Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Publisher Anymore

Jim West is a Baptist pastor in Tennessee trained in New Testament studies.  He is also a published author and sometimes an instructor in New Testament.  But his fame (infamy?) in the circles of Biblio-bloggers is due to two things: 1) Jim posts VERY frequently, usually small posts on significant figures he admires from church history (almost always either biblical scholars or figures from the Protestant Reformation, especially Zwingli) or upcoming conferences, book reviews, etc. 2) Jim has a sense of humor so sarcastic that it makes me seem sweetness and light–and the usual target of his jabs are fundamentalists–despite the fact that Jim can be VERY conservative himself on certain issues (e.g., sexual minorities, church discipline, charismatic gifts, any music more recent than the Baroque period, ANY use of profanity by Christians, ANY consumption of alcohol by Christians, etc.).

One of the interesting things about Jim (fun when you are not the target, irritating and frustrating when you are) is that he issues opinions constantly, with seldom any nuance, many sweeping generalities, and–at least as a blogger–seldom bothers to give anything approaching a reasoned argument for his conclusions. I doubt this is his behavior when delivering a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature, etc., but if you read his blog, it is very easy to know where Jim stands on everything–and often difficult to know WHY he stands where he does. (E.g., Everyone knows that Jim greatly dislikes Anglican bishop and NT scholar N. T. Wright, but if Jim has EVER said what he dislikes about Wright’s work and why–I certainly missed it!)

Jim’s latest stirring of hornets’ nests (and I think he loves this kind of controversy) stems from a remark he made to the effect that any book from InterVarsity Press would be fundamentalist and completely unworthy of being cited in an academically serious discussion.  Now, (a) I think Jim was speaking at least partly in jest and meant to get lots of outraged responses (which he did). (b)Not all that long ago (and Jim is older than I am–and you know how the elderly remember the ancient past better than more recent events! 🙂 ) one COULD almost tell a religiously oriented book by its publisher.  Evangelical publishers: Eerdmans, IVP, Baker, etc. usually published only things that fit in with 1920s style fundamentalism. Also, they usually published non-academic works.  All this began changing awhile back. First, Eerdmans in the 1970s began to publish some Barth and now publishes many things from the more conservative end of “mainline” Protestantism. IVP and Baker began to follow in the ’90s–although both still publish more non-academic than academic works.

But take IVP’s series of biblical dictionaries: Those are now scholarly as anything any publisher is putting out–often with the very latest materials.  And, as several bloggers have pointed out to Jim, this higher academic standard is far more advanced in IVP UK than in IVP USA.

And publishers like Fortress, Orbis, Abingdon, SCM, Westminster/John Knox, etc., are now publishing more things from evangelical authors than previously.

You can’t judge books by their covers, nor their authors, nor their publishers.  One can only read and assess each book on its own weight–which is as it should be. (Partial exception:  Since the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sunday School Board became Lifeway Publications and its academic arm, Broadman Press, became Broadman and Holman, what it publishes is FAR more restricted than previously. An occasional good volume may still “get through,” but the censors are REALLY tight.)  Jim West probably knows this very well.  But he’s having so much fun making conservatives (and those with books published by IVP) mad, that I doubt he cares.

Full disclosure: I have contributed to two books published by IVP and have been an external reader for two others.  Because of my desire to reach broader audiences, it is not my first choice for publisher.  But if I were assigning books for a class, I would not hesitate to assign something published by IVP–or ANY OTHER PUBLISHER if the book was appropriate for the class. 

Sometimes Jim takes his blogging eccentricities a bit far and generates more heat than light, I think.  Now if only I could figure out if this is due to the pernicious influence of Rudolf Bultmann on him or stems more from his hyper-Zwinglianism, or comes from his foolish preference for Brunner over Barth.  Well, maybe it is all of the above and early senility, too. 🙂


May 18, 2007 - Posted by | books

1 Comment

  1. Brilliantly well said! I think you’ve captured the essence of my personality quite nicely. You’ve recognized my controversial nature and you’ve picked up on my sense of humor! Well done.

    Comment by Jim | May 18, 2007

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