The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.

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20 thoughts on “The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

  1. I really enjoyed this post. One statement in particular stands out to me: “Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar.” I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment. It makes it seem like evangelical authors have to combine their powers in order to defeat one villain (a la Voltron, Captain Planet, Avengers, etc.). I think this continues to serve the general, non-evangelical world in their accusations that no real, substantive scholarship can be done from evangelical camps. Not to mention it gives the impression of ganging up on one specific author, allowing more negative perceptions to percolate against evangelical scholars.

  2. One of the things I’ve read online about the Ehrman response book is about its origins – that Mike Bird thought such a response book would be good to put in the hands of Christians who might be alarmed by Ehrman’s claims. In this respect, the concern for me is that the faith of so many people within the Church is easily and instantly shaken. Would it not be sensible for local churches, or groups of local churches, to have regular study days (or whatever) to explore such things so that the faithful aren’t battered or unsettled every time the latest ‘real Jesus’ book is released? (I’m sure many do already.)

    On the other hand, it seems to me that throughout history, Christian ministers have publicly rebutted what they perceive to misrepresentations of Jesus. Isn’t HGBJ simply the latest in a long line of responses going back at least as far as Paul’s letter to the Galatians?

    1. Terry, this has always bothered me….one domino falls and all of a sudden everyone panics. It’s like the faith construct is a big Jenga board and everyone’s always waiting for the tower to fall. Also, you make a perceptive comment at the end of your response about this lines of responses going back to Galatians. I agree. Thanks for reading!

  3. (1) Bird, Gathercole, Evans, Hill, and Tilling do far more than just react and respond. Just 6 months ago, Bird published his own 800 page Biblical Theology. Evans has too many publications to list. Hill and Gathercole each have very significant publications of their own, and recent ones. Tilling is the newer kid, but even he published his own Pauline Christology. To label these 5 as merely reactionary writers is a gross disservice to their careers. Search their names at Amazon.com and see for yourself.

    (2) Ehrman says he spent 8 years putting his book together. Bird’s crew didn’t want to wait years or even months to respond. All of them are engaged in other research projects. Easier to have 5 contribute together than wait a while for any one of them to respond.

    (3) Fear? If you think a significant scholar is wrong in some significant ways, it’s good and expected in academia to respond. Fear would be to not respond.

    (4) Again, read some of the things by Bird, Gathercole, Evans, Hill, and Tilling. Some might disagree, but many find their work interesting, creative, constructive, and worthy of attention. Just 3 months ago, Evans published From Jesus to Church dealing with the thorny issue if Jesus intended to establish the church or not.

    Be sure to read Hill and company. They make careful and important critiques of some of Ehrman’s views, and not as mere apologetic idlespeak. They are worthy of more consideration than a dismissive blogpost from someone who has not even read their book implies.

    1. I would encourage you to go back and read my post. It’s clear that you didn’t pay attention when I said how I not only know some of these guys, but respect them all. I am speaking more about the culture of evangelical scholarship. I will read both books when the arrive. For now, you should consider reading my post again. My post is not “dismissive” (as you suggest), but rather descriptive of an academic subculture. And for the record, I have read a great deal of the work of Evans, Bird, and Gathercole. These names are not new to me.

      1. I did read what you said, but if you intend respect for them with your post, I doubt this is the kind of respect many scholars would want. You took the specific occasion of their publication to post all your criticisms of evangelical scholarship in general, which makes it seem like it is all directed towards them, whether you intended it that way or not. You do little in your remarks to separate your general criticisms from them specifically. Why not just wait and make substantive remarks about the content of their book instead.

  4. You know, I always thought that series of books “Against Eunomius” back in the day were pretty good as response books go. Thomas Aquinas’ disputation on the eternity of the world is not bad either.

  5. My point is that the “response book” phenomenon is neither particularly new nor uniquely evangelical. David Bentley Hart (Orthodox) and Edward Feser (Catholic) have both written response books to the new atheists. A recent-ish example of one atheist philosopher responding to another would be Jerry Fodor’s The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way, written in response to How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.

    1. Nathanael, while you do make a good point about the historical precedent, you should ask yourself, “Is there another sub-culture within the various fields of academic inquiry that reacts THIS OFTEN in a posture of ‘response'”? There may be the occasional “dialogue” here and there (as you have noted), but if you are truly honest, you must admit that this approach is much more endemic to evangelical scholarship than just about anywhere else (and I speak as an insider, not an outsider).

  6. I like interaction. Eg., I like listening to debates. I also like books like “Four views on … (whatever)”. So I like the release of the 2 books at once. Ehrman and Gathercole debated last Saturday on “Unbelievable” (British Christian radio debate program – available as a podcast) and will do so again this Saturday. It’s pretty clear Ehrman enjoys interacting with his ‘ex-tribe’, the evangelicals, and I think it’s pretty clear that the simultaneous book debut was a co-ordinated effort by all involved (eg., access to manuscript, related publishers, etc.). I have no problem with this. None whatsoever. I think it’s actually a pretty smart marketing strategy by all involved. Kudos.

  7. Chris, thanks for these thoughts. The comments are equally interesting. It might be worth stating explicitly that these different perspectives on the value of a response book can find shared ground. That is, it can be the case that a response book is a brilliant publishing strategy in this case, that Ehrman’s arguments deserve interaction, AND that there are necessarily some downsides to the genre of a response book. That’s how I took your post anyway–not that there was nothing to be gained, but that there were some (perhaps unintended) negatives associated with these types of ventures as well.

  8. Chris–a thoughtful post as always. I think there’s a lot of truth in each of your four general criticisms–though, as at least one commenter has pointed out here, those critiques may not be applicable to this particular volume. But something I don’t see in your post or in the comments is an exploration of why orthodox Christian scholars so often find themselves posting “responses.” I would have to think further about this idea before full endorsing it, but it struck me that one defense of the “response” language would be to appeal to a historical fact: most of the church’s seminal creeds and confessions have been written as responses–and conversely, many of the instances of “originality” in theological development have fallen somewhere along the spectrum from unhelpful novelty to downright heresy–and therefore of course called for orthodox responses. While not much of a church historian, I think I’m standing on relatively solid, mainstream historical-theological ground in saying this.

    This reality in no way precludes other constructive work–the sort of work all the scholars involved in these “responses” work on regularly. I don’t think you’re suggesting that “responses” can’t be “constructive,” but if you are I think that’s a false dichotomy. I would absolutely welcome the continued submission of responses to all sorts of biblical scholarship–responses done by those scholars standing firmly within confessional Christian traditions. Though on occasion I could do without the cheesy titles …

    1. Clay,

      This is a thoughtful and articulate critique….but I would expect nothing less from you! You are correct about the history of orthodoxy largely being a history of “responses.” I would also say that, for the most part, “orthodoxy” has been defined for centuries, so we are not really fighting those same battles anymore. Also, I do think responses are helpful and, at times, quite necessary. My bigger beef is with the culture of evangelicalism that uses reaction and response as its stock-in-trade. One (very relevant and very recent) example of this posture can be witnessed in all of the reactions to the Noah movie. The argument is that too much “license” was taken with the biblical text. Well sure, if the movie was just the biblical text as narrated, the movie would be extremely boring and Noah would never speak!! 🙂

      Thanks for weighing in. Hope you’re well.

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