Adam Omelianchuk on Rachel Held Evans; Me on Authority in Book Reviewing

Back in October, I put out a little statement on why I rarely participate in discussions of controversial theological books.  This was largely in response to the furore around Rachel Held Evans’s last book, which I haven’t read.  My friend Adam Omelianchuk has read Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and I find that he had a lot of interesting things to say about it.  I’ll cheat and skip to his conclusion, although you should read the whole thing if interested.

So what are to learn from Evans’s book? That the Bible is a complicated book and that if we stick the word “biblical” in front of chosen topic we are inevitably selective and ignore passages that make trouble for our favored opinion. As much as I can sympathize with this point, it is somewhat banal. Whenever one engages the process of interpretation of Scripture, it is inevitable that one set of passages will be taken to interpret another set of passages. That’s just part of the process of interpreting Scripture with Scripture, a time-honored hermeneutical practice if there ever was one. Calvinists, Arminians, and Open Theists do this, as do Complementarians and Egalitarians, as does anyone who is trying to hear the central message of the Bible. It is true that we come to the Bible looking for things we want to get out of it; I guess I am just more optimistic that one can hold those things in one hand and work objectively through a method of interpretation that “gets at” what the writer was trying to say.

If that makes you want to read what is a critical review, I think that you should.  I like the timing of Adam’s response, because it’s clear that he’s taken the time to read it and has had time to formulate a response.  I think that the community of people that discuss theological books are like the people who rapidly rate software in app stores or post reviews of items on sites like Amazon with just a day or three of use of the product.  I trust the review of someone who’s had an item for six months and can tell if it’s cheaply-made or durable more than someone who went with “Rated ****, good value for my money, sounds good”.

When it comes to any book review, I simply question context: who is the reviewer, and does it seem that they’ve taken the time to read it well?  Often the former is easily deduced—this is the Internet—but one never really knows if a book has been carefully considered or read simply to be discarded.  [Or, in my case, thrown across the room because it was bullshit—one of Marcus Borg’s books.  I damn near broke the spine.]

I think that a lot of Evans’s initial critics likely read the book in a huff, which is okay in general but poor practice in terms of preparing a review.  Evans spent a lot of time writing it—although Adam notes that she appears to lose steam in the last third of the book—yet I think you need to spend time thinking about a book if you are going to lend/demand authority to your response to the reading.  I think that too many high-profile theology types rush through book reviews purely knowing that their authority rests in their brand.  I think that’s a dangerous mistake.

When I began to recount the list of books that I read last year, I realized that I could spend a lot of time putting my thoughts back together on those books, but that doing a good job of describing any of them would involve re-reading them at least once to both get more out of them and to think of a good way of approaching the subject material and lensing that through to the customer.  I can think of one book that I’d like to re-read so as to present it to you: Nassir Ghaemi’s book on bi-polar disorder and how it can have positive effects upon leadership.  That first reading was for me; the next one can be for you.

Lastly, I would like to congratulate Adam on getting selected for a Ph.D. program in South Carolina.  Maybe I can make it over some weekend, Ochuk.

7 thoughts on “Adam Omelianchuk on Rachel Held Evans; Me on Authority in Book Reviewing”

  1. I think a lot of the reason the high-profile blogging types also push their reviews through quickly is control. In the name of “protection” of their people, they want to be able to tell their followers what books are “safe” to read and which books are “unsafe”. If they waited 6 months to ruminate on the material before reviewing, some of their followers might have the opportunity to buy the book and form an opinion for themselves. *shudder*

  2. I quite agree. The initial reactions on all sides are seldom that worth reading. However, for a book that has garnered much of its publicity through the reactive world of social media, frankly, it’s to be expected. Online debates move fast and if you post late, everyone has already moved on.

    I posted a rather critical, but ridiculous intense engagement with and conversation around Rachel Held Evans’ book on my blog. I just finished a couple of days ago. The review started two months ago. Unfortunately, most of the people who most need to engage with the more detailed and thoughtful engagements lost interest months ago.

    1. I guess it is endemic to the Internet: we want immediacy and have very short memories. One may argue that this is due in part to personality types: extroverts often live most of their lives in short term memory—I’m guilty of it for sure. Introverts—the type of people who would take a while to read a book and even longer to write a review—are going to spend a longer time putting together what they have to say. I’ve not met Adam—to my sadness—but I would expect that he’s more on the introversive end of the spectrum.

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