Notes & Comments March 2009
Christophobia on the march?
Double-dealing at Wiley-Blackwell: the case of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization.
Writing in these pages a few years ago, the philosopher Kenneth Minogue discussed the rise of “Christophobia,” that species of politically correct prejudice against Western civilization that focuses its animus on the doctrines and traditions of Christian civilization. Has Christophobia come to Wiley-Blackwell, the distinguished English academic publisher? Therein lies a still-unfolding tale.
Some background: In 2006, Wiley contracted with George Thomas Kurian to produce a multivolume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. We presume Kurian was a known quantity. He is an industrious encyclopedist who has edited or co-edited dozens of reference works on diverse subjects. A look at his bibliography shows that he has a particular interest in Christianity. His new edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, for example, was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.
Kurian and nearly four hundred contributors beavered away for two years and, in June 2008, presented the publisher with a compendious manuscript that dilated on everything from “Apologetic World Views” to “Worship, Services and Settings.” According to the editor’s foreword, the encyclopedia endeavored to be “panoptic,” exploring not just theology and history but delving into the influence of Christianity on civilization broadly construed: “music, art, literature, architecture, law, visual arts, performing arts, society.” Accordingly, among its 4000 entries there are as many articles about figures such as “Bach,” “Copernicus,” “Poussin,” and “Christopher Wren” as there are on “Abelard,” “Mysticism,” and “Medieval Christian Legends.” Interested in a primer on “Albanian Christianity”? You’ve come to the right place. Ditto “Mormonism,” “Bacon (Francis),” “Bacon (Roger),” not to mention “Gregory the Illuminator,” “Martyrdom,” “Forgiveness of Sins,” “Pelagianism,” “Rapture of the Saints,” and “Transubstantiation.”
On June 3, 2008, Rebecca Harkin, Wiley-Blackwell’s religion editor, emailed an enthusiastic response to Kurian, congratulating him on the “tremendous undertaking” and looking forward to the “very exciting” prospect of seeing the book in print in both a paper and online version. She also mentioned that the final part of his advance would be forthcoming, publisher-speak for “You’ve done your bit to our satisfaction, now here’s the rest of your dough.” Nunc, that is to say, dimittis.
In the following weeks and months Wiley-Blackwell did what publishers do: they digested the manuscript. It was copy-edited, proofread, fact-checked, and corrected. The whole four-volume work was set in type, printed, and bound. According to Kurian, although the book was not scheduled for publication until 2009, it was launched at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion in November in a celebration presided over by Ms. Harkin. Early reviews, posted on Amazon.com, commended the Encyclopedia’s “authoritative articles, sensible bibliographies, and consistently illuminating treatments” (Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame), its “nearly exhaustive … scope, including a wide range of authoritative essays” (Edwin Yamauchi, Miami University). Happiness and bonhomie in evidence everywhere.
Then, on November 28, four contributors, all editorial board members, detonated a bomb. They wrote to Kurian and Harkin to register their outrage at the “inaccuracies” and “highly negative, even racist characterization of Islam” in Kurian’s long general introduction to the encyclopedia. His “aggressive rhetoric and malignant assumptions,” they charged, “do nothing to advance scholarly understanding.” Indeed, they complained that the introduction was more “propaganda” than scholarship, and that it failed to “observe the international protocols of professional scholarship.” They concluded by demanding that the introduction be modified “to remove the offense thrust at Islam and other religions and to moderate the tone of confrontation and polemic.”
Oh dear. On December 3, Harkin wrote to Kurian, following up on a conversation about the objections. There were no congratulations in this communication. Rather, there was a list of “contentious” and “problematic” passages. Bottom line: “Throughout the introduction,” she concluded, “the shortcomings of other religions are highlighted but there is no corresponding criticism of Christianity (or it is very rare).”
According to Kurian, the criticism was metastasizing. What began as an objection to various passages in the introduction (which he claims he would have been happy to have answered had the criticism come earlier) broadened to encompass the encyclopedia as a whole. In a memo sent to contributors, Kurian said that the criticisms were meant
to sabotage the project and strip it of its Christian content. Among the words or passages they want deleted are “Antichrist,” “Enemy” (as referring to Satan), BC/AD (as chronological markers), “Beloved Disciple,” “Gates of Hell,” “Witness,” “Virgin Birth,” “Resurrection,” “Evangelism” “Harvest,” and any reference with an “evangelical tone” or citing the “Uniqueness of Christ and Christianity.” They also object to historical references to the persecution and massacres of Christians by Muslims, but at the same time want references favorable to Islam.
Kurian has instituted two lawsuits against Wiley-Blackwell, one for breach of contract, one on behalf of the contributors. For its part, Wiley-Blackwell has halted distribution of the encyclopedia and has, according to Kurian, endeavored to retrieve copies already shipped with an eye to pulping the edition. Wiley-Blackwell has wavered on the pulping issue. Their official response is now coalescing around the charge that Kurian neglected to have his editorial board review the encyclopedia for scholarly adequacy. Wiley-Blackwell says it “entered into a series of written contracts under which a number of scholars in the field agreed to provide Advisory Editor services” for the encyclopedia. But there is no mention of that under the heading “Editor’s Responsibilities” in Kurian’s contract, which places the “sole responsibilty” for the accuracy and “high quality” of the encyclopedia with “The Editor,” i.e., Kurian.
It is difficult to untangle all the threads of this episode. Certainly, there is plenty of egg to spread about the collective countenance of Wiley-Blackwell. As Kurian noted in an interview for the Catholic News Agency, when you publish a book “you edit the book and then publish. You don’t publish a book and then edit.” Wiley-Blackwell seems to be deploying what Edward Feser, in a piece on the controversy for National Review Online, identified as the John Kerry gambit: they were for publication before they were against it. Wiley-Blackwell trumpets the criticism of a handful of contributors and advisory board members. They neglect to mention the contributors and board members who side with Kurian. The sociologist Alvin Schmidt, for example, who contributed some seventy articles to the encyclopedia, told us that never before in his long career had he “run into this kind of politically correct nonsense.”
So what do we have here? Another example of Christophobia? Was the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization put on ice because, as Kurian charges, it turned out to be “too Christian, too orthodox, too anti-secular and too anti-Muslim and not politically correct enough”? Or is it merely a somewhat belated effort on the part of Wiley-Blackwell to live up to high-minded scholarly ideals? Part of the problem may be in that dichotomy—scholarly vs. Christian. As Kurian puts it, much of the criticism levelled against the encyclopedia assumes that “anything that is orthodox is not scholarly.” But according to him the aim of the work was not to provide a critical, dispassionate survey of Christian civilization but rather to provide a sympathetic conspectus of its achievements. In today’s elite academic culture, that may be enough to render a work suspect. Which is, as Kenneth Minogue pointed out, part of the corrosive legacy of multiculturalism now undermining the existential confidence of the West.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 7, on page 1
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