Saturday, March 27, 2010

more on panning a book

In July of 2009 I wrote a brief post on how to pan a book, which is actually a very difficult skill to acquire. I have had personal experience commenting on a book I found less than helpful, and as I look back over my comments I find I'm not always as successful as I would like (why did I feel the need to mention Gidget?). Even so, there is a quantum leap between the sometimes less-than-gracious comments we make in the heat of frustration at another scholar's arguments (again, Gidget?!) and the complete breach of professionalism and courtesy that we sometimes find in critical book reviews. (I'm reminded of Bruce Malina's scathing review of David A. deSilva; feel free to mention any other shockingly, even scandalously negative reviews you may have encountered in the comments to this post.)

So it's with a measure of dismay and—to be honest—embarrassment that I point out J. K. Elliott's review of Chris Keith's book on the Pericope Adulterae (which I also reviewed for Biblical Theology Bulletin; you can find some of my comments here). Keith's book is a well-written, focused, clear, and insightful monograph on the problematic story (textually and theologically) of Jesus and the adulterous woman. There are certainly things to argue with in the book, especially if you disagree with the book's theoretical and methodological underpinnings (I don't, but one certainly could).

But instead of summarizing the book's argument and then identifying its most conspicuous strengths and weaknesses (which is, after all, what critical book reviews are for!), Elliott engages in a rambling discussion that ranges erratically across the book's clear structure. He makes idiosyncratic judgments at multiple points (referring to "the pretentious title to chapter 8" as well as one "ugly heading" and "another ugly term") rather than engaging Keith's argument, which raises the question why Elliott found himself unable to spar with the book's substance rather than its surface. The final paragraph of the review, which I reproduce below, is only ad hominem attack rather than critical engagement.

J. K. Elliott: You've embarrassed yourself by publishing this review. You are clearly a top-rate and well-respected practitioner of biblical scholarship, and rightly so. Your contributions to the field are enviable. But your conduct is reprehensible. It takes a big person to train up and nurture a promising young scholar (e.g., Helen Bond, whom you mention in your review); it takes an average person to co-exist within the professional guild. However, it takes a small person to take pot-shots from on high. If Keith's book suffers logical, evidentiary, or other weaknesses, engage them. If you cannot or will not, kindly return your gratis copy of the book to the publisher (given "the enormous cost of this reproduced thesis as a book") so that someone with more interest in distilling and evaluating its argument can do so. You, sir, owe the paid subscribers to the Journal of Theological Studies an apology.

As promised, here's the closing paragraph of Elliott's review. In case I haven't been clear: This is shameful public behavior that I wouldn't accept from my undergraduate students; I certainly wouldn't expect this from an accomplished and storied scholar.
A few weeks before the publication of the book Keith allowed himself the luxury of repeating the contents of most of chapter 5 concerning the textual evidence for the pericope in an article in Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), pp. 209–31: ‘The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition’ [sic]. Given the enormous cost of this reproduced thesis as a book, its essential argument as given in the journal article may be a sufficient summary of the whole for most busy and money-conscious readers. The embarrassing and overblown personal tributes in the Preface (currently a needlessly maudlin convention in too many a published thesis) end (p. xiv) with the realistic statement that only ‘a handful will really read’ this book of little consequence.


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