04 July 2012

Against Term Papers as Books

by Frank Turk

Let me just put it this way.  This:



could have been a great book.  By "Great Book," I do not mean, "an entertaining read."  I mean, "a book like Mere Christianity."  

Matt Anderson is a fellow blogger, and he graduated from Biola's Torrey Honors Institute in 2004.  He spent a year at Oxford, and now -- get this -- he's the guy at the Journey in St. Louis (Darrin Patrick's bishopric) who is making sure they are teaching in an orthodox way in Sunday School.  And this book is supposed to "explore how our bodies interact with our faith," tracking how Christians have historically dealt with this issue as they engaged their culture, and how God brings life to our dry bones in faith. (that's a paraphrase of the back-cover blurb)  The subject matter is categorically-relevant to our culture.  We are a post-modern people, and to us, experience is everything and pragmatism rules.  In some sense for us, unless it either has a body or makes a difference to our own body, a thing can be dismissed.


And Matt is a bright guy.  His intellectual fire power is so great, I was really hoping that he would, in a manner of speaking, split the atom of apologetics in a popular style so that the resulting blast would have taken out all the trite babbling which passes for spiritual writing on the subject.  I was hoping for a practical theological mushroom cloud which would rattle the popular discussion.

There were only two or three people when I was writing at "Evangel" over at First Things who I would hope to see posts from, and Matthew Lee Anderson was one of them.  He's not a plodding theological android who says plainly-obvious things in a non-offensive way: he's a bright fellow who has a deep liberal education, and he writes like someone who is really there, really in the middle of the intellectual playing field when he's blogging.

So when I found out he had written a book for Bethany House about being flesh and blood people with a real faith, I wanted to read it.  In fact, I wanted to read it and have my wife read it so that I would have a chaperone to make sure I didn't gush about it in an unwarranted way.

Unfortunately, after it arrived, well, I didn't even want to review it.  I put it on my bookshelf and moved on to other things.

Now: fair enough.  That's what happens when you get books to review: some of them you simply can't review.  Here at TeamPyro, I admit we don't review most of the books that come across the mailbox mostly because they are rather mundane.  It's not like every book written ought to be nominated for an award -- this isn't kids' soccer.  What I don't want to do as a blogger is invest in the time to write three pages about something which can be distilled into the single sentence, "You don't have to read this book after reading this review because it has already taken up too much of you time."

No offense to anybody, OK?  But I already have a reputation of being a barbarian and a predatory writer of invective-filled screed.  If I published book reviews about every tome that gets sent to me, my reputation would be 10,000 times worse.  Let's face it: books are like anything else.  They fall on a bell curve, and most books are in the bulging middle of mediocrity -- probably just good enough to get published at all, but they also probably will not survive into the next decade, let alone survive into the next generation.

What I expected from Matthew's book was a winner -- something in the 90th percentile or better.  Instead, what I found was a book that was too high-minded to apply to real life, and too confused to actually get the reader anywhere.  For example, in Chapter 2, which started strong with an honest belly-laugh about Precious Moments figurines that was leveraged into an interesting lead-in to the lack of Evangelical understanding of ourselves and the secular playing field, we get an analysis of the philosophical problems of Evangelicals as they relate to their critics and the arena in which they will engage them which is both overly-dense (with words) and also uninteresting, uncompelling.  Yet, later in Chapter 7, Matthews starts his analysis of the Christian treatment of sex in our culture by saying, "If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning."  How the engagement in Chapter 2 can result in the triumphalism in Chapter 7 is inexplicable.

The juxtaposition is almost embarrassing, as if the book didn't have an editor to keep it between the ditches. It would not have taken much at all to prove out the solid thesis of Chapter 2 with examples of how Evangelicals -- even prior to 2010 when Matt wrote this book -- constantly fumble the ball on sex and sexuality to the extent that we are literally losing the culture war on sex, marriage, and family.  To say that we are somehow a superpower in the sexual arms race when one has already establish how inept we are at engaging unbelievers is, frankly, just sloppy.

Let me say this plainly: we need a great book that addresses the problem that our Christianity is both kitschy and removed from the real world; we need a great book that talks about the connection between creation and incarnation in the spiritual life of man which doles out Christian theology and wisdom; we need a working creed which we can use to teach people that being good neighbors is actually a foundational mode of Gospel proclamation -- especially in this world where people think they can be friends across the virtual divide without ever seeing each other; we need an apologetic that covers both tattoos and sex without retreating to mores and modes of social discourse from the 19th century;  we need to understand the church as a body full of bodies.  In short: we needed the book Matt set out to write.

Unfortunately, he never wrote the book we needed.  He wrote the book I received -- which advertised the menu above in the table of contents, but delivered a lunch in a sack rather than five courses and a satisfying dessert.

It's at this point that the reader of this review has to ask herself, "why would Frank write this review?  If he hated this book so much, why should he, a year after it came out, savage it like Rex Reed vilifying a rookie kid from Minnesota who had the audacity to present herself in cabaret at Cafe Carlyle?"



Simple: I think Matthew's book deserves more attention than it got -- either from people who can grind down on it and cause him (or someone else) to do better the next time, or from people who ought to have taken this book up as a helpful starting place for a new level of engagement with the secular arena.  It's my aim to make someone either defend Matthew's book from the vile likes of me, or to say it publicly that even though this book is a failure, we need someone else to try and write it until we get it right.

Because let's be clear about something as I close up here: we should all be sick and tired of hearing about and reading books which, frankly, make the Gospel into a logical or scholastic exercise, or are only reporting facts about bible-based theology.  We should protest against receiving another book which has the same term paper format and no connection to the life of the reader. Isn't the Gospel the foundational truth of life even in the secular workplace, even in the grocery store, even in your yard when you cut the grass?  Then why are Christian books -- even books like this one written by well-read people -- written like they were mandatory book reports to get a passing grade?  The Gospel is not a syllabus.  The Gospel is not a curriculum.  The Gospel is about God taking on flesh to save His fleshy creations from their own fleshly desires - and when God talks about what it means to believe that, He uses stories about people who did things with their bodies that, frankly, put all the cultures of the world to shame.  Some of those people even saw themselves as filling up what was lacking in the wounds of Christ for the sake of people not yet saved.  If in fact one believed the thesis of Earthen Vessels, you would think he would write in a little more convicting and actionable way.[1]

There is something brilliant in God's intention to use earthen vessels for the sake of His Glory and His Honor, and we ought to be able to say something about that which makes people want to taste and see the goodness of Him.  And when we talk about it, it should't be boring or confusing: it should be great and gripping.

Maybe the next guy will get it right.







[1] As we say in these here parts, "AHA!"  After talking with Matt after posting this, he reads these last to sentences to call into question his good faith and good intentions. Let me say this plainly: no one should doubt Matthew Lee Anderson's good faith, or his real belief in the theses in his book.  My intention was to say that believing it and then writing as if it was believed -- in a vital, gripping way which makes the reader want to take action -- are not the same thing even if they should be.  The writing was beneath the conviction.  However, since Matt found the way I said that to question his good faith, I offer the apology here were the reader can find it immediately for the sake of correction.


39 comments:

Frank Turk said...

YES! The first rating for this post is ONE STAR!

#WIN

Matthew Anderson said...

I just gave it five, Frank! You know, for kids!

For any readers who might care, I'll respond to the book at my blog (mereorthodoxy.com), where I've been recently engaged in....polemics against the failures of the evangelical sexual culture.

Squaring every circle he sees,

Matt

Frank Turk said...

And another thing, while nobody else is commenting:

We should also be embarrassed by the system of publishing which solicits perfunctory endorsements by all sorts of Top Men for books which, let's face it, only have that going for them.

Gary Taubes has written a book called "Why We Get Fat," and right now Amazon.com says that book is the #7 best-selling book of all books in English right now, and he has no endorsements -- only the reviews published by secular sources. And that book, frankly, isn't a world-changing book.

Where are the books from Christians that are actually as compelling as Taubes book about the subject that does actually change the world?

Frank Turk said...

Matthew's going to publish a response to this review.

We'll see if its more engaging and consistent than the book ...

#cheapShot

Johnny Dialectic said...

Hm, I liked this a bit more than you did. For example, I didn't find Ch. 2 to be so problematic. What is the style here? It's that zone between popular and academic, the sort of IVP, Brazos Press kind of book. Yes, I do agree that sometimes a bright guy can be tempted to toss in verbiage that tends to be a little to insular, eg. One man's syncretism is another man's batpism. That smacks a bit of trying to hard. But all in all I liked the chapter as a whole, esp. the last two paragraphs.

Nor did I see any real contradiction in its juxtaposition with Ch. 7. In fact, on the page just after the one you cite, he says that for all evangelical efforts to understand sexuality, such understanding "still does not go very deep." And we are "closer to treating sexual pleasure as an idol than we have ever been to treating it as a curse." This does not sound like triumphalism to me.

It's not a home run, but neither is it a strike out. I like Mr. Anderson's attempt here, and look forward to what he does in the future.

Frank Turk said...

I'm keeping my powder dry until Matthew posts his response.

Rachael Starke said...

Oh my goodness - you mean you weren't kidding about the savage beating??? Sheesh.

If I argued back that Matt's book is more about starting a conversation at the right place, than arriving at a definitive apologia,

that would hardly commend it further to this crowd. :)

But I think that's what he does. And really, really well.

Now I have to go back and reread it to find all the other reasons you're wrong about it.

The rest of of you should get a copy to help me out.

Rachael Starke said...

@Johnny D -

I've read enough of Matt's writing to know that those kinds of phrases aren't affectations - they're the way he writes. Because that's the way he thinks. Because he's that brilliant.

If he was around thirty years older, with a church and college in a town with a Russian name in the middle of Idaho, we'd racing to sign up for his Twitter feed.

Frank Turk said...

I'm offended for Doug Wilson's sake.

Kerry James Allen said...

That wasn't Doug Wilson's photo Frank included with the article?

Frank Turk said...

doh!

DJP said...

I'm sniffing a future book-project between Rachael Starke and Bobby Grow.

o_O

Frank Turk said...

DJP:

Let's be careful not to scare off one of our true blue fans here.

Dave .... said...

I've given up reading "new" books. Frank, your review echos how I feel most of the time when I read contemporary Christian (and "christian") authors. Thank you, not so much for calling out this particular book, but for excoriating its genre. Not everybody should write a book.

Nash Equilibrium said...

I don't even wqant to know what "batpism" is. It sure conjures up some bad images.

Frank Turk said...

Dave:

That's a thought-provoking comment. My view of it is that everyone who can write a book and wants to should go for it -- and if it gets published, super.

The question I think I was covering here is what constitutes a great book -- one which is doing more than keeping the catalog of the publisher fresh.

Frank Turk said...

Since everyone is waking up from their holiday today, let me simply corral some of the reactionary stuff before it his the comment stream here:

1. What is my personal opinion of Matt Anderson? I say it clearly in this piece, and if you can't quote that, you probably can't really grasp my criticism here.

2. What is my key criticism of Matt's book? I also say that clearly at least twice, and if you can't at least paraphrase my criticism, you probably shouldn't tell me what a bad man I am.

3. What is my understanding of my own reputation on the internet as stated in this article? Why did that hold me off from writing a review of Matt's book? Again: if you don't undertsand that, your opinion of my review or my opinion of Matt's book is underinformed, to say the least.

As they say in Soccer, play on.

DJP said...

Nash, you're a bad man. I thought it was kind of a cool word. It needs to mean something.

Though I can't deny your observation...

Nash Equilibrium said...

lol

Robert said...

Nash,

Don't you know? It is just another slick advertising ploy for The Dark Night series. Surely you didn't think the pyros were exempt?

As for the content of the post, I agree with Frank that somebody needs to deal with this topic in a manner that is fit for the layman and works through the complexity of the issues involved. I certainly hope that this can serve as encouragement for somebody to do just that. And really, it could just be done from the context of journalling through the daily life of a Christian over a length of time...at least if they are interacting with the world around them as lights shining in the world.

Matthew Anderson said...

In case it's not patently obvious, "batpism" is Johnny Dialectic's typo....not mine.

But as Frank says, "play on." My reply will come next week.

Dave .... said...

Frank, maybe publishers are the problem! And the gushy endorsers. I have had a string of bad reads lately so I'm sticking with "old" books for a while. The fresh winners have usually been recommended by trusted friends and bloggers. And your allusion to kids soccer is apt. I'm afraid that we might have to look above the 90th percentile for a good read in contemporary publishing. Selah.

CGrim said...

The genre I want to see an end of:

"...how an ordinary wife, mother, and coupon-clipping blogger from the Bible belt learned to embrace her doubts, question her faith, and in the process fall in love with God all over again..." or similar.

The Damer said...

I'm compelled enough to want to line Matt's pockets with a few pennies from Amazon. I'd like to be able to follow along as this conversation evolves.

I do also want to be batpized by immersion.

Kerry James Allen said...

OK Frank, if that photo wasn't Doug Wilson, was it Spurgeon from "The Buffet Years?"

Nash Equilibrium said...

Too many Scottish church potlucks?

Vic Edwards said...

Just one obscure comment. I was struck by your reference to the fact that the Gospel is the Gospel even "when you are mowing the lawn." When I mow my lawn, I often contemplate the deep things of God, and sense His presence as I mow just as much as when I am in my study.

Victor Edwards, Pastor
Spurgeon Heritage Church
Holland, MI

Morris Brooks said...

Frank,
In all seriousness, I can think of no one better to write "that" book than you.

Morris

Kerry James Allen said...

I must admit I have a degree of envy for a guy who pastors the Spurgeon Heritage Church, and located in the TULIP capital of the world, Holland, MI!

Frank Turk said...

Morris --

I am a menace and I must be stopped.

Johnny Dialectic said...

I am a menace and I must be stopped.

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Morris Brooks said...

Well, sometimes the menace needs to be encouraged to be more menacing.

Riekeant said...

After reading this article and these comments, this is now my favorite website. I'm going to have to get this book now just to see what you are talking about. It's interesting that the article I originally read that got me here was titled The Myth of “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” I clicked on an add in the sidebar and am now I am blessed with these articles. Thank you guys, I was busting on the floor laughing.

Pastor Anthony Rieke
Knox Butte "Batpist" Church
Albany, OR

Chris Krycho said...

Uh... huh. Which book did you read, again? ;)

It's definitely not a piece of popular writing, I'll give you that. When I reviewed it myself, one of my comments was that it tends much more toward the academic than toward the conversation-starter with the normal crowd at church. (I didn't realize just how academic it was, though, until I gave it to a very sharp friend who doesn't read academic theology much at all, and discovered that he found it rough going.) But it was at least self-consistent. Matt's response highlights this, but you seriously misread Chapter 7, and I suspect therefore other parts of the book two. Evangelicals are triumphant, but our triumphalism damns us: we're winning the war of idolatry, not the war against idolatry (which was Matt's point, as I recall).

I agree that we could use a good, biting, funny, popular, Lewisian book for the masses, and that this book wasn't that. It did, however, jump start some good thought for people along the way (people like me) who've been interested in the topic and found other "evangelical" approaches to it rather lacking in, well, evangel. I already know and basically agree with how you feel about Foster and Willard, and seeing as they're the closest any evangelical has come to touching this at a popular level in the last quarter century... maybe Matt's book will be the impetus for someone to write the book you're looking for, because it was cogent and on-target and thought-provoking in all the right places. And it had the gospel in spades.

Also: what Rachael said. (Rachael, I'm always happy when I see one of your comments pop up anywhere on the interwebs. They always make me happy, and I nearly always agree with them.)

Oh, and Frank, lest you poke around and find me to be something of a gushing Matt Anderson fan - which I must admit to being - you should know: I'm a gushing Matt Anderson fan because of this book, not a fan of the book because of my liking of Matt.

Here's to more friendly curmudgeonly reviews, and also to curmudgeonly insistence that curmudgeonly reviews actually show evidence of understanding the book in question. God speed.

Chris Krycho said...

Ugh. Sorry about that second paragraph. It could use some more punctuation. It's been a long morning; perhaps I should have had more coffee?

Frank Turk said...

I think reading that book made you groggy.

:-)

Byron Borger said...

I hope you don't mind a guest adding a word here---you guys seem to be having a good time, and its good to see. I was taken aback, though, by Dave; you congratulated Frank for calling out this Anderson author, and declared he's now not going to read new books for a while. This strikes me as odd, at best, for a couple of reasons.

A guy is going to quit reading new books because he doesn't like some new books? And, in this case, because somebody else doesn't like a new book? I'd say, Dave, that it's fine to thank Frank for sharing his opinion, but it could be, you know, that's he's just wrong. Or overstated his case. Before you condemn the mediocrity of the book, maybe you should read it yourself. Or read some other views about it. I don't know, it just sounded a bit too trusting of this one cranky review.

(I would say, further, that one can have a grand time reading and thinking about a less than perfect book, even a deeply flawed one. Life's too short to spend much time with truly bad ones, stupid or inane or terribly written messes. Anderson's surely is not that bad. It just isn't. Is it worth your time? I'd say so. despite the bad review here.)

And, anyway, aren't there a lot of bad older books? Lewis was nearly wrong about that, I'd say. There are good books and bad books in every generation, and some good old books have gone out of print and some lesser ones have remained. And some were good, but are not so relevant today, and some current ones are less than ideal, but useful, still, for today. Choose old ones if you will, but it sounded weird to me, as if that will save the day and bring something (what?) back to your reading pleasures. Well, good luck with that.

Byron Borger said...

But three cheers for the guy who said he is going to now read the book, just to see if the review is right. That's the spirit! I'll admit I'm a bookseller and glad to see them being read.

Nobody said...

I hesitate to quibble about the interpretation of one sentence in the book, but since it's the only part of the book other than the back cover that's actually quoted in the review, Frank seems to appreciate quibbling.

The book's line "If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning" is taken to mean "that we are somehow a superpower in the sexual arms race" without a trace of the irony that seems essential to the original statement. But surely winning an arms race (nuclear or otherwise) implies paranoia and insecurity on the part of the "winners," making it an apt metaphor for the escalation of sexual discourse in evangelical circles.

Not sure if the sloppiness here is the book's failure to telegraph sarcasm when used or the reader's quaint assumption that winning an arms race is necessarily positive.