Well, it happened.
Last week, I learned that my recently published doctoral thesis had been reviewed in an academic journal (Augustinian Studies). For seasoned scholars, such things are hardly news. You write a book. It gets reviewed. That’s how it works. But this is my first academic book, so for me the news was met with two equal and opposite emotions:
“Sweet! Someone actually read it!” And:
“No! I bet they torched it!”
Actually, the review was fantastic (full text below; reposted with the Journal’s permission):
Lincoln Harvey, of London, was both thorough in his treatment of my book, and incredibly complementary toward it, calling it “something of a manifesto against all-or-nothing readings of both Augustine and Gunton.” Mission accomplished.
But that’s not the only reason for this post. If it were, I’d feel an uncomfortable proximity to this story from the Babylon Bee: “Christian Author Models Humility by Retweeting only 75% of Compliments.” (To be clear, that’s not me. I’ve reposted 100% of my positive reviews.)
Here’s the serious point: All of us who make things—whether art, or websites, or handcrafted Amish furniture—crave honest feedback on our work. We need it. Yet the process of being critiqued is scary. Indeed, at the popular level, this is truer than ever, especially in the age of that dreaded invention: the “internet comment box” (acceptable literal translation of the Greek word “Gehenna”).
Sadly, in our culture, the thoughtful summation and evaluation of ideas is increasingly replaced by bombastic rhetoric, and a desire to distort others in exchange for points in a game that doesn’t actually exist. Of course, this also happens in academia (just with better grammar), but perhaps there are some lessons that the internet, or the world at large, could learn from the more cordial world of academic journal book reviews.
None of these are creative, but they are important:
Before responding, try to understand.
This should be a no-brainer, but alas it is not. To understand takes time. And we feel dangerously short on that. After all, there are viral videos to watch. No need to read the article; just post a comment. It avoids the hassle of actually thinking.
When interacting, we should be able to summarize another’s argument so accurately that they will at least know that they’ve been heard. One thing I appreciated about Harvey’s review, apart from the positive comments, is that he had obviously read my book, and then accurately represented it. The alternative is called “bearing false witness,” and it is a sin regardless of how many “likes” you get for doing it.
Almost every academic review finds something to affirm. I even read one that praised the quality of the pages and book binding. (Not a joke.) Some of this is mere politeness, but imagine how different our political or social discussions would be if we implemented this approach. Maybe I can’t agree with the economic policies of, say, Bernie Sanders, but I can at least affirm that he believes them, and that he feels a moral obligation to follow through on them. That’s more than I suspect of many candidates. (FYI: Don’t take that as an endorsement.)
Critique the idea, not the person.
Some ideas deserve to get hammered. And there is even a place for satire and sharp retort. Just read the Hebrew Prophets. Moreover, when someone’s rhetoric has become dangerous or abusive, they deserve to be lambasted and even lampooned (see here).
Yet a further point that book reviews tend to model well is the general rule that we ought to critique ideas, and not people. To thoughtful observers, ad hominems reflect more poorly on the speaker than the target. And when the Bible calls us to “Judge not” it is often speaking of the unseen motives of another heart. We can’t know those. So we shouldn’t presume. Colin Gunton called this “the disgraceful Freudianizing of one’s opponents.” And he was right.
Recognize that flawed ideas are sometimes the most interesting, and the most needed.
Boredom is a form of evil. And when arguments persist in hugging the shallows of conventional wisdom, that’s what they are—boring. In my own field, some of the most needed and interesting works have been deeply flawed. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor is a prime example. The history is reductionistic, and the theological implications are dubious at certain points. Yet it was sorely needed. Despite weaknesses, it awakened scholars to a neglected theme of the atonement (Christ’s victory over the forces of evil), and that was what mattered.
A work can be manifestly flawed in certain ways, and yet profoundly helpful in others. Thus we must move beyond the gladiatorial options of “thumbs up” (winner!) or “thumbs down” (kill him!). Caesar did that. And he’s not Lord.
In the end, I’m glad for a positive review. But I’m even more thankful that someone took the time to model the above points. May we do likewise.