Peer-Review, Biblical Studies, and the Web (Skinner)

Peer ReviewLast week I published a post in which I questioned the role of online publications in academic monographs. I had just reviewed a very well-written and substantive monograph in which there were a number of footnotes containing web-based discussions. I was genuinely asking for the insight of scholars and students in the field because, as I admitted, I am still ambivalent about the practice. There was some good discussion on the blog and even more on my social media feeds. Later, James McGrath took up the question and generated further discussion both on his blog and on Facebook. It was interesting to read many of the comments, especially from those with hang-ups about peer review; funny how that topic found its way into the conversation. After reflecting on the whole experience over the past week I wanted to share several observations:

(1) First, suspicion of the critical expertise of those within the academic discipline of Biblical Studies is alive and well. I have dealt with said suspicion for a long time among people of faith. The “my-reading-is-every-bit-as-good-as-your-reading” mentality persists among lifelong readers of the Bible without any particular expertise in the field. To a certain degree I understand this mentality, even if I reject it. However, it’s one thing to have no exposure to the critical discussions in a field of study and it’s completely different to have broad awareness of those issues (even if limited expertise). Against that backdrop, I was surprised at some (e.g., pastors, seminarians, grad students, etc.) who have at least a general awareness of the critical issues in our field who seemed to be suspicious of peer review. This leads me to my second observation.

(2) For better of worse, the web, and in particular, the blogosphere has become a democratized space where everyone’s view is regarded as equal and many voices, including those without credentials are given a credence they have neither earned nor deserve. Do a search among blogs with a focus on the Bible. They are ubiquitous and they run the gamut. You have seniors scholars whose opinions carry tremendous weight, blogs run by junior scholars still trying to establish their voice(s) in the field, and even still blogs that are run by pastors, recent seminary grads, current seminary students, and even undergraduates. Everyone loves to talk about the Bible and while not everyone’s take is rooted in what specialists might consider an “expert opinion,” the ability to push “publish” has created a scenario in which everyone’s opinion is treated as if on an equal plane. (For the record, I’m not frowning on any of these attempts at blogging or finding one’s voice. My concern is the all-too-common, “well that’s just your opinion” response.)

(3) By and large, those who appear to reject peer review or find it objectionable seem to be those who want a broad hearing for their ideas but aren’t willing or don’t regularly subject their work to peer review. Here’s a fact we cannot get around: not everyone interested in a given field of study can, is, or will be considered an expert in that field. Further,  not every idea is worthy of being considered or taken seriously.

Quite frankly, anyone (and I do mean ANYONE) can publish anything (and I do mean ANYTHING) on the internet. Peer review is not perfect. It is neither an exact science nor free from bias, but neither is it is completely arbitrary. While peer review may not guarantee quality in every case, it remains the necessary gate-keeping mechanism within academic biblical studies and should not be jettisoned. I’m frankly surprised we even need to have this conversation.

My book reviewed in Interpretation

Today I ran across Susan Hylen‘s review of my book, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict? in the most recent fascicle of Interpretation (65 [2011]: 311). Susan teaches at Vanderbilt and I got a chance to meet and hang out with her a little bit at last year’s SBL in Atlanta. She wrote an excellent little book (which I highly recommend) called Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John, that was published right around the same time as my book. I am also pleased to note that she is contributing to a book on Johanine characterization I’m editing with the Library of New Testament Studies (slated for Fall 2012).

Anyway, in her review, which is generally quite positive, she writes:

Skinner’s work is a useful reminder that scholar’s who engage in constructing a history of the early church often neglect complex literary questions. . . .For those interested in characterization, Skinner’s interpretations of Thomas and Peter are the most developed of the characters he treats. He suggests that Peter and Thomas are characterized similarly: both characters show significant misunderstandin, but are rehabilitated in the end. . . . The book’s strengths are Skinner’s reading of Thomas’ character, and the resulting contribution to the question of conflict between the Gospels.

Hylen does take me to task for spending too much time on traditional exegetical questions while not attending as carefully to issues of characterization. I have two responses to her critique. First, it was a dissertation and that’s what my committee wanted to see. Second, since I was trying to enter a historical-critical debate using narrative-critical exegesis, I wanted to spend as much space possible examining the entire text.

Overall, I am appreciative of Hylen’s careful reading of my book. I’m also glad that she seems to have understood what I was trying to do (unlike, I believe, Stevan Davies, who gave me a less than flattering review in CBQ).

Reviews of my book

Since the last time I sat down to think seriously about my blog I have read three critical reviews of my book, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict?, and I wanted to interact briefly with those reviews here on the blog.

The first review appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and was reviewed by Timothy Wiarda of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Wiarda was generally sympathetic to my thesis, commenting that my exegesis is judicious and that my attempt to refute “one of the main pillars of the community-conflict hypothesis must be judged a success” (p. 652). He seems to get what I’m trying to do, though there are times when his presuppositions lead him to question a particular exegetical assertion I have made. This happens to us all, doesn’t it? I tell my students that often, what we bring to a text is more determinative in the interpretive process than what the text presents to us. Still, Wiarda’s review is positive and it was good to see that the first reviewer received the book without deciding to use it as a doorstop!

The second review appeared in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and was reviewed by Stevan Davies of Misericordia University. I have interacted some with Steve on this blog and have always appreciated his work. In fact, in my forthcoming book on Thomas, the first extended quotation belongs to him. I read his review with some excitement and was surprised by the largely dismissive tone Steve takes throughout the review. Not only has he (apparently) failed to grasp the narrative method I’m seeking to employ (which is spelled out at great length in Chapter Two), his review makes it sound as if he did not even read that chapter. As a specialist in Thomasine studies, he understandably agreed to review the book with the hopes that it would shed more light on the Gospel of Thomas than it actually does. Though you should never judge a book by its cover, the subtitle of the book, Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question, does shed some light on the dominant emphasis of the book. Inexplicably, Steve also left the subtitle of the book out of the review’s citation(?). To me, that would have been helpful for any reader of the review to understand a little more about my purpose in the book. Again, I’m not sure Steve really understood what I was trying to do.  He closes the review by commenting that while “this book may be a contribution to Johannine studies, it is not very much of a contribution to Thomasine studies” (p. 175). This is a fair criticism, but it’s a criticism that speaks more to his expectations of the book prior to reading it than it does to my stated purpose for the book. My main goal was to examine Johannine characters with a view to shedding light on the Thomas issue. That is explicitly stated in the book’s introductory chapter!

The third review was written by Susan Hylen of Vanderbilt University for the journal Interpretation. The review has not yet been published but Susan was kind enough to send me a copy in advance. Like Wiarda, Hylen is sympathetic to my thesis and complementary of my exegesis, though she comments that she would like to see more of a specific focus on issues of Johannine characterization and less emphasis on narrative exegesis. She writes: “Skinner’s work is a useful reminder that scholars who engage in constructing a history of the early church often neglect complex literary questions,” but then expresses some concern that I have not provided an alternative theory for the relationship between John and Thomas

These reviews point out limitations that are probably to be expected of most published dissertations. They also raise prospects for future explorations. I am very thankful for all three reviews. Each reviewer spent time interacting with my thesis and providing critical reflections. It is certainly better to be critiqued than to be ignored altogether. Overall this was a positive first experience with peer review. I found it interesting that two journals sent my book to individuals with interests in questions of Johannine exegesis and characterization, while the third sent it to a scholar who specializes in Gospel of Thomas research. It’s even more interesting that the Johannine specialists found it helpful while the Thomasine specialist found it lacking.

I await further review and more opportunities for reflection. . . .