Wednesday, February 11, 2009

‘Too Christian’ for academia?

Here is a piece I wrote for National Review Online about the political correctness controversy brewing over Wiley-Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization.

UPDATE: The Catholic News Agency interviews George Kurian, the encyclopedia's editor. The Telegraph comments on the story. First Things sums it up: "This encyclopedia is too on topic"!

UPDATE 2: The Guardian and The Times have picked up the story.


  1. I can hardly contain the bile that rises up in my throat while reading your article in National Review. First, the title indicates that the books are 'Christian.' Second, no offense to anyone in academia, but how many people are just going to stumble across this particular set of books? Don't you think people will actually have to go looking for it to find it? I am tired of political correctness putting down the very things this country was founded on. And, I am offended that Muslims can be offended by Christianity, but Christians cannot be offended by Islam. When Islam has a larger number of followers in the world than Christians, will Christians get to fight back then? The answer, unfortunately, is a big fat NO. By that time, Christians will be second-class citizens with no option to be offended.

  2. I think this argument stems from two different ideas about what the Encyclopedia should be.

    The first (editors) view is that it should be unbiased and objective. For example, an Encyclopedia on Islamic Civilizations written in this way would attribute both the good and bad in a historically accurate and dispassionate manner.

    The second (protestors) view is that it should be a broader version of the Bible, and thus unashamedly evangelical.

    Both have their merits, but it all depends what the consumer is looking for -- do they want an objective view of Christian Civilization or a Christian's view of Christian Civilization?

    If you were a college and wanted to include an Encyclopedia on Islamic Civilization, which would you prefer: an objective or Islamic perspective?

  3. It seems Wiley-Blackwell has decided to follow the communist "non-person" approach to this issue. Not a single reference to either Feser or the Encyclopedia seems to exist on their website - no hits from searches of their site.
    (Then again, perhaps the communist analogy isn’t quite correct; this may be more a case of Shultz on Hogan’s Heroes… I know nothing!)

  4. I read your article with some interest, but don't think that the whole story is being told here. For anyone who's interested, I tried to get to the bottom of this on my blog a few days ago. My first post is here, and a bit of an update is here.

    Whether or not academia is out to get Christian scholars may be a question worth entertaining, but in this case there seem to be more mundane explanations. The full statements of both Kurian and Wiley-Blackwell are on my blog, so you can see what both have to say without relying on the limited quotes of Feser's article.

  5. Anonymous, from Wiley-Blackwell's perspective, they have an unfinished project that will hopefully be published some time in the near future. You can't expect a publisher to broadcast every single editorial update to the world.

  6. Maybe they need another publisher - like Regnery perhaps.

  7. Hello Evan,

    As I noted in the article, the trouble with Wiley-Blackwell's current claims is that they do not account for the fact -- which they never deny or even address in their reply -- that they not only initially agreed that the Encyclopedia was ready to go, but actually had it printed and bound. That they should ignore this amazing aspect of the story in their rebuttal certainly raises questions about their credibility, no?

  8. R Hampton,

    You seem to be assuming that what Kurian delivered was a work of apologetics or devotion. I can assure you that the articles I have seen from the Encyclopedia (including my own) were neither.

  9. From the public perspective - without the benefit of seeing the original text and the editing - it's a case of he said, she said. Sure you can argue about who is more trustworthy, and thus correct, but I'd rather base my judgement on the actual documents.

  10. You mean the ones currently being destroyed?

    Ha ha.

  11. To be sure, the fact that all of this was recalled after the encyclopedia was printed is odd. That said, a publisher must rely somewhat on editors and reviewers, who they presume are being forward about their work.

    If the editorial board was left out of the loop by Kurian, then likely Wiley-Blackwell was as well. It's unfortunate that complaints were made so late, but I do wonder at what point people like McGinn, Morgan, or the Wiley-Blackwell representatives were actually able to do editorial work on the project. Wiley-Blackwell's email also mentions that it was article contributors themselves who first raised concerns. It was your co-contributors.

    You bring up the point that Wiley-Blackwell doesn't mention the very late nature of the complaints. But we can't forget that Kurian has also not addressed the issue of whether his editorial board was consulted in accordance with his agreement with Wiley-Blackwell. This is surely a pertinent question to ask.

  12. I was rather surprised that a major publisher would publish something called The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization.

    -Neil Parille

  13. Political correctness knows no limits. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality went out of print due to a PC attack.

    Yay for the Internet, the Encyclopedia is now online.

  14. You know, the word "unbelievable" is thrown around a lot these days. But in this case, I'd be hard pressed to find a more appropriate word.

    Try to imagine a little role reversal, where a major adademic press released a 4-volume encyclopedia of secularism. Then it was recalled because, among other things, some scholars "wanted the insertion of material denigrating Secularism in some form or fashion.”

    Yeah, I can't either.

  15. R Hampton,

    Does your latter comment serve to indicate you're retracting your earlier judgement?

  16. FYI, I've posted Wiley-Blackwell's recent statement in full on my blog, check it out here.

  17. Michael B,

    My initial post was about what I thought to be a difference of perspective -- is the purpose of the Encylcopedia to be evangelically inspiring or historically objective? To this date I don't know (nor said or implied) with whom the fault lies because I have not examined the editing. So what "earlier judgement" are you referring to?

  18. I was referring to your depiction of the contrasting views, the judgement concerning the editors/protestors, stereotyped dichotomy, especially the notion the editors were simply concerned with an "unbiased" and "objective" pov. It doesn't matter.

  19. Here is a good article that just came out about the ECC, and it gives some helpful information about other similar situations as well.

  20. Saving the article for posterities...


    ‘Too Christian’ for Academia?
    A four-volume encyclopedia gets pulped in the name of political correctness.

    By Edward Feser

    Wiley-Blackwell, a major academic press, was set to release its four-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization this month. According to the encyclopedia’s editor, George Thomas Kurian, the set had been copy-edited, fact-checked, proofread, publisher-approved, printed, bound, and formally launched (to high praise) at the recent American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference. But protests from a small group of scholars associated with the project have led the press to postpone publication, recall all copies already distributed, and destroy the existing print run. The scholars’ complaint? The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, they have reportedly argued, is “too Christian.” “They also object to historical references to the persecution and massacres of Christians by Muslims,” Kurian says, “but at the same time want references favorable to Islam.”

    Political correctness in academic publishing is nothing new, but it would be unusual, to say the least, for ideological pressure to lead a publisher to reverse itself so late in the process, especially given the significant financial losses involved in pulping a print run of a gigantic four-volume encyclopedia. As Kurian puts it, “This is probably the first instance of mass book-burning in the 21st century.”

    Last week, Kurian e-mailed a memo to his nearly 400 contributors informing them of Wiley-Blackwell’s decision, and of his intention of pursuing on their behalf a class-action breach-of-contract lawsuit. Kurian’s memo was soon distributed on the e-mail list of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and is getting attention in the blogosphere. (Full disclosure: I am one of the contributors to the encyclopedia; to my knowledge, no complaints were raised about anything I wrote.)

    The memo also claims that the “words or passages [the critics] want deleted” include “Antichrist,” “BC/AD (as chronological markers),” “Virgin Birth,” “Resurrection,” and “Evangelism.” “To make the treatment ‘more balanced,’” the memo says, the critics “also want the insertion of material denigrating Christianity in some form or fashion.”

    Kurian reports that critics objected to contributions from a number of established scholars, some from prominent academic departments and widely published in mainstream journals and academic presses—their work was deemed too theologically conservative and orthodox.

    A representative of Wiley-Blackwell has sent an e-mail of his own to the encyclopedia’s contributors, insisting that Kurian’s charges are “completely without foundation.” The press’s actions, the representative claims, stem simply from a concern for “standards of appropriate scholarship.” This concern has led it to decide that the work’s articles require further review before publication. The publisher has not explained why its academic standards did not prevent it from granting final editorial approval and printing the encyclopedia. To paraphrase John Kerry, it would seem that Wiley-Blackwell was for publication before it was against it.

    — Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.

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