I felt butterflies in my stomach as I happened accidentally upon what I think is the first published review of my monograph, Worship That Makes Sense to Paul (de Gruyter, 2010) by Jane Heath (Aberdeen) in Expository Times. Typically, ExT reviews are quite short, but Dr. Heath did invest quite a bit of time and space in this review, and for that I am thankful. She offers praise and criticism, but overall I felt she found the work disappointing. I thought I would take a chance to process her analysis and provide some reflections of my own on her review.
First of all, it is a very humbling thing to read someone criticize your own work in print. This has made me more cautious and circumspect when I write reviews, online or in print. This is all-the-more important when it comes to short reviews when you don’t have the space to flesh out the criticism and support it.
Below I will paraphrase or quote from Dr. Heath’s review, and then offer my own responses.
She begins this way: “This revised dissertation reads like a PhD thesis that is ambitious and full of ideas, but never quite shakes itself free of the faults characteristic of the genre, such as a lapidary structure, a plethora of obfuscatory theories, and overdetermined conclusions…”
Wow. I think she is getting at the point that I fell into the trap of many dissertations of my research being over-ambitious, but I think her own remarks are overdrawn. From my dissertation, I published something like 5-6 articles in order to safeguard my dissertation from precisely what Heath suggests – and with good journals such as The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. She certainly must also recognize that this went through quite an academic process, beginning with the supervision of John Barclay and Stephen Barton, passed through Simon Gathercole and Francis Watson, and was “accepted” into the BZNW series. I am not trying to pat myself on the back. I am simply pointing out that dissertation monographs, by virtue of their process of development, deserve some respect for things like “discipline-standard” quality. Also, I looked up “lapidary” in three different dictionaries and I still don’t know what it means metaphorically (even OED doesn’t have a figurative use listed for it – unless she means I get excited about rocks).
One thing I point out in my book Prepare, Succeed, Advance, is that there are two main approaches to major studies – inductive and deductive (as I learned from D.A. Carson). Inductive studies make one major point and work full-force to prove it. Deductive studies seek to flesh out a theme or concept or idea, and conclusions may be numerous. You simply must report your findings. You want it to be original, but you must not try to force it into anything it is not. For Heath to question my work as essentially unwieldly is, I think, to give “deductive” expectations to an “inductive” study. I wonder what Heath might say about P.T. O’Brien’s acclaimed Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul? I am not saying I am like O’Brien, I am making a point about the flexibility of the “dissertation” genre.
“At times it is repetitive and hard to follow, seeking to prove too much from the cultic metaphors.”
Fair enough. As far as over-reaching, my method (as Heath even acknowledges) works with categories of possibility and probability. Also, even though I offer numerous exegetical findings, I streamline the three key ones that serve the wider “coherence” of Paul’s cultic metaphors in the three main synthesis chapters at the end. Sadly, she does not mention these chapters, which I think are the heart of the book. Am I being too generous to myself to say that when someone thinks a book is doing too much or is over-reaching, that could be personality? I think of the famous Barclay-Wright debate on Paul and Empire whenWright said, at one point, “Maybe this is all just a matter of me being a maximalist and you being a minimalist” (to which Barclay responded with something like, “I don’t want to be put on a continuum with you!”). Maybe I am a maximalist and Heath is a minimalist. How do you criticize in this case? How do you accept a criticism in this area?
The book interacts with rather too many theories, especially theories of metaphor and theories of cult, but also many others that touch on these.”
What I find unusual about this comment is that all of this appears in my “methodology” chapter and normally PhDs are criticized for being too soft of method. I wanted it to be rigorous and as exhaustive as my 100,000 words could bear. This was an emphasis of my supervisors (at my initial protest), but I won’t back down from this. I looked into many dissertations that used conceptual metaphor theory, and I felt that what I did was pretty standard. I could be wrong, but I wanted that chapter to be a good resource. I won’t take this as a legitimate criticism in the end. Engaging in many “theories” is not bad, but maybe just distracting. I knew, because this study was inductive, that it would be used more as a resource than read cover-to-cover, which a reviewer must do. Thus, she has to endure (page after page) what most readers would not. Again, point taken, but I don’t think I would change this.
Heath challenges my title “Worship that makes sense” (which is a paragraph of Rom 12:1b, logike latreia): “LOGIKOS is not primarily an epistemological term; unlike Greek philosophers, Paul never refers to EPISTEME, let alone idealises it. The LOGOS that he implies in LOGIKE LATRIEA recalls the Stoic LOGOS, which is a divine principle manifest in the world. The apostle’s expression encourages not so much worship that makes sense to Paul, as worship that is submissive to and wholly conformed to the divine activity and will manifest in creation…”
Huh? Heath is arguing that Paul is borrowing Stoic thought. What she doesn’t say is that this is a highly contested point and yet she seems to be selling the Stoic LOGOS background as if it were self-evident. It is not! I got the idea for this paraphrase from Gordon Fee and Douglas Moo, both people that “should know better” if LOGIKE had no epistemological sense to it. One thing I argue in my own exegetical work (in articles and in teaching) is that words have denotation and connotation. Heath is presuming a limited denotation of LOGIKE. I looked at it as a very ambigious or poly-semantic word (which I don’t think is in doubt) and that Romans itself should help us determine what Paul means, once a basic range of meaning is open.
BDAG: “pert. to being carefully thought through, thoughtful” – later BDAG lists Romans 12:1 and argues that here it has a “cognitive aspect” proven by the trajectory of thought moving into Romans 12:2.
Again, not that I am just saying – Look! Someone agrees with me! I merely want to point out that Heath should probably steer clear of commenting in a short review on an issue that she cannot resolve in a few sentences by pointing to the definitive truth of a Stoic background. I was drawing largely off of the literary context of Romans, Heath on the cultural use of LOGIKE. I don’t think it is wise to suggest her approach is more secure. Best to have used a different example. I don’t disagree with the wider meaning she gives to LOGIKE in Rom 12:1, but I don’t think the Stoics own that point either. I think it is very compatible with what I was arguing and could be situated within a cognitive framework.
I am thankful to have my book reviewed and I knew that it had flaws and some flimsy ideas here and there. I felt that Heath underplayed the three most important chapters of the book – she does not even mention them. To me, that either means that I was not clear enough (which could be true, but my conclusion highlights these three chapters), or Heath did not invest enough in the book as I would hoped. Perhaps what I have learned in this experience is that I will work harder in my own reviews to ensure that what I am saying is accurate and fair, and to identify flaws that are obvious and worth exposing.