I don’t care for it in fiction (though it’s great in real life with my own true love). That makes me a hostile witness. So, even better.

          My challenge becomes this: Prove, then, that the entire genre of romance fiction is without redemptive merit, based not on the above extra-Biblical assumptions about culture, but based on the Biblical principle that whatever the Christian does, whatever he drinks or drinks, he must do for the glory of God. Mind you, we can have a discussion about whether Romance Novel X is artistically well-done, original, and truthful/beautiful about God, man, and the world. But to despise the entire genre based on the majority of its books or the majority of fans — well, I’m afraid there is little difference between that and the fundies who recoil from “Harry Potter” because a friend’s friend’s cousin read an email forward about supposed Satanists who eat up the stuff.

          My challenge rests on this presumption about applying all this to real life, to Christian friends (in your local region or on the internet!) who enjoy various things:

          If you say, “This Thing is without redemptive value,” meaning, “No one can enjoy that thing for the glory or worship of God,” that is a very sweeping generalization. Then if someone comes along and says, about a Thing not specifically condemned in Scripture, “Actually, I can enjoy this for the glory/worship of God,” you now have a choice. 1) Re-evaluate the original claim. 2) State or imply that said brother/sister is actually deceptive.

          All this, however, does not even touch on the issue of labeling AViS, which isn’t a romance, a bad and (paraphrasing) absurd genre mashup. What was (at best) even more absurd was a feint to critique Christian books’ covers’ design and then making only one exception for one novel’s actual premise and contents. This would have worked better if you had actually known the novel’s premise and contents — including the vital fact that only the premise and cover are a parody; the rest is a straight-up sci-fi story. But to say only of one story, “This should not have even been done in the first place,” well, only subpar critics tend to do this, brother. :-P I suggest that better ones, such as the late Roger Ebert, could react to, say, The Fellowship of the Ring film version (2001) with something like, “I wish it had actually been made this way,” but by the next year and sequel concede (again, paraphrasing), “I still wish it had been made another way, but now I will evaluate based on my view of whether they achieved what they did wish to do.”

          Finally, as one non-local cyber-friend mentioned about critiquing self-published books’ covers: really, this task is much like tossing lit dynamite into a barrel filled with fish. I have to agree. One may as well troll on YouTube and pick out all the commentators’ spelling errors.

          Speaking of trolling — and at the risk of seeming to reduce my entire argument to a simplistic “you’re a hypocrite” — one may also ask how this cover-critiquing task is “redemptive,” or, again, how this task is not also contributing to a culture that is driven by “market forces” or anything other than a regional basis. :-D Peace out!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Why do Christian Romance Novels even exist? Yes, I know the textbook answer to this question is that there is a market for them, but really, what do romance novels have to do with following Christ? Seriously…
    Because they allow Bored Christian Housewives to have a little vicarious adultery with the Hawt Hunk on the cover (so much HAWTer than Hubby) without being contaminated by that Heathen Romance. (And thus maintain their Christian Righteousness.)
    “Just like Harlequin Bodice-Rippers, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”