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Yeah, I only gave Augustine’s “Confessions” 4 stars

I went on a quick business trip this week which gave me several hours of airplane time to do some reading. I finished up both Confessions by St. Augustine (a foundational bit of Christian theology from a millenium ago) and The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence by John Sanders (a rather dense defense of open theism from not too many years ago).

I read a lot, and being the nerd that I am, I keep a log of my reading over on Goodreads. And when you add a book to your shelves on Goodreads, it prompts you to rate the book, using a 1 – 5 star rating system. Being the nerd that I am, I can’t not rate them. And so as I add the books to my “read” shelf and to the shelf for the current year, I also give them a star rating, and those star ratings are automatically tweeted on my Twitter account.

So, back to this week. Not only did I finish both Confessions and The God Who Risks, but I gave them both 4 stars. Having the temerity to even assign a star rating to St. Augustine got me a bit of good-natured flack on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/petergaultney/status/526862092381728769

So I figured it was time (for my own sake, at least) to explain how I assign star ratings. (To the 3 of you who want to continue reading past this point: seek professional help.)

Whether I’m rating fiction or non-fiction, I tend to value similar traits in a book: well-written prose; an engaging topic; a coherent plot or argument; an appropriate length. I’ve gotten choosier over the years and more willing to give up on lame books. (It’s getting harder and harder to find fiction that’s worth my time.) When I’m reading non-fiction, and particularly theology, my rating isn’t based at all on the relative importance of the work in history (I’m actually not well-qualified to judge that) or whether I agree with the position being argued. I will base my rating, though, on how even-handed the author was in argument, how well I felt like the case was made, and how well the book kept my interest. I also like to reserve 5-star ratings for books that are really top-notch, can’t-beat-em volumes. The ones that make a significant impact on me, that I want to read again or buy copies for other people.

So, Augustine got 4 stars for Confessions. The translation I read (downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg) was a little big of a slog, but significant chunks of it were (in my untrained opinion) quite brilliant, and kept me thinking. Definitely glad I read it. Quite certain I don’t have the seminary education I’d need to understand how it molds the next thousand years of Christian thought.

But Sanders also gets 4 stars for The God Who Risks. It’s also a bit of a slog. (At one point in the text he refers back to an earlier section in the book by its section number, something like 3.4.6.2-5. That’s some serious outlining going on.) Still, Sanders makes a reasonable argument for openness and I felt like he dealt fairly with the topic and opposing viewpoints. I don’t know that I completely agree with him, but I’m glad I read the book and gained a better understanding of that perspective of the topic.

Mid-way through writing this post I went and counted up the number of 5-star reviews I’ve given on Goodreads. Of 530-ish books I’ve read, I’ve given 5 stars to about 70. (That’s more than I would’ve thought if you’d asked me.) I’ve given 5 stars to more non-fiction than fiction; some history and biography, a lot of theology, and a bunch of classic fiction. Upon reflection, does Augustine deserve 5 stars for Confessions? Yeah, probably. Maybe I should go do a re-read and see if I have a better appreciation for it after another go-round. On the other hand, maybe if I’m allowing myself the cheekiness of assigning reviews at all I shouldn’t be ashamed of just assigning scores as I see them.

In the end, I’m glad to have that list of books and the associated ratings, if only to look back and remember some favorites, help me recommend books to others, and to find some re-reads. And, I suppose, because I’m a nerd. Somethings never change.

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