January 21, 2008
Blogging Back to Reviewers
Pete Enns, one of the editors of our forthcoming Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, started a blog recently, and he has, among other things, put it to good use in responding to some of the reviewers of his Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005).
I think blogs are a good vehicle for authors to respond to reviewers, particularly those who take them to task. In the past an author’s best recourse was to try to get a response published in a journal or in a letter to the editor. But in this case the author is totally at the mercy of the journal editor, the word limit is often restrictive and the results can be unsatisfactory. Authors shouldn’t give up on this strategy, of course. But increasingly authors are setting up blogs to promote their books—a very effective tool!—and readers are increasingly on the lookout for an author’s blogsite. So responses to reviewers, particularly when a book is controversial, are likely to be read, linked and swept up into the discussion or debate. It is just one more example of the way the internet provides ways of bypassing conventional gatekeepers (like me!).
I like the way Pete quotes the full text of his reviewer and interjects his comments/responses in red (or the color of your choice!). He is courteous but at the same time he does not hesitate to state his mind or express his bewilderment at how he is being interpreted. And he offers his responses at critical points.
Paul Helm is the reviewer in view, a sort of philosopher of religion cum theologian. But not a biblical scholar. The latter fact becomes painfully—or puzzlingly—evident as one reads the review. I have always thought highly of Helm. But he was not the right person for this review. And what is most annoying is that he seems to take a most uncharitable reading of Enns and to run with it. I have read Pete’s book, and discussed it and related themes with him several times. I’ve also sat through an extended ETS panel discussion of the book. And I just can’t see how one can come to the conclusions that Helm does. This may be because I’m of much the same mind as Pete.
I am dismayed by Helm’s apparent difficulty in understanding why the phenomena of Scripture should play a role in arriving at a doctrine of Scripture. Surely the phenomena tell us something about the means God was pleased to use and offer us an avenue for understanding what “God-breathed” might mean. Helm seems way too much Warfield and not enough Orr. But that’s not all; one gets the impression that Helm just doesn’t understand the issues that a contemporary evangelical OT scholar brings to the table. What will it take to correct this situation in which we talk past each other? Well, one way is not to allow reviews to go unanswered by authors. (In general we don’t think it wise for the publisher to perform this task.)
This whole issue reminds me of something I face constantly as an editor: what a terribly difficult thing it can be to communicate clearly one’s ideas, particularly on a complex and contested subject. You, the author, think you’ve “got it nailed” in clearly expressing your ideas. But readers can discombobulate your words and intent in utterly unpredictable ways. And too often in the past one has been left with little remedy for correcting the situation. Maybe the blog offers at least a fifty-percent solution.
But let me leave you with an upbeat example of an author and respondents. Author A wrote a book on a sensitive topic, taking a venturesome position. Author A is a very clear thinker and writer who takes great pains to achieve clarity. I know. I was his editor. Authors X, Y and Z decided to write a book taking a very different position from Author A, and to critique Author A’s view in the process. However, Authors X, Y and Z sent their manuscript to Author A to make sure they had understood him correctly. It turned out that on certain critical points they had not, and Author A graciously but pointedly noted where and in what ways they had misunderstood him, and went on to clarify his argument. In this interchange both sides conducted themselves with respect and Christian charity. I don’t know how the book will turn out. I wasn’t the editor for the book by X, Y and Z, just an observer. But they did it right. I was impressed. No, I was delighted. In fact, I wanted to hug them all! (And that, if you know me, would be quite out of character.)
By the way, for a new (or a refurbishing of an older) proposal for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture, look for A. T. B. McGowan’s forthcoming book, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture (IVP Academic, 2008; published as The Divine Spiration of Scripture in the U.K.).